Gun, Drug Crackdown Yields Convictions
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Federal agents and police fanned out over Prince William County one July day in 2006, arresting suspects and seizing firearms in a high-profile crackdown on gun and drug trafficking.
Since then, 109 people have been charged and nearly 100 convicted in federal and state courts in what has become one of the largest law enforcement efforts against guns and narcotics not only in Northern Virginia but throughout the Washington region, officials said last week. The campaign was dubbed Operation Highway Men because most of the illicit activity occurred near the Jefferson Davis Highway (Route 1) corridor in Prince William.
"As far as the number of defendants, this is one of the larger cases that I'm aware of that we've done in a while," said Mike Campbell, spokesman for the Washington field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is leading the investigation. "When you're up over 100 defendants, that's quite a lot."
The crackdown reflects the emphasis that Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, has placed on fighting violent crime throughout Northern Virginia. His prosecutors have convicted 74 people in the current case on drug trafficking, firearms and related offenses. Most have pleaded guilty; 13 have been found guilty on state charges. The remainder of those charged are awaiting trial.
Throughout the nation, federal courts are increasingly being used in cases, such as those involving guns and drugs, that were once left mainly to local authorities. Much of the trend is being driven by Project Safe Neighborhoods, a Bush administration initiative that subjects criminals who use guns to tougher federal sentencing laws and helps local authorities fight gun crime.
Tough sentences have been given in cases originating from Operation Highway Men. Of the 69 defendants sentenced federally, 43 have received 10 years or more, and two are serving life sentences.
"I think that is a tangible and visible indicator of our commitment to ridding our streets of drugs and guns," Rosenberg said.
Authorities are trying to clean up longstanding complaints about drug dealing and gun sales along the Route 1 corridor, including in Woodbridge, Dale City, Lake Ridge, Dumfries and Occoquan. The investigation, which includes Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park police, Virginia State Police and the U.S. Marshals Service, began in late 2004.
ATF agents made dozens of undercover firearms and narcotics buys in the Route 1 area and then worked to identify the suppliers, who were traced to as far away as New York and Atlanta, Campbell said. In a series of raids in Prince William, the ATF has seized large quantities of drugs and more than 70 guns, most of them semiautomatic pistols and revolvers.
Some of the defendants know one another, but most operated in separate criminal networks, with no large organization or ringleader, Campbell said. Many of those charged have prior convictions, with one man having been arrested 30 times.
"These weren't rookie criminals," Campbell said.
Campbell said that the investigation is continuing and that additional charges are possible.
"We're still getting information, and we're working more cases," he said. "A lot of this is just putting together intelligence and seeing what activities are having the most negative impact on the life of the community. It's a quality-of-life issue.''