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Zanesville billboard claims Columbus criminals cause crime there. Data isn't supporting claim

A billboard in Zanesville Ohio reads "Columbus Criminals! TURN BACK NOW. Prison awaits you in Muskingum County. ZERO TOLERANCE for drugs, theft and violence."
George Shillcock
A billboard in Zanesville attempts to scare away "Columbus criminals" under threat of harsh punishment. A look at Zanesville prison registry shows crime is more home-grown in Muskingum County.

When you drive east into Muskingum County on Interstate 70, there’s a large billboard perched on a hill above some farmland. It reads “Columbus Criminals. Turn Back Now. Prison awaits you in Muskingum County. Zero Tolerance for drugs, theft and violence.”

There's a second electric billboard that can be seen from I-70 in the middle of Zanesville and it flashes the same message in between other advertisements. It’s a large, black, yellow and red warning and has been up for about a month.

These billboards sparked debate over how much crime from Ohio’s biggest city leaks into its neighboring communities. So much so that the Muskingum County Sheriff chimed in to give his opinion on the matter.

WOSU reached out to the company that owns the billboard asking who put up the message, but did not hear back.

The Zanesville Times Recorder interviewed Muskingum County Sheriff Matthew Lutz about the billboard. Lutz told the newspaper he wasn’t surprised at the sentiment. He said “Columbus drug dealers come here and sell all the time.”

Lutz told WOSU and the newspaper he didn’t pay to put the billboard up himself. He also restated that claim about drug dealers.

“We’ve always had issues with either folks going to Columbus to get drugs and bringing them back, or dealers coming down to Zanesville and selling and making contacts and having people here sell their drugs," Lutz said.

Muskingum County's own jail data doesn’t back up that claim.

Right now, there are 20 people in the Muskingum County jail for drug trafficking. Just three are from Franklin County. The rest are mostly from Muskingum County and one is from up north in Coshocton.

The jail now holds 176 people for all crimes. Only eight are from Columbus.

After being told this, Lutz acknowledged that most of the people commiting the county's crime are from Muskingum County. Lutz said that the billboard is inaccurate for insinuating that Columbus is the main problem.

“We would not be crime free if we didn't have Columbus people coming down committing crimes. That's not true. That's not what I want anybody to think from that billboard. I mean, we have enough issues that we would rather just deal with our own stuff, than having others come in here and cause even further problems," Lutz said.

But, Lutz made another claim. He said if you look at counties that border Columbus, you’d see a lot of people from Columbus in jail for drug trafficking.

Again, the data from this month’s jail registry didn’t back up that claim.

So far in May, there were 32 people in jail for drug trafficking in six county lockups neighboring Columbus. Only four people were from Columbus. WOSU was able to search through the jails for Madison, Union, Delaware, Pickaway, Licking and Champaign counties, but was not able to get sufficient data from Fairfield County.

Columbus is not a crime free place either, especially when it comes to drug trafficking.

Licking County Sheriff's Captain Kristopher Kimble is the commander of the Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Task Force. That task force includes Muskingum County and six other counties in the region.

Kimble said crime, drug trafficking in particular, in central Ohio is much more complex than the billboard would have people believe.

“Even though we had the seven counties, Newark is our usual problem area. We do, however, come in contact with folks outside of our jurisdiction whether it be from Columbus again, Cincinnati, Akron, Cleveland. It's basically sporadic." Kimble said.

Kimble said trafficking is evolving in Ohio. More fentanyl is being seized. The game is also changing with marijuana legalization in Ohio.

Kimble said a lot of K-9 dogs trained to smell weed may be out of a job soon.

One big change, Kimble said, is they’ve not found a meth lab in Licking County for almost a decade, because it's cheaper for people to transport meth from across the U.S. southern border to Ohio.

Lutz and Kimble both say the real source of the drug problem isn’t Columbus, but drugs coming in internationally through the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

“ I can tell you this, the border situation right now is an absolute nightmare," Kimble said.

Anthony Pierson is the Deputy Chief Legal Counsel for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. Pierson doubts the billboard will deter any crime.

“I don't think the criminals that I come into contact with and the defendants that I come into contact with are much for reading billboards. They know what they're doing is illegal, and I don't think a billboard is really going to deter them," Pierson said.

Pierson said crime doesn’t recognize county borders. Pierson said Franklin County prosecutes people from around the state and country for drug trafficking.

“There’s enough drugs to go around for everybody. And again, I think it would be misplaced to blame that on one particular area," Pierson said.

Pierson said Franklin County is a relatively safe space compared to cities of similar size. He pointed to the declining number of homicides Columbus has seen this year so far.

WOSU reached out to Columbus police for comment about this story, but did not receive a response.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.