HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Killing Raises Fears Of Drug Corruption
Pubdate: Sun, 21 Apr 2002
Source: Courier-Journal, The (KY)
Copyright: 2002 The Courier-Journal
Author: Joseph Gerth, Alan Maimon


Traffickers Have Long Tried To Gain Protection From Prosecution, In Eastern 
Kentucky And Elsewhere

SOMERSET, Ky. -- The murder of a sheriff running for reelection and 
allegations that a drug dealer gave money to a candidate in another 
sheriff's race have rekindled concerns about drug trafficking in Eastern 
Kentucky and efforts by dealers to protect the trade.

Police believe Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron was killed April 13 to 
help a rival candidate with ties to a known drug dealer.

A few days earlier, Harlan County's sheriff said an alleged drug dealer was 
seen on a videotape giving $2,500 to Paul Browning Jr., a former Harlan 
sheriff who was running for the office again until he was murdered last month.

U.S. Attorney Greg Van Tatenhove of Kentucky's Eastern District said he was 
reluctant to draw any conclusions based on the two cases, and that people 
shouldn't paint the region with a broad brush.

''I think it's just a reminder that the problem still exists -- and we need 
to put our resources and efforts into that area and to redouble our efforts 
in places we know problems exist,'' he said.

Tom Handy, commonwealth's attorney for Laurel and Knox counties, said the 
cases reflect ''the infiltration of drugs into legitimate government'' that 
has occurred for years.

Catron, a tough-on-drugs lawman who was seeking a fifth term as sheriff, 
was shot to death last weekend at a fish fry and political rally. Jeff 
Morris, one of Catron's rivals in the May 28 Republican primary, and two of 
Morris' supporters -- one of them a known drug dealer -- were charged in 
the case.

Browning, seeking a political comeback after being convicted in 1982 of 
plotting to kill two Harlan County officials, was found burned in his 
pickup truck in late March. No one has been charged, but a videotape 
released after Browning's death showed him taking $2,500 from a man who 
current Sheriff Steve Duff said is a drug dealer.

The cases point to ongoing efforts by drug traffickers to gain a toehold 
among the people charged with bringing them to justice, experts say.

''The sad thing is, this type of corruption is analogous to a Third World 
country. But it happens everywhere,'' said Terry Cox, an Eastern Kentucky 
University criminal justice professor.

 From organized crime buying protection in Chicago during Prohibition to 
dope dealers in cahoots with Lexington police in the 1970s, Cox said people 
who break the law have always looked for ways to control the system.

During the 1990s, federal investigators charged 10 Eastern Kentucky lawmen 
with protecting or assisting drug dealers.

Duff said the region's long-standing illegal drug problem has taken on a 
new and more dangerous dimension with the growing importance of OxyContin 
and methamphetamines, which yield ''huge profits'' for dealers.

''The profits are higher and the drugs are more accessible,'' Duff said. 
''If (drug dealers) have the opportunity to find someone who's corruptible, 
they will.''

Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg lawyer, said it's frequently alleged in 
sheriff's campaigns -- although the claim is often false -- that a 
candidate is being funded by drug dealers.

''There certainly is a perception that, if a candidate . . . doesn't have a 
lot of money and doesn't have any means of support, that the money fueling 
the campaign is drug money,'' he said.

While alleged attempts by drug dealers to influence elections in Pulaski 
and Harlan counties stirred some concern that a bigger problem with rogue 
lawmen is back, ''we don't think it's anything more than a coincidence,'' 
said Col. Joe Williams, who heads the Kentucky State Police Drug 
Enforcement and Special Investigations division.

VAN TATENHOVE said the past indictments show that federal authorities 
consider drug involvement with law enforcement a serious problem.

''The sad reality is the problem does still exist in an isolated way in 
some places,'' he said. ''We know that problem doesn't automatically go away.''

Since 1990, federal investigators have convicted a number of Eastern 
Kentucky lawmen -- most of them sheriffs -- of aiding drug dealers and 
conspiring to distribute drugs.

