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A nearly two-year drug investigation in coastal Georgia and Beaufort County led police to intercept $2.7 million worth of cocaine being smuggled along a highway and resulted in charges against 39 suspects, authorities said Monday.
"It's a pretty good lick for this neck of the woods," said Everette Ragan, director of the Counter Narcotics Team that handles drug cases for Savannah and other police agencies in surrounding Chatham County.
Chatham County police worked with the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration on a 20-month investigation that targeted three groups of drug dealers selling cocaine and marijuana in Savannah.
Police said some of the dealers were operating from South Carolina, while others were based in smaller communities outside Savannah and were going into the city to sell drugs.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the joint investigation showed that "most of our people here were users" being supplied with drugs from neighboring counties. None of the defendants are from Beaufort County.
"We were seeing a direct result of the influx of cocaine in Beaufort County," Tanner said. "Criminals don't care -- jurisdictions to them mean nothing. So it's important we have working relationships with the Counter Narcotics Team and agencies from other counties that are close."
After months of surveillance stakeouts and undercover drug buys, police said, investigators learned of plans to haul a big shipment of cocaine to Savannah along Interstate 16.
On July 3, authorities intercepted an SUV traveling the interstate in Laurens County, 100 miles west of Savannah. The driver fled an attempted traffic stop and led police on a 10-mile chase before officers punctured the SUV's tires and forced it to stop. Inside the vehicle they found more than 50 pounds of cocaine with an estimated street value of $2.7 million.
"It's amazing what you don't realize is running up and down your I-16 corridor," said Laurens County Sheriff Bill Harrell, who dedicated more than a dozen deputies to assist with the arrest.
Ernest Antonio Edwards and Grilly Holloway were arrested after the chase. Both have been indicted on felony charges of conspiring to violate Georgia drug laws.
Holloway's attorney, Tom Withers, declined to comment Monday. Edwards' lawyer, Richard Darden, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Police said the big cocaine bust from July snowballed over the following months into dozens of search and arrest warrants from South Carolina to Atlanta to Brunswick, a coastal city 60 miles south of Savannah.
Police ended up charging 39 suspects, mostly on drug conspiracy charges, though a few have managed to elude authorities. Police said they also seized a total of $312,769 in cash, 11 pounds of marijuana worth an estimated $48,832 and 10 firearms that were taken from convicted felons.
Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette staff writer Allison Stice contributed to this report.