Hundreds of drug sales make up Columbiana indictment

By Joe Gorman


Over a more than three-year period, investigators recorded a staggering amount of drug transactions in Columbiana County leading to an indictment handed up Tuesday that charged 100 people with trafficking in opiates and cocaine in the county.

The indictment lists hundreds of individual drug transactions recorded among the 756 counts that were handed up, for sales of heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and cocaine between July 15, 2014, and Aug. 11 of this year.

In fact, of the 756 counts, 740 of them were either trafficking – the legal term for selling drugs – or possessing drugs. The remainder of the charges includes permitting drug abuse, engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, participating in a criminal gang and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Salem Police Department Sgt. John Sheets, a member of the Columbiana County Drug Task Force that helped investigate Operation Big Oak headed by Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, said the carfentanil began cropping up in the county within the past year of the investigation with more regularity. He said he thinks its rise is due to a lot of heroin addicts becoming immune to the heroin they were taking, and they wanted more.

“It’s a better high,” Sheets said.

The indictment says the ringleaders were three men from Cuyahoga County who were part of the Down The Way gang and supplied the drugs to 51 other people described as midlevel traffickers, who in turn sold the drugs.

At least two of the accused midlevel traffickers are from Mahoning County: Frances Flaherty, 42, and Cynthia Williams, 45, both of Youngstown.

When asked where the ringleaders got their supply of drugs to pass along to the dealers, Sheets said he did not want to comment.

Authorities are also asking the courts to award them more than $14,000 – that is, money that was raised from drug trafficking.

Sheets said the drug ring was responsible for some drug overdoses in the county, including one that got national attention – the May 12 overdose of East Liverpool police officer Chris Green, who needed to be revived with the opiate antidote Narcan after he came into contact with fentanyl during a traffic stop. Two people were charged with assault in Green’s overdose.

The task force investigated the case along with the heroin unit of the state attorney general’s office and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Investigators said the members of the drug ring had brought in enough fentanyl, carfentanil, heroin and cocaine into Columbiana County to cause 1.35 million overdoses in several counties.

“The amount of fentanyl and carfentanil that this drug-trafficking organization allegedly brought to this area was enough to kill every single person in Columbiana County, plus every man, woman and child in 11 other nearby counties,” DeWine said in a news release.

The case was presented to the grand jury by Senior Assistant Attorney General Margaret Tomaro, who has prosecuted several drug-ring cases in Mahoning County in recent years. She oversaw an indictment in 2015 where 37 people were charged with using or selling heroin, and 36 of the 37 cases were resolved within a year. The only case that was not resolved was a defendant who fled the jurisdiction.

Sheets said he hopes the case will put a dent in the local drug market for a while, but he said competition is fierce and often when one group is taken off the streets, someone else steps in to fill the void.

“That’s always our goal to get rid of it, but there’s always somebody ready to move in,” Sheets said.

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