BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Federal authorities announced a blitz of arrests and indictments Wednesday against more than 100 people charged with gun and drug crimes in three U.S. states.
The flurry of charges from the Justice Department in Georgia, West Virginia and New York comes as federal officials work to combat an uptick in violent crime, particularly involving guns. The Biden administration has tried to showcase federal, state and local efforts to get guns and repeat shooters off the streets.
Federal prosecutors and FBI agents were particularly busy in southern Georgia, where an indictment was unsealed charging 76 people with involvement in what authorities called a gang-related network that distributed methamphetamine, fentanyl and other illegal drugs. Authorities called it the largest indictment ever filed in the 43-county Southern District of Georgia.
The FBI sent SWAT teams and agents from Atlanta and neighboring South Carolina and Florida Wednesday to help round up more than 30 suspects in coastal Brunswick and surrounding Georgia communities, said Jermaine Deans, the assistant agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office. He said one man who fled was arrested with 122 grams (4.3 ounces) of fentanyl.
Most of the others charged were already behind bars for prior crimes. Nine charged in the indictment remained at large, authorities said.
The dozens indicted in Georgia included a prison guard accused of assisting with drug dealing among inmates and two men charged with selling fentanyl and methamphetamine that resulted in three overdose deaths.
“Make no mistake, illegal distribution of illegal drugs is not a victimless crime,” said U.S. Attorney David Estes of the Southern District of Georgia. He said the three who died “bear silent witness to the toll of these illegal drugs flowing into our communities.”
In West Virginia, federal prosecutors announced the indictment of 34 people from two Baltimore-based groups related to the sale of fentanyl, heroin and other drugs that led to a spike in overdoses, including at least two deaths. According to court documents, the operation involved the trading of guns for drugs.
The drug activity occurred in rural counties in northeastern West Virginia, U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld said.
In New York, four men accused of selling more than 50 guns to an undercover police officer in Brooklyn were charged Wednesday under a new federal gun trafficking law. They were also charged with trafficking fentanyl and crack cocaine.
U.S. Attorney Breon Peace said some of the guns came from Virginia, were made from ghost gun kits or had defaced serial numbers, making them harder to trace. Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said three of the guns were traced to previous shootings in the city.
Peace said it was one of the first prosecutions brought under the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law last June.
The law allows prosecutors to charge gun-trafficking conspiracy as a standalone federal crime without having to show that a defendant was in the business of selling guns. The law also provides for greater penalties, with defendants facing up to 50 years in prison as opposed to a maximum of five or 10 years under other statutes.
“The charges brought today exemplify how the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act can be used as an effective tool in our continued battle against gun violence that plagues communities in Brooklyn, across New York City and Long Island and across the nation,” Peace said at a news conference Wednesday.
The guns were purchased by an undercover police pretending to be a drug dealer. NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said one of the seized firearms had been used in six separate shootings, including one that wounded eight people during a Family Day celebration in August 2021 in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
In the Georgia case, federal authorities seized 43 guns including some assault rifles. Estes said all 76 defendants were charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute illegal drugs, punishable by 10 years to life in prison. Many were charged with additional crimes.
Guns have been at the center of the debate as the nation grapples with homicides that spiked nationally in 2020 and as recent polls showed that Americans are increasingly concerned about crime.
The increase that started in 2020 has defied easy explanation, though. Experts point to several potential factors: the pandemic that has killed more than 1 million people in the U.S., gun violence, worries about the economy, high inflation rates and intense stress.
Sisak reported from New York. AP reporters John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, and Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed.