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Operation N.C. Gateway stings Brunswick's former sheriff in early 80s

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By Caroline Curran, Reporter

Ronald Hewett’s suspension as Brunswick County Sheriff is not a first for Brunswick County.

More than 20 years ago, former Brunswick County Sheriff Herman Strong was ousted, opening the door for an eager young law enforcement officer named Ronald Hewett.

In July 1983, the walls surrounding a drug-smuggling operation in Brunswick County came crumbling down as more than a dozen people were convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in the smuggling operation.

The federal investigation, known as Operation N.C. Gateway, spanned more than two years and ended with convictions of such high profile defendants as former sheriff Strong and former Shallotte Police Chief Hoyal Varnum Jr.

After Strong’s conviction, U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt required Strong to resign his post as sheriff and sentenced him to 14 years active time in a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

After Strong’s resignation in 1983, former chief deputy John Carr Davis was sworn in as sheriff.

Davis said when he took over Brunswick County citizens had no faith in the shattered sheriff’s office. Davis said he and his deputies worked tirelessly to restore people’s faith.

Davis retired in 1994—the year Hewett was first elected Brunswick County Sheriff.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Strong was released June 17, 1987, after serving less than four years of his 14-year sentence.

Varnum was sentenced to three years in prison and he was released Aug. 27, 1985, after serving two years.

Strong was found guilty of the following charges:

• Conspiring with others to import 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of marijuana into Bear Pen Airfield in an Aerocommander aircraft: five years.

• Bringing 15,000 to 16,000 pounds of marijuana into Bear Pen Airfield on a DC-6 aircraft: five years (consecutive to the five years).

• Conspiring with others to bring 12,000 pounds of marijuana into Brunswick County on the shrimp boat, Miss Mickey: four years (consecutive to the five years).

These three sentences gave Strong 14 years active prison time. Strong was also convicted of:

• Assisting others to possess 1,000 to 1,400 pounds of marijuana aboard the shrimp boat Capt. Tom, then adrift off Holden Beach: four years (concurrent to other sentences).

• Conspiring to smuggle 3,300 pounds of marijuana and 516,000 units of methoqualone into Long Beach on a Lockheed Lodestar aircraft: four years (concurrent to other sentences).