''We like to think we find it all, but we know we probably don't,'' said 
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Murphy, who prosecuted some of the cases.

Among those convicted were:

a.. Former Lee County Sheriff Douglas Brandenburg, who pleaded guilty to 
obstructing an investigation and witness tampering after being charged with 
participating in a conspiracy to distribute marijuana and other crimes.

a.. Former Breathitt County Sheriff Ray Clemons, who was convicted of 
concealing the drug trafficking of his daughter and son-in-law.

a.. Former Lee County Sheriff Johnny Mann, who accepted $38,000 in bribe 
money from federal agents posing as drug runners and even deputized them in 
case they were pulled over by state police.

a.. Former Owsley County Sheriff Billy McIntosh, who accepted $6,500 in 
bribes from federal undercover agents.

a.. Former Wolfe County Sheriff Lester Drake, who accepted $21,000 in 
bribes. Drake and McIntosh were caught on audio tape discussing a cocaine drop.

a.. Former Beattyville Police Chief Omer Noe, who accepted $5,000 in 
bribes. Handy, the Laurel and Knox prosecutor, said the region's 
designation as the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area makes 
it easier to pursue drug traffickers in federal court when authorities 
believe local courts have been corrupted.

''WE KNEW there were juries in certain counties that were not dependable in 
weighing drug cases and doing the right thing,'' he said.

Danny Webb, a former state police commander who is running for sheriff in 
Letcher County, said the increased presence of the prescription painkiller 
OxyContin and methamphetamines has made it easier for other people to get 
into the illicit drug business.

''It used to be that you had to have money and connections to get the 
cocaine,'' he said. ''Anybody can get Oxy, and you can make meth in your 
house or your car using a recipe you got off the Internet.

''You've got a lot more people selling it now, and the competition has gone 
up,'' Webb said.

Duff, the Harlan County sheriff, said drug dealers often find a legal way 
to get OxyContin and then turn around and sell it on the street for 10 
times what they paid for it.

The potential profit has raised the stakes of the drug trade, making 
dealers eager to find sheriff's candidates who they think will help shield 
them from prosecution, said Leslie County Sheriff Fred Davidson.

Davidson said candidates who make deals with traffickers are dangerous, 
partly because they're often long shots going up against veterans and are 
willing to resort to violence to try to improve their chances of winning.

''But if they are elected, they wouldn't last very long,'' Davidson said. 
''There are too many checks and balances.''

Harold Don Gabbard, the sheriff of Butler County, Ohio, who worked with 
Catron on several drug cases, said drug dealers in both states have become 
bolder in their attempts to protect themselves.

''They're improving methods of organization, they're better armed and more 
mobile,'' Gabbard said. ''They'll try almost anything.''

Cox, the criminal justice professor, said corrupt lawmen and politicians 
are the worst kind of criminals.

''I have more respect for (serial killer) Jeffrey Dahmer than I do for a 
corrupt politician or a law enforcement person,'' he said. ''Dahmer was 
probably sick, but these guys know what they are doing.''

COX ALSO said he believes drug dealers who attempt to buy influence are 
kidding themselves.

''Do they really think they could set up a little fiefdom and truly get 
away with it?'' he asked. ''We know there is a potential for that sort of 
corruption because of the stakes involved, but I don't think they can do it.''

To effectively control the system, Cox said, dealers would also have to 
control prosecutors, judges and other police agencies -- something he said 
is highly unlikely.

The only way to solve the problem is to increase enforcement, Cox said. He 
said the federal government and state police have made a good effort to 
control corruption, but more agents need to be assigned to investigate it.

But Pillersdorf said he doesn't believe the system can be fixed as long as 
candidates need a lot of money to be elected.

''We probably need to be moving away from electing sheriffs and have some 
sort of merit system appointment,'' he said. ''We can't go on electing 
sheriffs based on who raises the most money.''
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