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Leader of local ‘crystal meth’ ring faces federal charges

By Staff | Dec 24, 2008

Once Sistersville was known for the export of oil and natural gas. However, in recent years, Sistersville became a major exporter of methamphetamine, also known as ‘crystal meth’.

At least that was the case until a major meth distribution network, stretching from Arizona to Sistersville, was dismantled and almost all the conspirators brought to justice, thanks to the work of the Tyler County Sheriff’s Department, the West Virginia State Police, and federal authorities.

The case involves 11 co-conspirators. Out of the 11, nine pleaded guilty to felony charges ranging from conspiracy to distribute 50 grams of meth, racketeering, trafficking and money laundering; charges were dropped against one; and another is still a fugitive.

The last to be convicted, Jesse Morales 35, of Buckeye, Ariz., was convicted on one count of conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine from January 2003 to March 9, 2007, in Sistersville, Tyler County, West Virginia; one count of conspiracy to engage in interstate travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise from early 2003 to March 9, 2007, from Sistersville to Phoenix, Ariz., and Ascension, Mexico; and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering from January of 2003 to Oct. 10, 2006.

Morales was identified as a source of supply for meth for a multi-state organization, which was headed by James Martin Snyder, 54, of Sistersville.

Following Snyder’s move from northeast Ohio to Sistersville in January of 2003, he and his associates began importing multi-pounds of methamphetamine from two sources of supply in Phoenix including Morales.

The entire multi-million dollar operation took place out of Snyder’s Sistersville home. Snyder bought the meth in bulk and used Morales and others to transport the product to Sistersville.

From Sistersville the product was distributed to the rest of West Virginia, and in Ohio and Florida.

Co-conspirators at trial testified that between 2003 and 2006 the group distributed at least 200 pounds of meth, with a street value in excess of $6 million.

Both Morales and Carlos Bernal, 47, of Phoenix, served as suppliers for Snyder.

Snyder would send Wayne Prinkey Jr., 50; Richard Graner, 48; and Dan Dello, 50, to Arizona with cash to bring back more meth.

John Keller Jr., of Sistersville, helped Snyder place sealed PVC pipes on nearby property as a hiding spot for meth and cash. Snyder used James Jury, 50, to hold thousands of dollars in drug money, which he would send out upon request. Mark ‘Country’ Cunningham, 47, formerly of Pleasants and Tyler counties, served as a meth dealer and go-between for Snyder, while Jerry Cottrill, 63, of St. Marys, laundered drug money for Snyder.

The organization began to unravel on April 11, 2006, when Prinkey was arrested following a traffic stop in Canadian County, Oklahoma, while he was transporting 11 pounds of meth that the group had just purchased in Phoenix for $140,000. A week later, Snyder’s Sistersville residence was searched and police found $52,075 of drug proceeds, methamphetamine and several “owe sheets” reflecting thousands of dollars of drug debts owed the group.

Shortly after, with the help of Morales, Snyder fled the country to Mexico. Before fleeing he approached Cottrill with $70,000. Snyder then ordered Cunningham to pick up a truck and the rest of the money from Cottrill. While transporting Snyder’s four-wheeler and air conditioner to Arizona, Cunningham wrecked outside of Zanesville. Snyder was soon returned to U.S. custody.

Once in custody, the entire operation fell apart and all co-conspirators were arrested, excluding Bernal. Those arrested were Snyder, Snyder’s girlfriend Gloria Payne, Morales, Dello, Keller, Jury, Graner, Prinkey, Cunningham, and Cottrill. During the investigation, police seized, in addition to the meth, approximately $240,000 of drug proceeds and 56 acres which Snyder owned in Sistersville.

Snyder pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of meth and was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. As a part of his plea deal, all charges were dropped against Payne and she is currently undergoing mental health counseling in Clarksburg.

Jury pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in interstate travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise and is awaiting sentencing. Keller pled guilty to one count of trafficking meth and is awaiting sentencing. Dello pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute 50 grams of meth and was sentenced to eight years and one month in federal prison.

Cunningham, Cottrill, Prinkey, and Graner were not included in the government’s original indictment, but were linked to the operation.

Cunningham pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to engage in interstate travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise and is awaiting sentencing. Cottrill pleaded guilty to money laundering. Graner pleaded in Oklahoma to a charge of possession with intent to deliver meth and was given five years probation. Prinkey is serving a 25-year sentence in Florida for pleading to second-degree murder, armed burglary and attempted first-degree murder unrelated to the Snyder case.

Assistant United States Attorney John C. Parr prosecuted the case. It was investigated by the Ohio Valley Drug & Violent Crimes Task Force (which consists of officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Wheeling Police Department and the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department), with assistance from the Tyler County Sheriff’s Department; the West Virginia State Police; the Ohio Highway Patrol; the Phelps County, Missouri, Sheriff’s Department; the Phoenix, Arizona, Police Department; the Canadian County, Oklahoma, Police Department; the Ashtabula, Ohio, Sheriff’s Department and various Drug Enforcement Administration offices throughout the country.

Outgoing Tyler County Sheriff Clay Hupp praised the work of Chief Deputy Dean Pratt, who led the local investigation into the drug conspiracy.

“He was the backbone of the investigation; the lead investigator,” said Hupp. “It was the most significant strike against drugs in Tyler County. It was an operation that was basically brought into our county from the outside and the operation went on for quite some time. It took a lot of good police work from one of our own Tyler County deputies to put it together. With assistance from the federal people were able to make a significant strike against the drug trade.”

Because of the major asset forfeitures, the Sheriff’s Department has netted thousands of dollars that will go back into funding the department and its investigations.

“We stand to gain several thousand dollars,” said Hupp. “We’ve already acquired around something over $50,000 already in asset forfeiture and we stand to gain a great deal more.”

The most important aspect, according to Hupp, is the impact the case has had on other drug operations in the county. Hupp says the convictions should be interpreted as a message to all drug pushers that they can’t hide forever.

“We take law enforcement very seriously,” said Hupp. “If you’re going to bring the drug trade into Tyler County, you can expect some pretty severe consequences. While I’ve been Sheriff we’ve done the best we could with the resources we had and we made a significant mark in (the drug trade).”