Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputies and federal agents with the DEA detailed the results from a nine-month, drug-trafficking operation.

NEW PORT RICHEY – Federal law enforcement officials were back in Pasco County last week to announce recent drug-trafficking arrests made during a cooperative operation with the local sheriff’s office.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and Drug Enforcement Administration held a press conference Dec. 17 at the sheriff’s office’s New Port Richey campus to detail results of “Operation ‘Now You ‘Z’ Me, Now You Don’t’.”

The nine-month, multi-organizational operation targeted West Pasco suppliers and dealers of heroin and fentanyl, an opioid that is at the heart of a national drug-abuse crisis. The operation netted a haul of drugs, cash and weapons that included $400,000, 1.5 kilograms of heroin or suspected fentanyl, 1.5 kilograms of cocaine or crack cocaine, eight handguns and one Mac-11 sub-machine gun. The quantity of confiscated drugs takes an estimated 22,500 doses off Pasco County streets.

Capt. Mike Jenkins of the Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Division briefed reporters during the press conference and explained accompanying PowerPoint slides.

“Most people are aware that there has been an opioid epidemic that has been affecting the entire nation,” Jenkins said. “We were relatively immune from this situation until 2017.”

Pasco County was hit with an epidemic of prescription opioid painkiller such as OxyContin in 2011, Jenkins said. That issue was tackled via laws intended to shut down medical practices that authorities labelled as little more than “pill mills.” After that, however, heroin and illegally made fentanyl “filled the void,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said that Sheriff Chris Nocco and others in the department began noticing disturbing trends in overdose and overdose-death statistics in 2017. Seeing these upticks prompted the Sheriff’s Office to shift its focus to identifying sources of supply for heroin and fentanyl in the areas that were hit hardest. The focus was the portion of the U.S. 19-Gulf Coast Highway corridor in Holiday and New Port Richey.

On Sept. 27, Sheriff’s Office and DEA personnel executed two search warrants involving Edwin “Z” Hill, 47, of Holiday. Hill is described in Sheriff’s Office documents related to Operation Now You ‘Z’ Me, Now You Don’t as the illicit drug operation’s source of supply.

Nelson “Slug” White, 27, of Holiday, was detained the same day during a traffic stop.

White is described as one of four distributors arrested as part of the operation. William Gaston, 31, Port Richey, is another distributor arrested and charged, authorities say. Also detained were Larry Burns and Shane Parham. Jenkins said they are facing pending Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney’s Office charges related to the trafficking organization.

If convicted, Hill faces a minimum mandatory penalty of 15 years to life in federal prison. Convictions of Gaston and White would result in penalties of 10 years to life.

While the operation has been deemed a success internally and issuing stiff penalties is important, Jenkins said, he acknowledged that cuffing suppliers, dealers and users won’t solve anything.

“We do not believe that we can arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “It is abundantly clear to everyone who’s familiar with the opioid epidemic that this is strictly not a supply issue. It is a demand issue.

“Although we have disrupted supply and we’re starting to experience very positive results as a result of that, we are … already aware of and identifying the next individuals who are going to come and fill that gap.

“The supply was disrupted but the demand still exists.”