RUSSELLVILLE -- More than 200 local, state and federal law enforcement officers arrested dozens of people Wednesday morning in a comprehensive, two-year drug-trafficking and firearms crackdown that includes up to 70 defendants -- most of whom are affiliated with white supremacist groups in the state, officials announced.
Of the 70 indicted in operation "To the Dirt," 27 were arrested Wednesday, 18 federal and two state defendants were already in custody and 23 remained at large. The trafficking operation ran from California to Arkansas, but the majority of the defendants are from Pope and Yell counties.
Those arrested were "tip of the spear" leaders of the groups, said Cody Hiland, the newly confirmed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
During the two-year investigation, agents made 59 controlled purchases of methamphetamine. Law enforcement officials seized 69 firearms, more than 25 pounds of methamphetamine and $70,000 in drug proceeds. That amount included $65,000 that was seized by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Conway Police Department when defendants tried to pay for methamphetamine through the mail from Arkansas to California. Agents also seized a Porsche Carrera in California that was used for methamphetamine distribution.
"One house had 25 guns in it. Another house had 14," Hiland said. "Those guns include AR-15 and AK-47, high-capacity rifles."
The two-year operation was a collaboration of multiple local, state and national law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Pope County sheriff's office; the 5th Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force; Russellville Police Department; Arkansas State Police; Conway Police Department; and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Assistance for the raid also was provided by the U.S. Marshals Service, Arkansas Highway Police, Arkansas National Guard Counter Drug Unit and Arkansas Community Correction.
"Today we dismantled a true, violent drug-trafficking operation," said Anthony Lemons, acting assistant special agent in charge of the Little Rock district office of the DEA. "We're blessed here in Arkansas because of our strong relationships between the state, local and federal law enforcement. This is truly a collaborative effort. We've all together, shoulder-to-shoulder, dismantled these guys that were causing great havoc and chaos here in this part of Arkansas."
Hiland said the crackdown began with an investigation into the New Aryan Empire, an Arkansas-based white supremacist group.
"It soon became evident that it was larger than just the NAE," Hiland said.
The arrests also included members of the White Aryan Resistance, a neo-Nazi white supremacist organization founded in Indiana by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Tom Metzger.
Hiland said nine of those arrested were members or leaders of the organizations. Most of the remaining defendants had "affiliations" with the New Aryan Empire, Hiland said.
"They were strongly involved, a big influence over all of this," Hiland said.
William McCrary, assistant special agent in charge with the New Orleans Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the community is safer because the drug-trafficking organization has been dismantled.
"When they are eventually incarcerated, it will be even safer," McCrary said. "The leaders and participants in this are a plague on your communities, and we are pleased to have worked together to help end it."
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Liza Jane Brown and Kristin Bryant. Those arrested Wednesday will be arraigned at 10 a.m. Friday in the federal courthouse in Little Rock before U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Harris.
Charges include conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, distribution of methamphetamine, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime and felon in possession of a firearm. Defendants face penalties that include from five to 10 years or life in prison and fines up to $10 million.
"It's important to remember these people are innocent until proven guilty," Hiland said. "That's what the judicial process is about. But these arrests are important, this operation is important, and it's not over."
Pope County Sheriff Shane Jones thanked everyone for standing with his department.
"Stay tuned," he said. "There's more to come."
Hiland said the operation sent a powerful message.
"I think it says to the white supremacist groups that you're on our radar and that we're not going to tolerate violent crime and distributing drugs in our community," Hiland said. "People often say, 'You can't kill the drug trade.' Well, you know, we can never eliminate homicide, we can never eliminate theft. We'll never eliminate completely the drug trade, but we can certainly break its jaw every now and then. And that's what we do."
State Desk on 10/12/2017
Print Headline: Officials arrest dozens in drug, guns operation; Case centered in 2 counties, linked to white supremacists