The FBI alleges John Joseph Kotchkoski Jr., 33, a Columbus police officer from Marengo, Ohio, was caught in a federal undercover sting targeting narcotics trafficking. Delaware County Sheriff's Office photograph.
Two Columbus Division of Police officers on the city’s anti-drug cartel unit were dirty cops who tried to traffic fentanyl, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday, Sept. 29, in Ohio.
The FBI’s Southern Ohio Public Corruption Task Force netted Marco Rene Merino, 44, and John Joseph Kotchkoski Jr., 33, following a sting operation that apparently began eight months ago, shortly after a drug dealer began cooperating with federal investigators.
The criminal complaints lodged against the Columbus cops paint a lurid portrait of underworld lawlessness inside an elite police unit devoted to cracking the cartels. At one point, Kotchkoski allegedly warned Merino that if he ever blabbed about their illegal acts, he’d “have Merino’s wife and children killed by sicarios,” the hired hitmen of Latin American drug syndicates.
Initially the probe targeted Merino, who agents allege took $44,000 in cash bribes to protect the shipment of 47 kilograms of cocaine; sought to become a Mexican citizen to launder underworld drug sales; and helped traffic what he believed to be 8 kilograms of fentanyl, a series of corrupt acts that paid him up to $88,000.
This morning two Columbus Division of Police officers, John Kotchkoski and Marco Merino, were charged with crimes related to distributing fentanyl.
I am flat out angry. The allegations are disturbing and represent a complete breach of trust.
— Mayor Andrew Ginther (@MayorGinther) September 29, 2021
Agents say Merino found a willing accomplice in Kotchkoski, who they claim tried to help his fellow cop traffic fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate, to West Virginia.
Because both men remain behind bars pending upcoming hearings, Coffee or Die Magazine couldn’t get their side of the story. No criminal defense attorney representing Kotchkoski is listed in the Southern District of Ohio court filings, and messages seeking comment with Merino’s lawyers in Columbus went unanswered.
“It undermines our efforts to rebuild community-police relations at a time when we need to come together to make our neighborhoods safer. The selfish actions of these officers jeopardized the safety of their fellow officers and the community. We will hold these officers accountable, check the abuse of power and remain steadfast in our work to reform policing in Columbus.”
Merino’s downfall was linked to a man known in court documents only as “Cooperating Human Source #1,” a drug dealer who agreed to work for the Columbus anti-cartel squad in exchange for a reduced sentence.
In his affidavit of probable cause triggering Merino’s Sept. 28 arrest, FBI Special Agent Richard W. Steudel wrote that the confidential informant told the Columbus cop he could buy a half-kilo of cocaine for $23,500, but Merino inexplicably said he couldn’t use official city funds for the transaction.
Instead, Merino in January greenlighted a plan for the dealer to use his own cash to buy the narcotics, and then sell the drug to reimburse himself and turn a profit, according to the FBI agent. When the informant said he didn’t want to sell cocaine because it could jeopardize his sentencing hearing, Merino told him the Columbus cop already “had three women who could sell the cocaine for him,” the affidavit stated.
They met again on Jan. 27, but this time the FBI allegedly made sure their conversation in Spanish was recorded. According to federal investigators, Merino said he’d only been able to vend a quarter-kilo of the cocaine. The cop handed the informant a bag stuffed with $10,400 and 800 Mexican pesos and ordered him to sell the rest of the cocaine.
In another meeting that allegedly occurred on Jan. 27, Merino asked if the informant was wearing a wire and patted him down for a recording device.
But FBI agents allegedly found another way to tape the conversation, which described a new plot by Merino to use the informant to buy more cocaine from his supplier. Merino’s plan was to bust the dealer, skim a portion of the drugs off to fork over as evidence in the case, and then give the rest to the informant to sell, according to the indictment.
Statement from Chief Bryant regarding arrests of two Columbus Police Officers. pic.twitter.com/UTjKS9qZgF
— Columbus Ohio Police (@ColumbusPolice) September 29, 2021
By March 22, Merino was pledging to protect cocaine shipments by waving off law enforcement if they tried to pull couriers over, charging a fee between $1,000 to $2,000 per kilogram of the drug for his services, the affidavit states.
The next day, the informant gave him $4,000, Steudel wrote.
On April 5, the men allegedly met again, this time to hammer out a permanent agreement that called for Merino ensuring the informant didn’t draw a prison sentence. In exchange, the informant would keep selling narcotics for the cop, the FBI claimed.
Merino planned to launder their proceeds by converting cash into Mexican AirBnB rental properties, an idea he got from classes offered by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, according to the filing. Merino then allegedly celebrated by ingesting “cocaine several times,” Steudel wrote. American Airlines records showed that Merino visited Mexico three months later, according to the affidavit.
