By Ed Runyan
The problems associated with drugs in the Warren area need more than just police officers and federal agents hauling away people in handcuffs, says Lt. Jeff Orr, commander of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, which battles drug crimes.
The problems require efforts to help prevent drug abuse from getting started, help addicts overcome it and help monitor those who’ve been charged with it. They require that drug charges be handled seriously so that the people charged with selling drugs don’t come right back into the community and pick up where they left off, he said.
Two weeks ago, charges were unsealed on nearly 100 people investigators say were dealing in drugs and illegal weapons here. Many of them had ties to Detroit. Some will go to federal prison for decades.
Orr said the 10-month investigation is likely to be one of the more successful anti-drug efforts ever undertaken here.
But an equally important step is planned this September, when TAG and a half-dozen other Trumbull County organizations reveal a drug strategy they have worked on for well over a year.
“I think we all realize it’s not just about law enforcement,” Orr said. “I think we’ve chopped a few heads off of major drug players, but by no means have we eliminated it.”
After years of working in the suburban areas outside of Warren, TAG conducted its first significant Warren drug investigation in the summer of 2009, raiding a West Market Street drug house. The Warren Police Department had abolished its narcotics division earlier that year when it laid off 25 percent of its officers due to budget cuts. The 2009 investigation revealed all of the trappings of Warren’s current drug- dealing problem — heroin with a street value of $17,000, crack cocaine valued at $6,000, cocaine valued at $6,000, Oxycontin painkillers worth $42,000, marijuana valued at $500, $10,000 in cash, 10 firearms and a military-issue bulletproof vest.
Ten people were arrested, but most of them went free when a Trumbull County grand jury refused to indict seven of them the following April. Charges in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court that could produce a decades-long prison term are still pending against one of the suspects, Detroit native Harold Travis, 44, who was sentenced to 28 months in prison last summer in federal court on a weapons charge.
Travis remained free more than two years on the West Market Street charges after posting $100,000 bond in 2010. He also had a relative, Michael Travis, 30, also a Detroit native, who was murdered on Washington Street Northeast in January 2010.
Orr said the Warren area’s drug problem has hurt the city in many ways.
“If we can solve our drug problem, we can solve our crime problem,” he said.
Late in 2009, police discovered that even a fellow member of law enforcement was aiding a major drug dealer and potentially putting narcotics investigators’ lives in danger.
Former Mahoning County corrections officer Ryan Freeman of Warren had accessed a law-enforcement database, apparently to provide drug dealer Fred D. Johnson, originally from Detroit, with information about TAG’s investigation of Johnson.
Judge Peter Kontos sentenced Johnson to 32 years in prison in June 2011 for being a “major drug offender” for bringing large amounts of heroin and other drugs from Detroit to sell in Warren.
Johnson was sentenced to more than 12 years in federal prison for drug dealing in Flint, Mich., in 1998.
Freeman, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of unauthorized use of a computer system and received five years probation, can never work again in law enforcement.
Orr said he was receptive to taking an entirely different approach to attacking Warren’s drug-dealing problems early last year when Warren Police Chief Tim Bowers and Safety-Service Director Enzo Cantalamessa asked the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help investigate with the likelihood of federal charges being filed.
“These are career criminals,” Bowers said of the 55 people indicted federally after the 10-month investigation in the city. “Hopefully with these federal indictments, we won’t have to deal with them again.”
Lt. Eric Merkel, in line to be Warren’s new police chief in mid-June, has said he’d like to see more Warren Police Department resources devoted to fighting drug crimes, which he called “one of the pressing problems in the community.”
Mayor Doug Franklin, meanwhile, said he believes the cooperation among city, state and federal law enforcement that produced the 10-month investigation is the best tool the city has available.
“We have resources far stronger than an internal drug unit,” he said the day the charges were announced.
“The collaboration you saw today will stay in place. A lot of new partnerships have been formed, but we’re in this for the long haul.”
Rhonda Bennett, a community organizer from southwest Warren, said she believes the 10-month investigation and charges have caused some of the drug dealers to become cautious.
Some of the criminal behavior that had occurred in the past five months was anything but cautious, she said.
“When you have a shooting in a crowded bar full of people or when you have a shooting in a downtown neighborhood in broad daylight, it’s like you’re in the OK Corral,” she said.
Bennett was referring to a New Year’s Day killing in the Sunset Lounge on East Market Street and a Nov. 11, 2012, killing behind an apartment house on Elm Road Northeast near several popular downtown restaurants.
“It is very unacceptable for us to tolerate this type of behavior,” Bennett said. “We’re a small town with big-city issues, and it shouldn’t be.”
Bob Balzano, in charge of the local Drug Enforcement Administration office, said the scope of the 10-month investigation should pay dividends to the community for years.
Balzano said he thinks the arrests and seizures of drugs and weapons “will reduce the availability of heroin and other illegal drugs and also reduce street violence and burglaries.”
Tina Milner, former coordinator of Warren’s Weed and Seed program, said she thinks lengthy prison terms will send a message to criminals that Warren is no longer “an area where people can come in and out and get away with things.”
But Bruce Ramey, a Washington Street Northeast resident, said he’s skeptical that anything will change.
“I haven’t seen any difference,” Ramey said. “On Tuesday, there was a steady stream of prostitutes and drug dealers,” he said of activity on Washington Street.