By Margie Wuebker
Twelve of 14 people being sought in connection with an undercover drug investigation at Celina High School are in custody. The last two subjects should be in custody soon, law enforcement officials say.
Thirty-one trafficking charges have been filed against the suspects, including 13 current or former high school students and the stepfather of one of the individuals.
Mercer County Sheriff’s deputies began serving arrest warrants around 9:30 a.m. Monday, successfully capping a six-month investigation that began in early October and continued through last week.
Adults taken into custody during the roundup conducted with the assistance of Darke County Sheriff’s deputies were:
¥ Brandon Barker, 18, 1805 E. Livingston St., Celina, one count of trafficking in the prescription drug Hydrocodone, a fourth-degree felony.
¥ Mike Wilson, 18, 45 W. Main St., Montezuma, one count of trafficking in marijuana, a fifth-degree felony.
¥ T.J. Thitoff, 18, 6688 Ohio 219, Montezuma, one count of trafficking in the prescription drug Alprazolam and two counts of trafficking in codeine, fourth- and fifth-degree felonies.
¥ Steve Kable, 28, 322 W. Fayette St., Celina, two counts of trafficking in the prescription drug Methylphenidate, both third-degree.
Eight juveniles, ranging in age from 15 to 18, were arrested on felony charges involving trafficking in marijuana as well as prescription drugs including Vicoden, Tylenol with codeine and Xanax. The names of the juveniles are not being released by the sheriff’s department.
Of the juveniles, two boys, ages 16 and 17, face six counts of trafficking while a 16-year-old girl has been charged with five counts.
The two suspects currently being sought are 18 and reportedly are returning from Pennsylvania, where they attend college. Both agreed to return voluntarily after being informed of the charges. One of the two was a juvenile at the time of the allegations.
The men, all charged with offenses occurring within the vicinity of a juvenile and/or the school, appeared in Celina Municipal Court on Monday. Acting Judge Thomas Lammers set cash bonds of $20,000 for Kable and $5,000 for the others. They are scheduled for preliminary hearings April 19, but those will be canceled if a Mercer County grand jury hands down indictments later this week.
Teenagers appeared before Mercer County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Pat Zitter. Those under the age of 18 were transported to the West Central Ohio Juvenile Detention Center in Troy for their own protection. The 18-year-old was taken across the street to the Mercer County Jail.
“I am concerned,” Zitter told one teenage girl. “This is a serious charge (a fourth-degree felony).”
Prior to remanding her to the detention center until a hearing can be scheduled, Zitter looked at the girl and added, “I don’t know what’s out there. I’m worried about you and the danger to society.”
The girl reached for a tissue to wipe away copious tears and hugged her parents before being led from the courtroom in handcuffs by a uniformed deputy.
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey reported interviews conducted with all the arrestees had yielded information that will be helpful in other investigations.
Following many calls from concerned parents and community members last spring, Grey talked with Mercer County Prosecutor Andy Hinders regarding the alleged offenses taking place at the high school. They ultimately contracted with North American Security Solutions Inc. to enroll an undercover operative as a 17-year-old high school junior.
“I met with him several times a week,” Grey said. “He certainly looked and acted the part. If he had been my kid, he would have been in trouble.”
Some of the drug transactions took place inside the high school. The small amount of tablets passed surreptitiously from hand to hand did not spark attention. The more likely scenario involved discussions regarding the type of drugs available and the cost — anywhere from $2 to $40. Arrangements were made for the operative to make a pickup after school at a predetermined location. One of those meetings reportedly took place on Devonshire Drive near the high school. On several occasions a female agent apparently served as the link between the undercover agent and one of the adults now facing charges. The investigation turned up two groups of student offenders, with the cast of characters changing with each nine-week grading period.
No one knew about the 23-year-old operative’s placement during the initial stages of the operation. Superintendent Fred Wiswell was “brought into the loop” after he became concerned about an earlier drug investigation and the subsequent arrest of adults for trafficking in the vicinity of school buildings.
Wiswell spoke with principals at the middle and high schools and considered bringing in drug dogs to search both buildings. Grey spoke with him in late fall and additional school personnel were brought into the loop as deemed necessary. The investigation drew to a close last week and the decision was made to proceed with the bust on Monday, the day after Easter when school was not in session. Consequently, the majority of arrests took place at the homes of alleged offenders.
“While I can’t undermine the serious nature of the charges, it is encouraging to me as superintendent that we did not have drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine in our building,” Superintendent Fred Wiswell told The Daily Standard. “The numbers of those involved represent such a small percentage of the student body.” Wiswell met with the high school staff this morning to update them on the investigation and the resulting arrests. No assemblies are planned for the 900-member student body, but he noted the mood this morning seemed to be subdued but very positive. Wiswell and high school Principal Curt Shellabarger plan to discuss options for students facing drug charges at some point today. Breaching the school’s code of conduct could result in suspension or expulsion. No decisions have been made as yet.
The undercover operation at the high school, which targeted traffickers and not users, carried a $40,000 price tag. The money came from the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s furtherance of justice funds as well as money confiscated during earlier drug busts and mandatory drug fines, the sheriff said.