How an FBI sting led to arrests of two Columbus cops for drug trafficking: a timeline
On Sept. 28, two Columbus police narcotics detectives were arrested by the FBI. The officers, 33-year-old John Kotchkoski and 44-year-old Marco Merino, face federal charges accusing them of trafficking cocaine and fentanyl in the Columbus area, as well as providing protection and support for the transportations of dozens of kilograms of cocaine.
Kotchkoski and Merino both remain in federal custody and have been placed on paid leave by Columbus police. Here's what we know of the allegations from documents filed in United States District Court about the investigation into the two officers.
2020: The confidential informant is introduced to Merino after being charged with multiple drug offenses in Franklin County. The informant told Merino he was hoping to provide information to help potentially reduce his sentence.
Jan. 18: The informant buys a half-kilogram of cocaine from an unspecified third-party and told Merino, who said police could not provide him with funds for a controlled buy. Merino suggested the informant use other money, which is against normal procedure.
Jan. 19: The informant and Merino meet in a vehicle driven by Merino, who tells the informant to sell the cocaine so he could be reimbursed and potentially make a profit. The informant says he doesn't want to sell the cocaine. Merino takes it from him, placing it in the backseat area of his vehicle. Following this conversation, the informant reaches out to the FBI to work for them.
Jan. 27: In a recorded meeting between the informant and Merino, Merino said he only sold a quarter-kilogram of cocaine and provided the remaining 284 grams of cocaine, along with $10,400 in U.S. money and 800 Mexican pesos to the informant.
During this meeting, Merino asked if the informant was wearing a wire and patted the informant's chest area, telling the informant to purchase more cocaine with the money he had provided.
March 22: The informant, at the direction of the FBI, asks Merino to provide support if the informant was pulled over by police while he said he was transporting cocaine. Merino agrees via text message.
March 23: The informant gives Merino $4,000 for providing the protection for the movement of the cocaine, as well as asking Merino to provide additional protection for another transport.
April 5: Merino tells the informant he intends to get Mexican citizenship and to purchase properties in Mexico to use as rentals as a way to launder the proceeds of his drug trafficking. He says he learned about this in DEA training. He also says during a meeting that he hopes the informant does not get prison time in his pending case so they "could traffic drugs together" and work as partners.
During this same meeting, Merino also says he has put an alert into a law enforcement system that would tell him if the FBI or DEA were investigating the informant. Merino said he would get that investigation halted because the informant was working for Merino as an informant.
April 14: The informant tells Merino he purchased four kilograms of cocaine, which was a lie the FBI asked the informant to tell Merino. The informant asks Merino to help with the transport by providing security, for which Merino would be paid. Merino agreed and was paid $8,000 the next day.
May 11: Merino is asked by the informant to have his phone handy in case a woman transporting cocaine was pulled over and needed Merino's assistance. This transport was also made up by the FBI. Merino was paid $2,000 the next day by the informant.
Undercover agent helps apprehend Merino
June 11: Merino met the informant and an undercover FBI agent posing as a high-ranking member of a drug trafficking ring. Merino told the undercover agent he was a police officer and was able to help the drug ring traffic drugs through the Columbus area, as well as use law enforcement databases and other security measures to protect transports of drugs. Merino also offered to "intervene in the event that the cocaine (was) intercepted by law enforcement."
Around this same time, the informant received a sentence of probation with no jail or prison time for his pending drug charges in Franklin County.
June 23: Merino brings more than 30 grams of fentanyl to a meeting with the informant, which Merino called a "sample" to see if the informant's buyers would be willing to purchase a larger quantity. The following day, Merino told the informant the fentanyl had put a woman in the hospital.
July 8: Merino travels to Mexico and spends eight days there.
Aug. 5: Merino gives the informant more than a kilogram of fentanyl. The meeting was audio and video recorded. Kotchkoski's cellphone is located by investigators to be in the same vicinity of the meeting at the time the meeting is taking place.
Aug. 9: The informant gives Merino $32,500 for the fentanyl that was provided four days earlier.
Aug. 13: Merino meets with the undercover FBI agent, who told Merino he needed to protect a shipment of 20 kilograms of cocaine that was going from Dayton to West Virginia. The shipment didn't exist and was fabricated by the FBI.
Merino followed a vehicle that he believed was carrying the cocaine from Dayton to West Virginia and was given $15,000 for his efforts. Merino was carrying a concealed firearm at the time.
Kotchkoski and Merino's cellphones are pinged in the same area after the meeting and the two share multiple cellphone calls. The cellphones ping in close proximity later that day and it is believed the two met.
Aug. 28: Merino meets another undercover FBI agent in West Virginia and asked the agent if he could help sell what agents believed to be four kilograms of a narcotic. Merino gave the informant a package containing more than seven and a half kilograms of fentanyl.
Merino and Kotchkoski met about an hour after the meeting in Columbus in the area of East Main Street between Third and Fourth streets, Downtown, according to their cellphone records. The pair were together for about 90 minutes before Kotchkoski left in a Columbus police undercover vehicle.
Aug. 31: Merino confirms the drugs he provided to the undercover FBI agent on Aug. 28 was fentanyl, joking that if someone had opened the package unexpectedly it could have killed them.
Sept. 2: Merino met with the second undercover agent and was paid $15,000 for what Merino believed was protection of another shipment of cocaine going between Dayton and West Virginia. Kotchkoski's cellphone is pinged as being at Merino's house for several hours that evening.
Arrests of Marco Merino, John Kotchkoski
Sept. 28: Merino is arrested and provides a statement to the FBI about his involvement. Merino said he and Kotchkoski were both involved and that they had discussed their activities with each other. Merino tells agents he had paid Kotchkoski half of the money he got for the transport protection because Kotchkoski had been available on the radio in case problems arose.
Kotchkoski was identified by a cooperating witness as someone who had previously been an informant for the narcotics officer, and the relationship had turned into one where the witness was trafficking drugs. The witness said Kotchkoski used a "Mickey Mouse marking" on kilograms of cocaine when he provided them to the witness, the same marking that was found on at least four of the 7.5 kilograms Merino provided to the informant.
Merino told FBI agents that Kotchkoski had given him the 7.5 kilograms of fentanyl for sale and Merino was to receive between $60,000 and $80,000 for his role.
During a recorded phone call, Merino said Kotchkoski had threatened to have Merino's wife and children killed by "sicarios," a Spanish word for hitmen, if Merino spoke about the pair's activities.
Kotchkoski is arrested. Merino makes his initial appearance in federal court in Columbus virtually from jail, and is ordered held in custody pending a detention hearing Thursday.
Sept. 29: Both Kotchkoski and Merino are relieved of duty by the Columbus Division of Police, essentially paid suspension, as a result of their arrests. Kotchkoski makes his initial appearance virtually in federal court and is ordered held pending a detention hearing Oct. 1.