Drug War heating up

Photo illustration from American Addiction Centers

The Drug War in Knoxville and surrounding communities produces hundreds of corpses a year from overdoses, illnesses and the violence that accompanies large-scale drug trafficking.

No one knows exactly how many people in East Tennessee are addicted to opiates, methamphetamine, or other drugs — only that the number is well into the thousands. Likewise, no one knows exactly how many dealers are working the streets, bringing in huge quantities of heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs while sucking millions of dollars from the pockets of users and addicts.

To the men and women who work in the criminal justice system, it sometimes feels as though trying to make a difference is like emptying an ocean with a bucket. But they say they won’t quit trying, and as grim as the numbers appear to be, sometimes they pull off what they consider to be major victories.

Late last week, in fact, local authorities celebrated the downfall of two different groups who were accused of selling vast amounts of drugs in East Tennessee. 

One group, comprised of seven men and women, was taken down Thursday in a bust that yielded more than 600 grams of heroin, guns and other items. A day later, a lengthy trial in federal court ended with the convictions of eight people for drug trafficking. 

The busts that took place Thursday were the result of a “comprehensive investigation into a drug trafficking organization involved in the distribution of heroin in the Knoxville area,” according to Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland. 

Officers from KPD and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spread out across the city to execute search warrants at three separate addresses they believed were being used by the conspirators.

Targeted were units at Belle Meade Apartments on Old Clinton Pike and Crescent Ebenezer Apartments on Crescent Lake Way in West Knoxville as well as a house at 5313 Maywood Road.

“During the operation, KPD investigators and TBI agents recovered over 600 grams of heroin, three handguns, two ballistic vests, a drug press, processors and various additional drug paraphernalia,” Erland said.

When the cops went into the Maywood Road residence, they found 12 dogs and five cats that “were distressed, in poor health and appeared to have been neglected,” he continued. KPD Animal Control officers took the 17 animals to Young-Williams Animal Center for care.

Police said they found 17 neglected dogs and cats when they raided this house at 5313 Maywood Road in Northwest Knoxville as part of an investigation into heroin trafficking. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh

Three of the people busted Thursday were men from Detroit, Michigan, which is reportedly the primary source of opiates for dealers in Knoxville.

Dozens of Detroit residents have been killed, injured or arrested themselves for killing and wounding other people on the streets of Knoxville and surrounding communities over the past seven years. Many others have been arrested for trafficking in illegal drugs, primarily narcotic painkillers such as heroin, fentanyl and oxymorphone. 

Fentanyl is a highly potent narcotic painkiller used for decades in hospitals and for outpatient chronic pain treatment. Because of its cost and strength, organized crime groups began cutting heroin with it several years ago, leading to tens of thousands of overdose deaths across the country.

In Knox County alone, 245 people have died from overdoses so far this year, most of them involving fentanyl, authorities say. In 2020, authorities estimated that at least 413 people died from overdoses.

The cost in human life is one reason that law enforcement has prioritized catching dealers. Local and state authorities can bring murder charges in some overdose cases, while federal prosecutors can ensure that dealers face similarly lengthy prison terms if they’re convicted simply of trafficking in the deadly narcotic.

Charged in Thursday’s operation with the sale of delivery of a Schedule I controlled substance were Katia Young, 20, of Old Clinton Pike and Diontay Martin, 31; Dellone Martin, 30, and Frederick Davis Jr., 29, all of Detroit, Mich.

Latisha Galyon, 44, and Ray Sayne, 58, who share the Maywood Road address, were charged with maintaining a premises for the purpose of using, keeping or selling controlled substances, simple possession of a Schedule I controlled substance and animal cruelty. 

Also charged was an 18-year-old woman from Roane County. Hard Knox Wire decided not to publish her name because of her age and the fact that she wasn’t accused of drug trafficking like the others. Her only charge was a single misdemeanor count of possessing a controlled substance.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also played a role in the investigation, Erland said. 

On Friday, a two-week-long trial in federal court in downtown Knoxville ended with the jury convicting eight gang members for drug trafficking, money laundering and related gun offenses, court records show. 

The case, which was initiated in 2019, was one the largest drug conspiracy cases in recent years when measured by the number of people involved. 

Friday’s verdict brought the number of convictions in the case to 15, as seven co-defendants had opted to plead guilty before going to trial.

The eight defendants were tried together before U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Varlan. They now face a range of punishments, with some of the defendants looking at spending the rest of their lives in prison as well as up to $10 million dollars in fines.

Sentencing hearings for all eight defendants are expected to be set for early 2022.

 Alim Turner, 23, Ushery Stewart, 22, Ronald Turner, 25, Kedaris Gilmore, 23, Mahlon Prater, Jr., 25, and Trevor Cox, 22, all of Knoxville and Demetrius Bibbs, 29, of Chattanooga were found guilty of a slew of drug charges. 

They conspired to distribute various controlled substances in East Tennessee including methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl, marijuana, oxycodone, alprazolam, and buprenorphine.

“The jury also convicted various defendants, including Jyshon Forbes, 27, of Knoxville, of conspiracy to commit money laundering,” said Rachelle Barnes, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, in a press release.

“In addition, multiple defendants were convicted of the possession of firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking offenses, and numerous other counts involving the illegal distribution of drugs and unlawful possession of firearms in East Tennessee,” she said.

According to Barnes, all of the defendants were gang members.

“The proof presented at trial revealed that seven of the defendants were members of the Unknown Ghost Vice Lords in Knoxville and another defendant, Demetrius Bibbs, was a member of the Black P Stone Bloods in Chattanooga,” she said. “The proof also showed that the members of the Unknown Ghost Vice Lords distributed kilogram quantities of methamphetamine and other drugs in the Knoxville and Chattanooga areas.”

The importance this case had in the minds of local law enforcement authorities was demonstrated by the fact that several high-ranking officials released written statements celebrating the verdicts.

KPD Chief Eve Thomas, for instance, stressed the human costs of drug trafficking.

“This conviction is the result of the vigorous cumulative efforts of the Knoxville Police Department and its law enforcement and prosecutorial partners to address violent crime head on and make our community safer,” Thomas said.

KPD Chief Eve Thomas

“By bringing addictive and deadly drugs into our area, these drug trafficking organizations are directly responsible for unimaginable tragedy and senseless violence that fragments families and destabilizes communities,” she said.

Thomas commended federal prosecutors “for their extraordinary work on this case.”

“This verdict demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to investigate violent criminal organizations and individuals who engage in this type of illegal activity. The teamwork between our agents and state and local law enforcement partners ensured there are fewer predators endangering and victimizing the vulnerable and innocent members of our community,” said Joseph E. Carrico, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Knoxville office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.   

Acting United States Attorney Francis M. Hamilton III said: “This prosecution is part of the Department of Justice’s comprehensive strategy to reduce violence and increase safety in the community by disrupting and dismantling violent criminal organizations that distribute highly addictive, dangerous, and deadly drugs, such as fentanyl and methamphetamine.”

The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys David P. Lewen, Jr. and Brent N. Jones.

According to Barnes, the following agencies were involved in the investigation: the FBI, KPD, United States Postal Inspection Service, Cleveland Police Department, Chattanooga Police Department, Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office, the Tennessee Department of Corrections, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol.  The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) assisted by conducting drug and firearms analysis on seized evidence in the case.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on July 26, 2021