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2 arrested in East Deer drug bust

| Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 12:25 p.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Heavily-armed members of the state Attorney General's Drug Task Force special operations group enter a house on Marion Street in East Deer to serve a warrant for drug sales on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Drug suspect Charlotte Howell is arrested by East Deer Police Chief John Manchini on drug charges at a house on Marion Street in East Deer on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Drug suspect Christopher Walck is arrested by Frazer Police Chief Terry Kuhns, left, and East Deer Police Chief John Manchini on drug charges at a house on Marion Street in East Deer on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Heavily-armed members of the state Attorney General's Drug Task Force special operations group approach a house on Marion Street in East Deer to serve a warrant for drug sales on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Smoke rises from a distraction explosive as members of the state Attorney General's Drug Task Force special operations group and local police raid a house on Marion Street in East Deer to serve a warrant for drug sales on Tuesday, July 15, 2014.

The arrest of two people on Tuesday for drug charges brought smiles to people in their East Deer neighborhood and demonstrated an attempt by police to make arrests faster.

Charlotte A. Howell, 43, and Christopher Walck, 21, were arrested in their residence at 443 Marion St.

They are accused of a drug sales conspiracy. District Judge Carolyn Bengel ordered both sent to the Allegheny County Jail in lieu of bond pending a July 23 preliminary hearing.

The bust wasn't worth much. Howell is accused of selling about 30 Vicodin and Percocet pills. They are prescription painkillers that sell on the street for about $10 a pop.

What made the bust noteworthy was the investigational strategy behind it.

Their arrests occurred during a house raid just before 6:30 a.m. by police from East Deer, Cheswick, Frazer and Springdale and agents from the state Attorney General's Drug Task Force.

The task force's new “quick hitter” strategy is to monitor two illegal drug buys and then obtain a search warrant for the residence where the sales took place. That sometimes leads to further charges, including those involving illegal guns.

The usual investigative strategy would be to monitor suspected drug activity for a sustained period and make several undercover drug buys before conducting a raid. That often takes months.

The quick hitter approach is designed to make arrests faster, said Dave Ellis, regional director for the state Attorney General's drug agents.

It can have a ripple effect with neighbors more willing to call police when they see something suspicious.

Local police are energized and push for more arrests, too, he said.

“And sometimes, the people we arrest ... become informants and lead to significant busts.”

On June 8, federal and state drug agents used the quick hitter tactic to arrest two Mount Washington suspects. They confiscated more than 75,000 heroin packets, about $100,000 in cash, stolen jewelry and a gun.

Ellis said local police chiefs are expressing interest in the expedited approach.

Bust follows complaints

About a month ago, about 40 residents complained to the East Deer commissioners about drug sales along Marion Street.

So the task force made the buys within the past three weeks. On Monday, Bengel signed a search warrant requested by East Deer Chief John Manchini.

The warrant was served on a clear summer morning at the house a block away from busy Freeport Road. At least eight officers, nearly all in SWAT-team style gear, two carrying rifles and the lead man carrying a shield, swarmed the front yard.

A flash bang device, which flashes a bright light when it explodes, awoke the neighborhood about 6:35 a.m. The raid team was inside the small house in less than a minute. Two pit bulls watched the action outside from a second-story window.

While the two suspects were being arrested, other officers searched the 2½-story, white frame house with grey trim. Two neighbors said they have watched dozens of people drive up to the suspects' house and leave after five or six minutes at all times of the day and night.

A neighbor worries about the impact on her children. She was afraid to give her name, but she stopped twice Tuesday morning to thank the police.

A neighbor said a stran-ger came to her house and discovered he was at the wrong address.

“He left and parked at that house,” she said. “He didn't seem that he was all quite there. You know what I mean?”

Officials, police laud efforts

East Deer Commissioners President Tony Taliani watched the arrests and praised police.“The task force and our officers are doing a great,” he said. “We don't want (illegal) drugs in our community.”

Frazer police Chief Terry Kuhns said the task force is a framework that helps local police maintain a daily exchange information about suspects.

“Especially with prescription drugs and heroin, we pretty much know who is selling,” Kuhns said. “These arrests will be continuing, and these individuals need to know that they will be selling drugs at their own peril.”

It was Manchini's turn to smile.

“Marion Street is a nice, quiet neighborhood,” he said. “We're paid to keep it that way.

“And, one way or another, we will.”

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com.

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