By Margie Wuebker
The Grand Lake Drug Task Force, organized in 1991 to battle drug problems in Mercer and Auglaize counties, has moved to a new level.
That was evident at the news conference in the Mercer County Courthouse Thursday afternoon following a drug bust carried out over the course of three days. Twenty-one adults and a juvenile face a total of 51 felony and 14 misdemeanor drug charges while one adult suspect indicted on seven felony charges remains at large.
Every law enforcement agency in the two-county area was represented at the program, demonstrating the unanimous participation in the task force.
"This is a great accomplishment that should send a strong message to drug traffickers," Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey said as the uniformed officers nodded in agreement. "Mercer and Auglaize counties are not a good places for anyone in the drug business."
Previously, the task force included representatives of both sheriff's offices as well as officers from some of the larger jurisdictions. Auglaize County Sheriff Al Solomon, who shares Grey's interest in targeting drug traffickers, welcomes the involvement of all agencies.
"We want to put a dent in drug activity," he said. "All of these agencies have come on board to help achieve that goal."
Solomon also announced the task force conducted a drug sweep Wednesday night at Koneta Rubber Products in Wapakoneta. He termed the amount of illegal drugs found "insignificant," but did not elaborate on the nature or amounts of the contraband located.
K-9 units from the Allen County Sheriff's Office as well as the Wapakoneta and St. Marys Police departments assisted the task force, the Auglaize County Sheriff's Office and the Wapakoneta department with the sweep of the building and grounds.
Gene Border, personnel manager at Koneta Rubber, worked with officers to ensure the sweep would be completed without any problems. Company officials want to make sure the factory is drug free, according to Solomon.
"We will be coming to a city, village or township near you," he added with a smile. "That is the plan. After all, drug activity does not stop at the county line, so you better watch out."
Solomon and Grey began meeting in December to discuss elevating the task force to a new regional level. They also met with police chiefs in both counties on at least three occasions to lay the groundwork for the unified effort.
"These people have come on board knowing our budget and manpower constraints," Grey said. "The larger departments will contribute manpower while the smaller ones will continue to provide us with valuable information."
Grey said he decided to turn up the heat after taking office in 2001. A large drug bust the following year marked the beginning of a pattern with additional roundups of traffickers taking place at least twice a year. Deputies are alert for signs of drug activity and that awareness has led to additional arrests related to clandestine methamphetamine labs, marijuana growing/drying operations and anhydrous ammonia thefts. Anhydrous, commonly used as a fertilizer for agriculture purposes, is a prime ingredient in the production of methamphetamine.
The most recent drug investigations, including an undercover operation conducted last year at Celina High School, indicate trafficking is taking place at a younger age. Although suspects arrested earlier in the week ranged in age from 17 to 48, the majority were in the range of 18 to 22.
"We do have an alcohol abuse problem in this county," Grey added. "However, I see drugs as a bigger problem. At some point, kids turn 21 and alcohol becomes legal; drugs on the other hand never become legal."
Without intervention, the sheriffs believe drug activity will skyrocket in the next 10 years. Crimes like burglary and robbery also will go up as people find ways to support their habits.
"I don't think the drug problem in Mercer and Auglaize counties is any worse than other areas," Grey said. "We just chose to do something about it and that accounts for the latest string of arrests."
Like Solomon, he feels a unified effort on behalf of the task force will go a long way toward stemming the flow of drugs into the Grand Lake area. They plan to put time and effort into accomplishing that goal.
"Al and I are here to warn traffickers there will be more arrests in the future," Grey said. "The Grand Lake Drug Task Force has a message for people in the drug business -- knock it off, move out of the county or go to jail."