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With a map of South Carolina speckled with red dots displayed behind them, a team of local and state law enforcement leaders announced the indictments of 37 people in a massive methamphetamine operation on Thursday, Sept. 4.
Standing in front of the map, which showed methamphetamine busts across the state during the last three years, were Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile, Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, Lancaster Police Chief Harlean Howard and S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agent Frank O’Neil.
The four were on hand at the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office to announce the indictments and subsequent arrests of 30 people in Lancaster County and seven people in Chester County, part of a massive investigation into methamphetamine trafficking dubbed “Operation Fantastic Shakers.”
“Methamphetamine labs and meth in general have been a growing problem in South Carolina. We are working hard to be proactive and trying to get ahead of the issue here in Lancaster County,” Faile said during the press conference.
The indictments and arrests were the result of a massive investigation into an increased number of methamphetamine complaints during the last year, according to a sheriff’s office press release.
Investigators began to notice a trend among the arrests of people charged with methamphetamine possession, manufacturing and unlawful disposal of meth waste, where several of the same people seemed to be involved and working together.
As a result, the sheriff’s office began a joint investigation along with the State Attorney General’s Office, SLED, the Lancaster Police Department and the Chester County Sheriff’s Office.
During the investigation, authorities learned that all of the people involved were conspiring and working together to purchase precursors, possess methamphetamine, manufacture methamphetamine, distribute methamphetamine, traffic methamphetamine, or dispose of methamphetamine waste, the release said.
O’Neil said members of the operation who were tasked with buying meth-making supplies in different counties are called “smurfers.”
“They are people who jump from county to county to try and evade law enforcement. They hit pharmacies in different counties, and they’re trying to jump over county lines,” O’Neil said.
The case was presented to the State Grand Jury and the 37 people were then indicted.
According to a release from S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson on Thursday, the defendants were indicted for conspiring to traffic methamphetamine that was manufactured in labs located in Lancaster and Chester counties from November 2012 to the present.
Other charges included manufacturing/distribution/possession with intent to distribute meth, exposing a child to meth, disposal of meth waste, possession/distribution/possession with intent to distribute pseudophedrine, possession of meth and possession of a controlled substance, according to the State Grand Jury indictment.
SLED agents and members of the Lancaster County Drug Task Force Team began serving the indictments on Wednesday, Sept. 3, and all those arrested were then jailed at the Lancaster County Detention Center.
Bond hearings were held all day on Thursday, said Sheriff’s Maj. Matt Shaw.
“They were having bond hearings today and we’ve been driving them back and forth to the hearings all day,” Shaw said. “We’ve got a judge from Columbia to help us with the hearings.”
Almost everyone on the list has been arrested, though one is still at large, with investigators still searching for Miranda Gibson, 32, 2520 Tucker Drive, Heath Springs.
‘A huge success’
When asked about the size of the operation, Faile said the entire group was involved with each other at some level.
“There were different groups that participated here. One would pick up the items, use another one’s house and then another one made it to be distributed,” Faile said.
Shaw reiterated that each of those arrested during the operation were connected.
“They were all connected in one way, shape or form. Some were in smaller groups inside the larger one, but they were all connected. ” Shaw said. “They were working together to buy it, then someone else would be cooking it and another would be teaching others how to cook it.”
The arrests made a significant dent in meth operations in Lancaster County, Faile said.
“This is a huge success for Lancaster County and Chester County. Anytime you can get this much off the streets, it’s good,” Faile said.
He hoped the information and evidence gathered during the operation could eventually lead to longer sentences for those arrested.
“Absolutely I do. We certainly don’t need these people out on the street, around my family or your family,” he said.
Faile confirmed that the operation could result in additional arrests or meth lab busts, though he declined to elaborate.
The arrests, Faile said, are the result of the goals he set for the agency in 2009 to combat drugs and the crimes they are linked to.
“From Day One, the plan was to go aggressively after drugs. It’s unsafe and folks out here are a menace to society and use drugs to feed other crimes, such as burglaries,” he said.
Howard, Underwood and O’Neil each lauded the efforts of the partnering agencies in tracking down each member of the operation.
“You can create things like this to get drugs off the street,” Underwood said. “We will keep our partnerships going with the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, the Chief and also with SLED.”
In the release, Faile issued warning to other drug dealers within the county.
“I want everyone who is selling drugs in Lancaster County to know that we are always watching and always working to find you. You will be caught,” he said.