WSAZ Investigates: Our New Detroit?
Parts of our region have become a drug destination for dealers. Investigators tell WSAZ there is a new city feeding deadly drugs to our communities, rivaling the impact of Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, which have plagued Charleston and Huntington communities for years.
In a WSAZ exclusive, Jatara McGee investigates the latest pipeline city for drugs.
WSAZ has told you about the Detroit drug connection for years. Investigators say the Detroit connection is still strong and the dealers are very established in West Virginia, but there's now a different source city -- Akron, Ohio.
Linked to murder investigations, drug arrests and a variety of court records in West Virginia, Akron is now on the radar of police in both Charleston and Huntington, a concern Huntington investigators are especially concerned about.
Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial says Akron is now the source city for Huntington's fentanyl and carfentanil supply. Both fentanyl and carfentanil are drugs so dangerous, you can die from just touching them.
The chief says they first noticed the trend of dealers coming from Akron three years ago and say it is now becoming a bigger threat.
"The Detroit dealers are a little more established and appear to be less violent at this time. The Akron folks bring fentanyl and carfentanil, which is extremely dangerous and they seem to be a more dangerous younger group than the dealers from Detroit," Dial said.
WSAZ drove nearly 250 miles to Akron and asked Akron Police to show us where the suspected dealers live. They took us to suburban areas filled with promise, a much different scene from what we saw in our two trips to Detroit.
"They're able to take the drugs here and take them down to West Virginia and probably sell them at a profit," said Lt. Dave Garro, who in the head of the Narcotics Division of the Akron Police Department. Garro is also a 25-year veteran of the department.
"I don't think Akron is any different than any other city across the United States, from the biggest ones in Los Angeles, Houston to the smallest ones of out in West Virginia, there's a drug problem there," Garro said during a ride along. "I think the most frustrating part is it's never gonna go away. It's a supply and demand driven thing."
Garro says his department has been forced to adapt to a constantly changing drug climate.
He says his department does not deal with criminals from West Virginia often at all but remembered specific instances where investigators from Huntington and Charleston reached out to Akron Police for intel on suspected dealers from Akron.
One of those cases was in August 2016 when an unprecedented 28 overdoses within a five-hour span propelled the city of Huntington's drug crisis into national headlines. Two people died, while the other 26 were revived with Narcan. Emergency resources in the city were stretched near their breaking point.
The man who admitted to supplying the drugs, Bruce Griggs, is from Akron. He was sentenced in 2017 in federal court to 220 months in prison with three years of supervised release.
In Charleston in August, police busted five alleged dealers with a large amount of meth and heroin on Wyoming Avenue. Three of them are from Akron.
"I hope this scares him straight. I really do, because he's still 19. He has a lot of life to live yet," one of the suspect's grandmothers told WSAZ. We tracked down the young man's family while in Akron.
"I'm lucky," the grandmother said, who asked not to be identified by name. She was terrified for her grandson at the time and emotional when talking about what might happen to him.
"We didn't raise him like that to go get into that drug culture or situation," she said, perplexed how he found himself wrapped up in the Akron-Charleston drug trade. She says they knew he was visiting West Virginia occasionally, but he was spending time with a cousin who lived there.
"And I apologize to that community. I really do. Cause I wouldn't want it coming right to my door," she said.
The Akron woman's grandson, as well as the four other people he was arrested with, may have each been spared years in prison though.
Days after we traveled to Akron, WSAZ sat in on the suspects' preliminary hearings. A clerical error on the search warrant, confusing apartments A and B on the paperwork, provided the defense a loophole and lead the magistrate to dismiss all the charges, felony possession with intent charges.
"These were reversed - B was on the left. A was on the right," an attorney said during the hearing.
Out of handcuffs, the suspects and their families celebrate their win in the Kanawha County Courthouse. It is a loss for police, working hard to slow the flood of drugs.
"They're business people. This is their business model. Whatever can make them the most money, the fastest is what they're going to be into," Garro said.