Nearly 70 people were being sought in the latest Southwest Virginia drug roundup on Wednesday, with the primary focus on Wise County.
Dubbed by law enforcement authorities as Operation Autumn Harvest, the 69 individuals were recently indicted by the multi-jurisdictional grand jury in Wise. Indictments level approximately 170 drug offenses such as distribution, possession and manufacturing. Charges also range from conspiracy to distribute, child endangerment, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, prescription fraud, larceny, maintaining a common nuisance, and distribution of narcotics within 1,000 feet of a school.
Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp said 75 of the charges involve distribution of Schedule I or II drugs, particularly synthetic narcotics or highly addictive prescription pain medications. He said 33 of the counts involve distribution of a Schedule III drug, mostly buprenorphine, also known as subutex, a drug Slemp said is "over prescribed at a staggering rate."
Just prior to the 10:30 a.m. press conference at the Wise County Justice Center to announce Operation Autumn Harvest, Slemp said 15 individuals of the 69 sought had been taken into custody as law enforcement officers ranged across the county making arrests.
Slemp said the name of the drug roundup was chosen for two reasons, starting with the fact law enforcement agencies across the region, a collaboration of the Southwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, has devoted hundreds of hours into each case over a period of months, and in some cases, years.
Slemp said the latest mass arrests "are just the beginning. We will be aggressive in our prosecution of these cases to send a clear message: For those who are poisoning our communities with dangerous synthetic drugs, we are asking judges to fashion appropriate sentences based on what a jury of Wise County citizens would consider appropriate."
A Wise County jury recently recommended 15 years in prison for a defendant convicted of selling prescription drugs, Slemp said, "because (citizens) are fed up with this kind of behavior and because this is a battle to save our communities and neighborhoods from the devastating impact of addiction and drug related crime."
He said law enforcement agencies and prosecutors "are committed to working harder than ever before to eradicate illegal drug activity from Southwest Virginia. And it's time for a harvest."
Taking part in Wednesday's mass arrest were the Wise County Sheriff's Office, Virginia State Police, the Regional Drug Task Force, and police departments of Coeburn, Wise, Big Stone Gap and city of Norton.