The sheriff of Henry County, Va., and 19 other people were charged Thursday with taking part in a scheme to sell drugs and other evidence seized from dealers back to the community.
The charges against the sheriff, H. Franklin Cassell, followed an investigation lasting over a year by the U.S. attorney's office in Roanoke.
Federal investigators began to suspect that the sheriff's department was involved in illegal drug trafficking in 2005, officials said, when drug enforcement officials in Philadelphia intercepted a package containing the drug Ketamine that had been mailed to a house owned by a sergeant with the department. Ketamine is often used in so-called date rapes.
Among the 19 people charged are 13 current and former officers in the sheriff's department, a former U.S. Postal Service employee and a state probation officer.
The U.S. attorney, John L. Brownlee, said at a news conference that the scheme had involved officers and former officers working with drug dealers to distribute Ketamine, cocaine, marijuana and steroids.. The members of the department worked with a drug ring to take a variety of items seized from criminals, including not only drugs but also firearms, cash, automotive equipment and even lawnmowers, the indictment charged.
"It is disgraceful corruption that they would take narcotics seized from the community," Brownlee said, "and then members of law enforcement would put them right back out there."
The Associated Press quoted Cassell's lawyer, John Lichtenstein, as saying: " He's served with great dedication. Now we get an opportunity to answer the accusations."
Charges in the indictment include racketeering conspiracy, weapons charges, narcotics distribution, obstruction of justice and perjury.
Investigators said Cassell, who has been the sheriff since 1992, had either ignored or encouraged illegal activities among his staff and had told his officers to lie to investigators, and.
Cassell was quoted by investigators as saying the only way to acquire wealth is to be "a little crooked and not get caught," The AP reported.
Cassell led a department of 96 officers in a county with a population of about 58,000 near the North Carolina border. The area's tobacco industry was replaced years ago by textile and furniture manufacturing, but unemployment has climbed into the double digits in the last few years.
The state police and other county officials are helping run the sheriff's office in the wake of the arrests, officials said.
The investigation found that since 1998, "sworn officers, employees, and associates of the Henry County sheriff's office engaged in a continuous scheme to steal narcotics, firearms and other contraband from the seized evidence property room," a statement by Brownlee's office said.
The indictment said Cassell had "covered up these illegal activities by failing to pursue investigation, by agreeing to disclose sensitive law enforcement information to the offending parties in order for them to avoid detection and arrest."
The package federal investigators intercepted had been mailed to William Randall Reed, a private citizen who told federal investigators he had been the middleman in a scheme to buy and sell drugs with the help of members of the sheriff's department and others.
The sergeant who mailed it to Reed, James Alden Vaught, later agreed to cooperate with investigators, officials said. He told investigators he had been paid off by a drug ring that included Reed to use his house in Martinsville, Va., to distribute drugs.
The indictment also said Cassell had tried to help Vaught in a money-laundering scheme "to disguise the source of monies represented to have been derived form the distribution of cocaine."