Matt Botbyl drove more than an hour and a half south from the small town of Willard with a drug dealer he barely knew to wait in a Columbus parking lot for a drug runner he'd never met.
Botbyl's dealer had called a supplier and ordered 10 heroin balloons — uninflated regular balloons containing the drug and tied off. The supplier hired a runner to deliver the drugs.
"People would be walking around shopping, and they wouldn't know what was happening," recalled Botbyl, of Norwalk, who has been clean for three years and is studying to be a pastor. "You'd never meet the guy you talked to on the phone."
The heroin came from Mexico, and the runners usually spoke Spanish but little to no English, Botbyl said. The majority of the illegal drugs in Ohio are controlled by Mexican drug cartels and come from South America or Mexico, said Rich Isaacson, special agent and spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Detroit field division.
After the exchange was done, Botbyl's dealer gave him a cut of the heroin and took the rest back to sell in the Willard area, about 25 miles northwest of Mansfield. Botbyl — who was out of money — found driving the dealers in his car was the easiest way to stay supplied with heroin. By having Botbyl drive, the dealer also got around the possibility of forfeiting his car if they were caught.
His experience is one of many in the drug trade. It stretches from the more sophisticated drug dealers who work higher up the supply chain in bigger cities to small-time dealers selling drugs just to support their own addictions.
"Drug trafficking can be complex and very well organized, or it can be basic dope in a duffel bag — it runs the gamut," Isaacson said.
For the more professional dealers, selling drugs is a business, and they know the tricks to being successful in the trade. Those include knowing the law and using technology to their advantage.
"It's kind of sad," said attorney John Thebes, of Toledo, who has represented defendants on drug charges. "If they put their mind to it, they could be successful legitimately."
While they deal in powerful narcotics, more professional dealers don't participate in their own business, law enforcement officials said.
"Most upper level (dealers) aren't using cocaine and heroin," Isaacson said. "You do see marijuana use, but when they're trafficking on large scale, they don't want to cloud the picture much further."
The higher-up dealers trust a select few who have underlings working below them, said Carl Rider, an agent with the Ottawa County Drug Task Force. They supply mid-level dealers who then supply smaller dealers.
In 2013, a mid-level drug dealer from Cleveland, Rashaune Ramsey, set up shop in Mansfield, said Mansfield Police Chief Ken Coontz, who leads the METRICH Enforcement Unit, which covers nine counties north of Columbus.
When METRICH busted Ramsey early this year, he had set up a system of people who helped him run his drug business, Coontz said. Richland County Common Pleas Court records show Ramsey had heroin and cocaine.
It isn't uncommon for dealers such as Ramsey to set up in smaller cities. Traffickers will bring drugs from Mexico into Ohio's largest cities then distribute them to rural areas, said Lt. Paul Cortwright, commander of the Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Task Force.
Ohio's location in the Midwest means many drugs are transported through the area. For example, drugs will come through Columbus before being delivered to Chicago and New York, said Brian Joslyn, who defends people charged with drug crimes in Central Ohio.
In 2013, police shut down a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar operation that distributed synthetic drugs online in Lancaster. The operation was the largest of its kind in Fairfield County.
The suspects would buy legal substances such as bath salts and repackage them into quantities that could have a similar influence on a person as an opiate, Fairfield-Hocking Major Crimes Unit Commander Eric Brown said in 2013. They would then sell the drugs online and ship them in containers disguised as things such as soda and beer cans.
Dealers on higher levels are harder to catch, law enforcement officials said. Agents try to flip lower-level dealers on others in the drug network, but catching the higher-up dealers is still difficult, Rider said.
"(The higher-up dealers) do a very good job of using people who make little to no money," Joslyn said. "When they get caught, they just replace them."
Joslyn said he's had clients who are offered deals with federal agents to provide information about the drug trade, but they know little about the larger operation. They are simply given a couple hundred dollars to drive from point A to point B, the attorney said.
"They are so good at covering themselves and where it's coming from that there's no one to go after," Josyln said.