Chase helped bring down ring

U.S. Attorney Donald Wolthuis holds a mug of the U.S. District Courthouse in Harrisonburg while ATF special agent Bill Metcalf looks on during a news conference after the sentencing of Matthew Santiago of New York Thursday morning. Wolthuis gave mugs to area investigators marking the last of fifteen defendants sentenced in a regional heroin drug ring that infected the Northern Shenandoah Valley. Rich Cooley/Daily

HARRISONBURG — On the night of March 28, 2013, Devon Renard Gray was on the run.

Police were looking for Gray after he led a Middletown officer on a chase at speeds up to 80 or 90 mph through downtown Strasburg. The cinematic pursuit ended on U.S. 11 on the south end of town with the officer’s squad car veering up an embankment and rolling over. Gray abandoned the car he had been driving and fled on foot.

Over the next several weeks, Gray’s trail would lead law enforcement officials to the man described in court documents as the largest heroin supplier in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

A federal prosecutor said the dealer, Ronnie Maurice Jones, spread “a tsunami of misery” through Woodstock over the first six months of 2013. Court documents cite testimony from grand jury witnesses who spoke of a community of hundreds of addicts spawned by Jones’ heroin trafficking.

Jones and another man stood at the top of a drug distribution ring that sprawled across the Northern Shenandoah Valley and through Prince William and Stafford counties. But Jones and his partner, Kareem Shaw, formerly of Dumfries, were far from alone. Law enforcement officials say a total of 84 people have been arrested and charged in either federal or state courts for offenses committed as members of the ring.

Bill Metcalf, Alcohol Tobacco Firearms special agent, speaks during a news conference at U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg while U.S. Attorney Donald Wolthuis looks on after the sentencing Thursday morning of Matthew Santiago of New York. Rich Cooley/Daily

Matthew Santiago, the last of 15 federal defendants, was sentenced Thursday in Harrisonburg to 10 years in prison. The sentencing ended a saga that began with Gray’s flight after the vehicle chase through Strasburg.

Gray, who at the time was living in Woodstock, had been targeted by law enforcement weeks earlier when, authorities say, he sold heroin five times to a confidential police informant.

Law enforcement officials captured Gray a week after the chase at a storage facility in Warren County. The arrest came after Gray accepted a handgun from an undercover agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In exchange for the gun, Gray promised the agent he would provide him with $700 worth of heroin at another time.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Wolthuis said Gray proved to be a valuable source of previously unknown information about Jones, information that spurred the ATF to join with local law enforcement agencies that were beginning to learn the magnitude of the heroin trade radiating from Jones’ apartment in Woodstock.

“He made the ATF fully aware, and I think that’s what led a lot of local law enforcement agencies to get together to make an informal task force to concentrate on Jones,” Wolthuis said of Gray.

U.S. Attorney Donald Wolthuis speaks to a reporter after the sentencing Thursday morning of Matthew Santiago of New York. Santiago was the last of 15 defendants sentenced in a regional heroin drug ring that infected the Northern Shenandoah Valley. Rich Cooley/Daily

The investigation involved interviews with dozens of witnesses, some of whom were called before a grand jury. Undercover purchases of heroin were made from lesser members of Jones’ distribution network. Search warrants were executed at suspects’ residences.

The investigation received one of its biggest breaks when a member of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office found a confidential informant who identified a prominent member of Jones’ ring. Law enforcement officials put the suspect under surveillance and saw him conducting a transaction with Jones. Authorities stopped him later and found more than a half-ounce of heroin on him. The suspect identified Jones as the source of the heroin. Jones was arrested a day later during a traffic stop.

“It saved us months and months of work and produced some of the best evidence in the case,” Wolthuis said of the information obtained from the informant.

Police found thousands of dollars in currency, keys to lockboxes and 50 rounds of .40-caliber ammunition in the older Mercedes Benz Jones was driving at the time of his arrest. The execution of a subsequent search warrant at his apartment in Front Royal turned up an additional several thousand dollars in currency, 12 grams of heroin and a loaded .357 revolver.

Once locked up, Jones didn’t give up on selling heroin, Wolthuis said.

A file containing legal documents of Matthew Santiago rests on a the desk in a conference room at U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg on Thursday. Santiago was sentenced, marking the end of 15 defendants that were sentenced in a regional heroin ring. Rich Cooley/Daily

In a sentencing memorandum, Wolthuis asserted that Jones told a girlfriend in a phone conversation that the sale of heroin would continue.

“Jones attempted to get persons . . . to collect outstanding debts for him,” Wolthuis wrote. “Jones also attempted to take such money as he had to invest in Kareem Shaw’s continuing heroin trafficking in order to continue to generate heroin profit while incarcerated on these heroin charges.”

Most of the heroin in the area comes from local residents who travel to Baltimore, where they buy from suppliers and return to the area where they resell the drug. The money received can be used to purchase heroin to feed their own addiction or treated purely as a profit to be spent on other items.

Wolthuis said Jones and Shaw were businessmen, not addicts. Their conspiracy differed in several ways from other drug dealing operations in the area. It was bigger than anything previously seen, and the defendants obtained their heroin from New York instead of Baltimore, the usual source city for addicts and dealers.

Wolthuis said both defendants had family ties in New York that led them to bypass Baltimore.

Jones, Shaw and other members of the conspiracy made numerous trips to New York to meet with Santiago. Court documents cite a total of 14.4 kilograms – 31 pounds – of heroin obtained by Shaw and Jones between January and June 2013, the period when the conspiracy was most active. Estimates elsewhere in the court documents place the amount of heroin bought and sold as high as 44 pounds.

Wolthuis and others involved in the investigation say it’s hard to exaggerate the damage done to communities and individuals when heroin is available in such staggering amounts.

At Jones’ sentencing hearing, Wolthuis called the epidemic of herein addiction in Woodstock caused by Jones “a tsunami of misery flowing through town.”

Unlike robbery and other crimes that are quick, singular events, the effects of heroin on victims worsen over time. Addiction and all the physical, psychological and financial devastation that comes with it can last a lifetime. Addicts tend to create other addicts out of friends and family members.

“It spreads like crabgrass,” Wolthuis said. “It’s almost evangelical the way people in turn get hooked and recruit others. That’s one of the deep tragedies of heroin, how quickly it spreads.”

After Santiago’s sentencing hearing, Wolthuis passed out certificates to recognize members of the law enforcement agencies who participated in the investigation that broke the Jones-Shaw ring.

They are: Sgt. Kevin Coffman of the Front Royal Police Department; Investigator Mike Henry of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office; Sgt. Brent Lutz and analyst Valerie Ferguson, both of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office; Investigator Shawn Morris of the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office; Detective Nicholas Chiappini of the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office and Special Agent William Metcalf of the ATF.

Jones is appealing his sentence of 23 years in prison. Shaw was sentenced to 18 years.

Lutz said any satisfaction over the convictions and sentencing of heroin dealers is tempered by the realization that there are always more where they came from.

“When the distributor is arrested and taken out, another one will step up and fill the void,” Lutz said. “We’re still battling that. Obviously, the power of addiction with heroin is significant.

“It’s going to be a continuous battle, and the battle is going to be fought for a long time.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com