MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Legislators Wednesday heard about a negative thread that ties Interstate 81 counties together: crime.
At the annual Quad State Legislative Conference in Martinsburg, Jared Nail, a narcotics investigator with the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, described the difficulties in fighting illegal drugs.
Several years ago, police took on "The Block," an area of Winchester, Va., where dealers were responsible for an estimated 90 percent of the crack cocaine in the city, Nail said.
An 18-month investigation led to 32 people being indicted on federal charges, he said.
Police learned that some defendants regularly traveled to Martinsburg, Hagerstown and Gettysburg, Pa., in the course of their drug trade.
"Martinsburg seemed to be a place where many of them would lay their heads," he said.
One reason was the nightlife along U.S. 11 and W.Va. 9, he said. Some stayed in motels in and around Hagerstown.
The Block became a ghost town.
"For a while, the problem was solved. For a while," Nail said.
Then, police went after a powder cocaine ring, in which dealers again had ties to Martinsburg and Hagerstown. More than 20 people were indicted.
A few years later, The Block was active again and police did another investigation, leading to 23 more indictments, Nail said.
Police also try to stem the tide of local heroin, which is often obtained in Baltimore, he said.
Heroin is a different animal, with powerful effects that lead to debilitating addiction.
"It's not a recreational drug," he said.
Nail said police in his area investigate about one heroin overdose a week.
Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth Lemaster Jr. said the rough economy has affected drug use.
Many people who supported their habits by working have lost their jobs, so they break into cars or steal metal and sell it for its scrap value, he said.
Although the supply of drugs can seem like a never-ending wave, Nail said police need to relish each time they remove drugs from the streets.
Lemaster urged legislators to also remember the need to rehabilitate addicts once they've been locked up.
"It's like a person that's dying of thirst," he said. "They see the drug, and some people just can't resist it. They go back on it, no matter what they've been through in their lives."
Asked if gangs contribute to local crime, Lemaster said Berkeley County has mostly been spared. He mentioned a few exceptions, such as a few possible motorcycle gangs, and the time police intercepted a gang member who rode to the area from Florida on a bus.
"They're beatin' on our door from all sides," he said.