A former postal worker, a former probation officer and five other people also were indicted by federal prosecutors. The charges included racketeering conspiracy, weapons charges, narcotics distribution, obstruction of justice and perjury.
H. Franklin Cassell — the sheriff of Henry County, a former textile hub situated about 50 miles from Roanoke — was quoted by investigators as saying the only way to acquire wealth is to be "a little crooked and not get caught."
Cassell owns large tracts of land and a trucking company and has reported more than $20,000 in dividends yearly, the government said.
Prosecutors said that for the past eight years, cocaine, steroids, marijuana and other drugs that had been seized by the sheriff's department were resold to the public. A sergeant who agreed to cooperate with investigators was paid off by the ring to use his house for distributing drugs, authorities said.
"It is disgraceful corruption," U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said.
The case was built on the work of sheriff's deputy James Alden Vaught. The government alleges Vaught used a home he owns in Martinsville as a "drug drop," reports CBS affiliate WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.
Cassell was charged with impeding the investigation by the FBI and federal drug enforcement agents and with money laundering. He was in custody Thursday and awaited a bail hearing in the afternoon.
Fourteen others also were in custody, and police had been in contact with the rest of those indicted except for one defendant who was at large, Brownlee said.
The sheriff's department has 96 officers. State police and officers from the Henry County city of Martinsville are helping to run the department in the meantime.
Cassell has been sheriff since 1992 in the county of about 58,000 residents along the North Carolina line.
The region used to be a center of the furniture and textile industries. But Henry County suffered about 10,000 layoffs in the 1990s as the factories closed. Its unemployment rate reached double-digits during the early part of this decade.
The area is now best known for the Martinsville Speedway, where NASCAR races are run twice a year.
A few years ago, former county administrator Sid Clower went to prison for embezzling more than $818,000 between 1993 and 2002 as the county sank into economic despair. He used the money for gifts and trips and to support an out-of-wedlock child.