COLUMBUS, Ohio — The criminal complaint filed against two Columbus police officers reads like a Hollywood script – two police officers, tasked with removing drugs from the street, are accused of dealing them and accepting bribes in exchange for promising the safe passage of illicit drugs through Ohio.
But the FBI alleges this isn’t fiction – it’s a reality for Columbus police officers John Kotchkoski and Marco R. Merino, who were arrested Tuesday night and now face federal bribery and drug charges.
Through a combination of cell phone data, confidential sources, undercover FBI agents and recorded conversations, the FBI alleges in its criminal complaint that Merino and Kotchkoski were involved in an illegal drug trafficking operation that involved the two selling drugs like fentanyl and cocaine and promising an unnamed person (who was working as a cooperating witness with the FBI) that they could use their law enforcement databases to provide safe cover for the person to traffic drugs from Dayton to West Virginia.
The two officers ended being netted in an FBI sting after agreeing to transport drugs from Dayton to West Virginia. The feds say “the transportation of cocaine was a fabrication as part of the law enforcement operation.”
But court records show the two officers agreed to provide safe harbor for what they thought would be the transportation of drugs.
The criminal complaint alleges that Merino met with the person – who turned out to be FBI’s cooperating witness – in August 2020.
During that meeting, federal investigators allege that Merino gave the confidential informant cocaine and fentanyl and that Merino repeatedly accepted “thousands of dollars in exchange for protection and safe transport…”
Between August 2020 and September 2021, several meetings took place between Merino, the confidential informant, and in some cases, undercover FBI agents.
During those meetings – some of which took place in Dayton and Wheeling, West Virginia, the feds allege that Merino accepted cash, asked a confidential informant to sell drugs for him and told an undercover FBI agent that he was “law enforcement” and would be able to assist “in trafficking narcotics in and through Columbus.”
Merino further explained, the feds allege, that he would use law enforcement databases to stay informed on if law enforcement were going to interfere with a drug transaction and would be able to distract and dissuade other law enforcement agencies from interfering or investigating activities he was aware of or involved with.
During some of these meetings during the summer of 2021, the FBI alleges that Merino accepted payments in exchange for providing safe transport.
During one of these transports on Aug. 13, cell phone data showed that Merino and Kotchkoski were near the same vicinity on Interstate 70. Cell phone location data also placed the two officers near each other on Aug. 28, and they were spotted by FBI undercover agents meeting near E. Main Street and 3Rd Street.
The criminal complaint alleges that the cooperating witness for the FBI once worked as a confidential informant for Kotchkoski but that his law enforcement duties morphed into “illegal drug trafficking.”
Upon being questioned, Merino confessed his role to the FBI – telling them that he and Kotchkoski had discussed the drug trafficking relationship Merino had with two people – who turned out to be undercover FBI agents.
Merino said that Kotchkoski had known that Merino was unlawfully protecting the transport of cocaine and had agreed to assist, according to the criminal complaint.
As he explained it, Kotchkoski made himself available by radio to make calls that Merino might need, “including to other law enforcement officials in order to protect the safe transportation of cocaine.” Merino told the FBI he paid Kotchkoski half of the money he received when he provided protection to transports from Dayton to West Virginia.
On Tuesday, Merino placed a call to Kotchkoski with the FBI’s knowledge of the call. Merino told Kotchkoski that he couldn’t sell all the fentanyl and offered to return the unsold portion. According to the court records, Kotchkoski became irritated and told Merino “it doesn’t work that way” and alleged that Kotchkoski said that if Merino ever spoke about any illegal act between him and Merino that he would have Merino’s wife and children killed by “sicarios” – or Mexican hitmen.
The FBI also alleges that Merino had planned to develop a drug enterprise with the cooperating witness and that he planned to gain Mexican citizenship and buy up real estate as a cover to launder money from drug activity, telling the cooperating witness that “no one would know for a long time and that they would live in peace.”
Kotchkoski was being held in the Delaware County Jail. He’s expected to have an initial appearance Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Columbus at 1:30 p.m. An initial appearance for Merino was expected later.
Columbus Police Chief Elaine Bryant was not made available for an interview, which was requested by 10 Investigates.
Instead, her office released this statement:
“These allegations are beyond disturbing. If proven, such actions would violate the oath our officers take, the standards we must hold ourselves to, and the trust of the public.
These officers have been relieved of duty pending the outcome of their criminal cases. We have, and will continue to, work cooperatively with federal authorities.
Because this is an ongoing investigation, I cannot comment further on these cases.
This alleged conduct does not reflect the values of this division, or the excellent work being done by its employees.
I will say it again: when my officers do what’s right, I will always have their back. When they don’t, they will be held accountable.”
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther released this statement:
“I am flat out angry. The allegations are disturbing and represent a complete breach of trust. 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.”