LEXINGTON, Ky. — The sheriffs of four counties in the eastern Kentucky hills were arrested Thursday on charges that they took money to provide protection for drug traffickers passing cocaine through the state.
The FBI set up the sting operation last year with two agents acting as Chicago businessmen interested in shipping cocaine. At one point, cocaine packages were airdropped onto a farm owned by one of the officers, authorities said.
"What this particular situation does reflect is the absolute corrupting influence of drugs," said U.S. Atty. Louie DeFalaise. "As far as law enforcement officials . . . this is the largest case that we can recall."
The sheriffs and two other officers were charged in a 42-count indictment that accused them of conspiracy, drug distribution and protecting other drug traffickers.
Forty FBI agents fanned out through the contiguous counties of Breathitt, Lee, Owsley and Wolfe to make the arrests Thursday.
Detained were Lee County Sheriff Johnny Mann, 39; Breathitt County Sheriff Dean Spencer, 46; Wolfe County Sheriff Lester Drake, 51; and Owsley County Sheriff Billy McIntosh, 57.
Also arrested were Beattyville Police Chief Omer Noe and Wolfe County deputy Wilson Stone.
At a hearing before a federal magistrate, five of the men were released on bond. Mann was denied bond after an undercover agent testified he had promised during the yearlong sting to kill anyone who set him up.
According to the indictment, agents first met with Mann in Lee County. He allegedly introduced them to the other local law officers.
From August, 1989, until this month, the agents paid officers more than $85,000. The money was in exchange for protecting the agents' fake cocaine and marijuana smuggling and distribution business from police detection and other interference, the indictment said.
DeFalaise said the cocaine, which totaled almost 250 pounds, was never distributed for sale to the public.
The initial conspiracy and extortion counts carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, or both. The drug counts carry a minimum prison term of 10 years to life and a fine of $4 million.