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Federal indictments in suspected drug enterprise case

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Elaine Rackley

erackley@henryherald.com

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Georgia has secured federal indictments against ten people for alleged drug trafficking and firearms-related crimes, stemming from the operation of suspected marijuana grow houses in Henry County.

The federal prosecutor's office, along with the David G. Wilhelm Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), the Henry County Police Department, and other federal crime-fighting agencies, has been investigating the alleged grow operations since the fall of 2010, according to federal authorities.

In March 2011, a federal grand jury returned a four-count indictment related to this grow-house operation, which was unsealed on April 5, after the arrest of five people from Stockbridge, three from McDonough, and one from Griffin. One man, from Griffin, remains at-large, federal officials said.

The indictments charge the defendants with various criminal offenses, including conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess more than 100 plants of marijuana, and possession of firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking crimes, said Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office, Patrick Crosby, in a written statement.

This week, nine of the 10 defendants were arraigned in United States Magistrate Court, according to Crosby. They are: Joshua McCullough, 37, Jimmy Ray Whorton, 56, Sandra Whorton, 49, Paul Bunch, 36, and Ira Butler, 46, all of Stockbridge; James McKenzie, 29, Karry Autry, 30, Holly Autry, 27, all of McDonough; and Brian Prewitt, 33, of Griffin.

Joseph Tillman, 41, also of Griffin, has not been apprehended.

Some of the suspected grow operations have been targeted before by Henry County police. In those encounters with police, McCullough, Bunch, Butler, Autry, and Mckenzie were arrested on various drug-related charges.

"I appreciate the hard work and dedication that our narcotics unit put into working this case," said Henry County Police Chief Keith Nichols. "These indoor grows are a relatively new problem here in Henry County, and we are becoming more familiar in working these types of cases.

"Getting these individuals out of our community is a huge benefit to our law-abiding citizens, and I know they appreciate it, too," added Nichols. "I would also like to thank the federal law enforcement authorities that assisted us with this case, helping bring it to a successful resolution."

Narcotics agents searched several of the residences of the defendants. Investigators found that three of the houses had been set up specifically as grow houses. Those houses were located in Stockbridge: at 925 Hemphill Road, 1680 Jodeco Road, and 436 Hood Road. A fourth house, located at 166 Alexander Drive in McDonough, was used as both a residence and a grow house, according to authorities.

Items seized during the investigation include 340 plants of marijuana, 52 guns, at least 50 grams of methamphetamine, and more than $384,000 in cash, according to U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates.

The charges, and additional information presented in court, according to Yates, revealed the following:

In the fall of 2010, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies began investigating a marijuana-grow-house organization operating in Henry County, and elsewhere. The organization allegedly coordinated the construction of hydroponics marijuana grow houses at four separate locations. Several members of the organization possessed firearms in support of the illegal narcotics-trafficking activities. As part of the investigation, in November and December 2010, agents searched four separate marijuana-grow-house operations in Henry County that were constructed in residential homes, with independent grow lighting, irrigation and nutrient systems designed to cultivate and grow marijuana plants for distribution.

"Through the David G. Wilhelm ... Strike Force, the U.S. Attorney's Office works with local and state law enforcement agencies to target drug-trafficking organizations that impact us locally and regionally," said Yates. "The federal prosecution of this organization for this conspiracy has a direct impact on the local community in Henry County, and regionally in the Northern District of Georgia, by making us all safer through the removal of dangerous grow houses from the community, and by having fewer drugs and guns on the streets."