Two men are accused of running a multi-county marijuana operation in southeastern North Carolina.
During a news conference held Friday morning, authorities announced that James Michael Beneway, 53, and Blair Whitham, 66, face multiple drug-related charges in Columbus, Brunswick, and New Hanover counties.
The Columbus County Sheriff's Office Vice-Narcotics Unit initiated the investigation in January following a complaint from a citizen.
"It's so important when concerned citizens bring it to your attention that there is unusual activity going on in the community. That's why we don't pass on any tip," explained Columbus County Sheriff Lewis Hatcher.
Officials said that the unit made six undercover purchases of marijuana from Beneway in January and three more in February.
Detectives discovered that Whitham was Beneway's source for the drug. Whitham was a former business owner in construction, and officials said he used his network of contacts in several states to distribute marijuana from brokers in the Midwest states to North Carolina.
Officials said Beneway was the courier of the operation. He allegedly would drive to the states, pick up the drugs, and bring them back to Columbus County.
"As a result of the drugs being brought back to this county, they were ultimately being delivered in New Hanover County and Brunswick County, " Hatcher explained.
Once Columbus County officials discovered that Whitham owned properties in both New Hanover and Brunswick counties to distribute marijuana, they contacted the sheriff's offices in those counties.
On Feb. 15, a final undercover buy was conducted in New Hanover County and all three agencies converged to execute search warrants at three properties owned by the defendants.
The Brunswick County Sheriff's Office searched Whitham's residence on Aaron Fullwood Drive in Bolivia and seized more than $100,000 in cash and about four pounds of high-grade marijuana.
The New Hanover County Sheriff's Office searched Whitham's property on Park Avenue and seized approximately $40,000 is cash and about four pounds of marijuana. Both men were arrested at the residence.
The Columbus County Sheriff's Office seized a small amount of marijuana, a small amount of THC wax and multiple documents that detail the drug operation from Beneway's residence on Loop Road in Bolton.
Authorities seized approximately $20,000 to $25,000 worth of marijuana from all three locations.
Beneway and Whitham face several charges in all three counties. Beneway's bond was set at $175,000, while Whitham's bond was set at $40,000.
"We're aggressively working on the drug trade, whether it's heroin or marijuana or whatever," Hatcher said, explaining the investigation is ongoing. "There are no boundaries when it comes to us, there are no boundaries when it comes to the drug dealers. We go and we do what we have to do."
Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram acknowledged that his department often receives questions about why they would go after marijuana dealers when more illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine are such a huge problem in the county.
"Individuals like this...are without a doubt, always involved in other illegal activities. They often work hand-in-hand with those dealers that are involved in the heroin trade and cocaine trade," Ingram explained. "It's important that when we have an opportunity like this, we take these individuals down because it does affect all these other networks to some degree."
Hatcher said the drug issue, in general, fuels other problems in his county.
"Drugs fuel violence, drugs fuel drive-by shootings, drugs fuel robberies, home invasions. Even if it's marijuana, that's why we go to the extent to get it off the street," Hatcher explained. "Other things hinge off of drugs. Period. "
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