It was nearly a year ago when Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Gary Yost gave Tom MacWilliams, of New Lyme Township, 30 days to get his affairs in order before serving a four-year prison sentence on drug charges.
Instead, MacWilliams failed to report to the Ashtabula County Sheriff's Department before being transferred to the state prison and soon afterward was indicted by an Ashtabula County grand jury for escape.
After a year-long search, authorities caught up with MacWilliams Sunday. He is being held in West Virginia, awaiting extradition within the next two weeks.
MacWilliams was the center of a drug investigation by the Trumbull, Ashtabula, Geauga (TAG) law-enforcement task force and the Cleveland office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2004, which led to the seizure of more than 900 pounds of marijuana, $76,400, five vehicles, two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a a Honda four-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicle and a car wash.
The items were seized from MacWilliams' residence at 5179 Day Road. About a year after his arrest, MacWilliams pleaded guilty to reduced charges of complicity to trafficking and complicity to possession of marijuana, following a plea agreement, said Sgt. Jeff Orr of the TAG task force.
"The judge let him go for 30 days to get his family life in order," he said.
When the 30 days were up, however, MacWilliams was nowhere to be found.
Within the past year, local law enforcement, including the task force, received numerous tips as to MacWilliams' whereabouts but none led them anywhere. During the last month, task-force officials began receiving further more positive information that MacWilliams was hiding out in West Virginia, Orr said.
TAG officials contacted their law-enforcement counterparts in West Virginia. In a coordinated effort among the task force, the West Virginia State Police Bureau of Narcotics and the Harrison County drug task force, MacWilliams was found in a remote location in the West Virginia woods, Orr said.
His property, near Burnsville in a local hollow, contained two trailers, and according to information received by the task force, MacWilliams was believed to be growing marijuana in one of the trailers.
Task-force agents met with West Virginia authorities Sunday afternoon. After an hour-long surveillance of the area, investigators observed MacWilliams and a female enter a trailer, which emitted bright lights when the door was opened, he said.
In a matter of minutes, both subjects exited the trailer. The surveillance team identified MacWilliams, and both subjects were taken into custody without incident. TAG officials assisted West Virginia authorities in obtaining a search warrant for the property based on intelligence received in Ohio and confirmed by the follow-up visit in West Virginia, Orr said.
Investigators removed more than 270 marijuana plants that were growing in the second trailer, late Sunday night. Other items seized include grow lights, fertilizer, electrical equipment, miscellaneous paperwork and several thousand dollars, he said. MacWilliams and his girlfriend Darlene Wollschleger had an elaborate growing operation, and officials suspect the processed marijuana would have made its way to Ashtabula County.
"(Upon extradition), he will go off to prison to serve the four-year term," Orr said. "Eventually, he will appear in court on the escape charges; then he will go back to West Virginia to serve."
MacWilliams could face an additional three-year sentence for the escape charges, Orr said.
Both MacWilliams and Wollschleger also are facing federal charges of marijuana cultivation in West Virginia and could be facing 10-year prison sentences, Orr said. TAG officials also will be pursuing charges against other parties for having aided and abetted MacWilliams during his year on the run. An sport utility vehicle discovered at the scene was registered to an unnamed Ashtabula County resident.
The investigation is ongoing, and future arrests will be forthcoming, Orr said.