Two-year investigation leads to county’s largest indictment

Salem Police Chief J.T. Panezott, left, and Columbiana County Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Gamble talk about an extensive two-year investigation into a drug trafficking group operating in Salem, resulting in the largest indictment ever issued in the county against such an organization—51 counts against nine defendants. (Photo by Mary Ann Greier)

SALEM — A drug trafficking organization which set up shop in Salem suffered a serious blow this week as seven members — including the Warren woman investigators say led the corrupt activity — found themselves the subjects of a 51-count indictment.

An additional two members have yet to be served, but Columbiana County Chief Assistant Prosecutor John Gamble said they’re already behind bars in prison and on their way back to the county where they’ll receive their paperwork, just like their co-defendants.

All nine defendants are scheduled to face arraignment at 1 p.m. Dec. 8 in Common Pleas Court on a multitude of felonies.

The crimes allegedly committed as part of a pattern of corrupt activity included selling drugs, possessing drugs, money laundering, aggravated burglary, felonious assault, complicity to felonious assault, complicity to aggravated burglary, complicity to trafficking in drugs and conspiracy.

People were getting beat up, robbed and threatened, from drug users to street level drug dealers, according to Gamble and Salem Police Chief J.T. Panezott, who also said thefts were being committed to pay for drugs.

“We had people that were being intimidated, users who were being assaulted because they owed money,” he said.

Panezott said the people indicted will be out of the city’s hair for awhile, but the police department is already looking for the next crew.

“Somebody will try to step up and take their place. We’ll be going after them, too,” he said.

The list of indictees already served includes: Tiona L. Jones, also known as T, 34, with addresses in both Warren and Galloway; her elderly relative Selena Pruitt, 83, of Warren, who also has an interest in the Galloway property; Susan L. Jones, 55, of South Lincoln Avenue, Salem; Marvin W. Harsch, 28, of Warren; Tina M. Taylor, 44, of Saltwell Road, Lisbon; Antonio T. Torres II, also known as AT, 28, of Warren; and Vincent McGary, 37, whose last known address was state Route 517, Columbiana.

Panezott said starting in spring 2014, they were starting to make a lot of heroin arrests. The county Drug Task Force was involved, too, and in conversations during the course of investigations, even some shoplifting cases, one name kept coming up: T. Salem Detective Dave Talbert, in a narrative about the investigation, said there were threats being made against street level dealers that led to serious assaults and through an exchange of information with the DTF, it was determined that an organized group “was functioning in a manner to monopolize the drug community in our area at the direction of Tiona Jones. The group continued to conduct ‘business’ and keeping a stronghold on the area by means of intimidation, and conspiring with locals in a manner to ensure the heroin and cocaine supply was abundant in Salem.”

Panezott said his detectives, Talbert and Brad Davis, wanted to look at the entire organization. Talbert sold the idea to Gamble and Prosecutor Robert Herron and they assigned an investigator from the prosecutor’s office to work with the police department on putting together a case. They had cooperation from the DTF and the Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force, both which have Salem officers assigned to them on a full-time basis. Salem police officers started bringing them information they gathered in their everyday dealings.

Gamble stressed that the indictment was the product of thousands of hours of investigation since 2014 and cooperation among the various police agencies and the prosecutor’s office. He said the result would not have been possible without a department put together the way the Salem Police Department has been put together through Panezott’s leadership and his experience in conducting an investigation. Panezott helped put together the DTF and served as its first director before going to the DEA, all while serving under the city of Salem.

“He has gained an understanding of the importance of good police work and his department reflects that,” Gamble said.

He also said it was important to acknowledge the contribution of the people in the community who provided information to the department and the DTF. The state Attorney General’s office was acknowledged too for help in the investigation and is expected to continue working with the county on the prosecution.

In talking about why such an organization came to Salem in the first place, Gamble said, “It’s a supply and demand issue. The demand here is great.”

Panezott said when he was assigned with the DEA in Youngstown, they saw all the kids from the suburbs and places like Salem coming up there to buy drugs and the suppliers noticed there was a market for their product. They were coming to Salem for the sole purpose of making money. They didn’t have to deal with as much danger in a place like Salem from rival groups and they could drive the price up.

Panezott said Salem gets a bad rap from the media regarding the drug activity, saying they have the same drug problem as everybody else, but with all the warrants being served, the searches and arrests, there’s more attention. The department is very proactive and that’s not going to stop with this indictment.

“Having an officer at the DTF and an officer at the DEA was invaluable to us because we wouldn’t have access to come of the investigative tools we used,” he said, adding “we’re going to continue to fight the fight.”

He also credited the community and said they were receiving tips and had to build the case. He urged people to keep calling when they see something that doesn’t feel right. Call the police or call the DTF.

Gamble couldn’t put a number on how many people may have been a part of the overall organization, saying that’s hard to nail down. He couldn’t say for sure whether a connection could be made on overdoses, either, but in a press release issued Monday, said “These charges are a direct blow to those bringing death and destruction here.”