On April 14, the informant allegedly told Merino during a telephone call that he’d bought 4 kilograms of cocaine and needed the cop to safeguard another shipment. He paid Merino $8,000 the next day for his help, the FBI claimed. But the FBI said no drugs were ever shipped. It was a fabricated sale, a sting they repeated on May 12 when the informant allegedly gave Merino another $2,000 for escort duties.
On June 11, an undercover FBI agent posed as the informant’s boss in the drug ring, Steudel wrote. Merino allegedly told him he not only would protect narcotics shipments across Columbus and outside Ohio, but would use law enforcement databases to keep him informed about potential police probes.
Twelve days later, Merino allegedly gave the informant a fentanyl sample that weighed 31.1 grams. The cop asked him to see if his gang would like to sell a drug so powerful it “put a woman in the hospital,” according to Steudel.
On Aug. 5, Merino delivered to the informant another 1,101.4 grams of fentanyl, which netted him $32,500 nine days later, according to FBI. And on Aug. 13, the undercover FBI agent allegedly reappeared, this time to offer $15,000 to Merino to escort a drug shipment of 20 kilos of cocaine from Dayton, Ohio, to Wheeling, West Virginia, according to the indictment. But the drug dealer waiting in West Virginia also was another FBI undercover agent.
That second FBI undercover agent and Merino allegedly met again on Aug. 28 near Wheeling to broker the sale of 8 kilograms of fentanyl the cop was holding, Steudel wrote.
During an Aug. 31 telephone conversation between the two men allegedly recorded by the FBI, the undercover agent accidentally identified the drug as cocaine, but Merino interjected to say, “No, no, that’s fetty,” for fentanyl.
“Yeah,” the undercover agent allegedly replied. “Oh yeah, dude.”
#BREAKING: Two Columbus Police officers with the narcotics unit were arrested and charged with crimes related to distributing nearly eight kilograms of fentanyl, the US Attorney's Office announced. https://t.co/oqSOijIcdt pic.twitter.com/8MPZnqoHrJ
— WSYX ABC 6 (@wsyx6) September 29, 2021
That prompted a laughing Merino to warn him to “be careful” because if someone cut the package open thinking it was cocaine, “they’ll fucking drop right there” from ingesting the synthetic opiate, according to the indictment.
On Sept. 2, Merino met with an undercover agent again to initiate a shipment of cocaine from Ohio to West Virginia, Steudel wrote. This time, however, Merino wanted $10,000 for himself and $5,000 to be divided between two associates — a woman who would scout ahead for police during the journey, and a fellow cop “available via radio to intervene with law enforcement along the route,” according to court records.
FBI accuses Kotchkoski of being the other dirty cop.
Agents had been tracking him since Aug. 5, when electronic cell phone intercepts put him near Merino during a meeting with the confidential informant, according to an affidavit of probable cause filed by FBI Special Agent Kevin D. Cooper.
Cell phone records from Aug. 13 also showed Kotchkoski driving away from his residence in Marengo, Ohio, and heading toward Interstate 71 to Columbus, where a cocaine shipment to West Virginia was supposed to pass, Cooper wrote. Kotchkoski seemed to be shadowing the route while Merino escorted the drugs, according to the FBI.
When the Sept. 2 delivery kicked off, Merino allegedly told an undercover FBI agent that his law enforcement partner on the trip was a fellow drug unit member who had filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint alongside Merino, the affidavit indicated. The FBI said that Merino and Kotchkoski had submitted an EEO complaint together.
On Sept. 28, an unnamed cooperating witness met with FBI agents to identify Kotchkoski through a photograph. The witness claimed to have worked as a confidential informant for the cop before starting to sell 40 kilos of cocaine on the cop’s behalf, according to the court filing.
The same day, FBI agents arrested Merino, who voluntarily ratted out Kotchkoski, according to the indictment.
Merino allegedly agreed to make a call to Kotchkoski on behalf of the FBI. Merino told his fellow cop a drug dealer was having trouble selling the 8 kilos of fentanyl they delivered and wanted to return the unsold portion.
But Kotchkoski “became irritated and told Merino words to the effect of, ‘It doesn’t work that way because we don’t know what they did to the merchandise,” according to the indictment.
It was during his interview with the FBI that Merino allegedly snitched on Kotchkoski’s threat to have sicarios murder his family if he ever talked about their nefarious activities.
A conviction for dealing more than 400 grams of fentanyl carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. Merino’s bribery charge could tack on another 10 years behind bars. No future hearing is listed for Kotchkoski, who remains lodged in the Delaware County Jail. Merino faces an Oct. 12 preliminary hearing before federal magistrate Elizabeth Preston Deavers in Columbus.
Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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