More than $10.5 million worth of cocaine uncovered in Monroeville
Thirty air fresheners and a Texas license plate were what tipped off local investigators at the Days Inn on Mosside Boulevard last week, and what led to a $10.5 million cocaine bust in neighboring Penn Hills.
“It wasn't by chance,” Monroeville police Chief Steve Pascarella said. “With their training, they know what to look for.”
In this case, it was the license plate of a “source state” such as Texas — known as a starting point in the U.S. for drug traffickers — and a vehicle filled with air fresheners, in an attempt to throw police dogs off the scent of the cocaine, Pascarella said.
It was by chance, though, that the educated hunch led to a bust this size, he said.
“It's crazy uncommon,” Pascarella said. “The fact they happened to stumble upon a major cocaine source in the Pittsburgh area.”
Officers were searching vehicles connected to the case even as District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala announced the arrests of Faustino Hernandez Rodriguez, 36, a Mexican national; Leland Cobbs, 42, of Homewood; and William Wilson, 42, of Penn Hills.
Police recovered 17 kilograms of cocaine in the arrests of the men April 23, and the total grew to 21 kilos as they executed search warrants the next day, said Mike Manko, spokesman for the DA's office.
“These guys are big,” Zappala said. “This is a big deal.”
Pascarella said he asked Zappala for additional manpower from the DA drug task force, to help with an increasing amount of reported drug activity at local restaurants and hotels.
The task force includes officers from Forest Hills, Penn Hills, Churchill and Swissvale, Pascarella said.
The focus of the investigation actually was heroin, which local medical officials say is now more potent and cheaper than they can ever recall.
“The cocaine was an accident. It wasn't what they were looking for,” Pascarella said. “That was on its way through (Monroeville), heading for the city.”
Pascarella said mid- to low-level heroin dealers is the issue most affecting the Monroeville business district.
He said he plans to seek the aid of neighboring agencies in addition to the eyes and ears of local business leaders.
“We're going to ask for the cooperation of the businesses, because the vast majority of this narcotics trafficking in Monroeville is happening in the business community,” he said. “This is not a residential issue.”
The DA's drug task force officers set up surveillance at the Days Inn hotel, one site where Pascarella suspected illegal activity.
The officers saw a Honda Crosstour with Texas license plates in the parking lot and followed it to a home on Pinewood Square in Penn Hills, according to court records.
Officers watched a man, later identified as Cobbs, after he left the home and began driving erratically.
A search of his vehicle turned up a bag with 13 kilos of cocaine.
Police arrested Rodriguez after he left the house in the Honda, which had about $500,000 hidden in a secret compartment, Zappala said.
The man told officers his name was David Chavez Carbajal.
Immigration officials later determined he was Rodriguez, who is wanted by police in several areas, including Texas, Zappala said.
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents are investigating where the drugs originated and whether Rodriguez has ties to a Mexican drug cartel, Special Agent Gary Davis said.
At Wilson's Pinewood Square home, police found two guns — one of which was reported stolen out of Moon — 4 kilos of cocaine and other drugs and more than $100,000 in cash, police said. Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton said police had not received any prior calls or complaints about the home, which Zappala described as “nondescript.”
“It's like a safehouse,” Zappala said. “You're going to suburban Allegheny County because no one is going to follow up.”
Zappala said last week that it was the largest amount of cocaine he's seen recovered during his 15 years in office.
However, while Penn Hills police are happy to see a sizable drug house busted, they are not expecting it to slow down the local drug economy.
“There's always other organizations,” Penn Hills Sgt. Mike Hudek said.
“They're like a pyramid with distributors at the top, dealers and other people on the way down. And there's probably a hundred of those pyramids in Allegheny County.”
Hudek said the arrests are significant with respect to this particular group, “but we know of five other cocaine organizations that aren't associated with this (group) at all.”
Both Hudek and Burton said they expect another group will be more than willing to step in with additional supply.
“It's economic,” Burton said.
“If someone's big enough and they have access to (those drugs), they're not forcibly taking over someone's territory, but they're saying, ‘We have this product; we can fill that supply.'”
And while the bust is a big win for local law enforcement, Burton viewed it as one battle victory in a much-larger war.
“(Drug trafficking is) a business,” he said.
“We have to face it: It's a multimillion-dollar business.”
Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Margaret Harding and Patrick Varine contributed to this report.