Federal Raid on Mingo County, West Virginia: Background information when reading Death in Mud Lick

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Death in Mud Lick

A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic

by Eric Eyre

Death in Mud Lick by Eric Eyre X
Death in Mud Lick by Eric Eyre
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2021, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Chornoby
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About this Book

Federal Raid on Mingo County, West Virginia

This article relates to Death in Mud Lick

Print Review

A church and other buildings in Kermit, West VirginiaIn 1988, Mingo County, West Virginia appeared in headlines across the country, with reports of staggering corruption in the southwest part of the Mountain State. There were allegations that elected officials paid for votes, firefighters set property ablaze for insurance payouts, and mom-and-pop trailer shops peddled pot, LSD and PCP.

The Preece family was at the center of the town, and in turn, the center of the scandals. "Wig" Preece and his wife "Cooney" had 13 children. They were affiliated with folks in the highest offices — the county prosecutor's office, the school board, the fire house, the county commission and the jail. With clout in practically all pockets of Mingo County, they seemed untouchable. According to FBI Special Agent Calvin Knott, the Preece family pulled in over $1 million annually in the drug business alone, attracting clients from across Mingo County and the surrounding area. Traffic was so heavy that the Preeces put a trailer on their property exclusively to sell drugs. Reports note that they brazenly posted signs such as, "Out of drugs. Back in 15 minutes." For years, no one stopped them.

Despite the dark side of the Preece family — or maybe in part because of it — they were loved by many of their neighbors. According to residents interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel, "If you were hungry, the Preeces would feed you. If you needed money and had something to sell, the Preeces would buy it. If you were in trouble, they would open their door, day or night." Such sentiments are not without precedent; the Italian mafia is known to step in and help the needy, as are Mexican drug cartels. Yet others were critical of the rampant crime taking over Mingo County; its lone newspaper, the Williamson Daily News, published over 300 articles covering the Preece family. But with power concentrated in so few hands, and with claims about an arson ring in operation, it was dangerous to speak out about what was going on.

Crimes to this extent committed so openly conflicted with many outsiders' perceptions about rural, small-town life. However, the federal investigation left little room to doubt the legitimacy of the allegations. Plans for the undercover investigation began in 1984, spearheaded by U.S. Attorney Joe Savage. In 1985, Savage sent a trio of agents to Mingo to gather hard evidence documenting the crimes. They hid in a boxcar on the Norfolk Southern tracks, right across from the Preece's trailer. From the boxcar's cracked door, the agents used a long-lens camera to photograph what happened on the property. In the two-day stakeout, the agents gathered pictures of over 600 people going into the trailer. On May 30, 1986, the long-awaited federal raid unfolded, with 20 suspects arrested in the first sweep and 30 felonies lodged against them. Seven of the suspects were Preeces.

By the end of the trials and plea deals, around 70 people were convicted of various crimes (not including charges concerning electoral fraud and other incidents of corruption). The convictions revealed to the rest of the nation that the corruption in "Bloody Mingo" was more blatant than in most of the country's biggest cities. The controversies permeated Mingo's police, politicians, bus drivers, school board members and preschool workers.

Today, three decades after the national exposure, Mingo County faces another unraveling. Although the power of the Preece family was broken up, Mingo and the surrounding area never recovered from the circumstances that made the corruption possible. What New York Times writer B. Drummond Ayres Jr. described as the "achingly poor coal community" is still isolated, struggling and unrepresented, as are many cities and towns with industrial and coal-based economies in places like Ohio, Kentucky and South Carolina.

As Purdue Pharma descended on the impuissant Mingo County in the late 1990s, pushing their newly-patented OxyContin and accusing doctors who refused the drug of sacrificing patient welfare and committing malpractice, tragedy was inevitable. The opioid epidemic pervaded Mingo County. But over decades, some things change. Back in 1988, no one could have foreseen that one crusader hoping to find help and retribution for Mingo County would be a Preece. To learn more about Debbie Preece — daughter of Wig and Cooney — and her work with Eric Eyre to push the opioid epidemic into the national spotlight, read the journalist's debut book, Death in Mud Lick.

Kermit, West Virginia, courtesy of Brian Stansberry

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Jamie Chornoby

This "beyond the book article" relates to Death in Mud Lick. It originally ran in May 2020 and has been updated for the April 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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