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Dealer arrests by Monroeville officers help crack heroin ring

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Street-level drug arrests by Monroeville police officers in recent months helped generate a federal case that came to fruition last week, Monroeville Police Chief Doug Cole said.

Ten Monroeville officers assigned to patrol, traffic, investigative and administrative divisions helped gain intelligence through street level drug arrests, beginning in December, Cole said.

“The (arrests) provided us with information that generated this larger case,” he said.

More than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officers fanned out in Western Pennsylvania May 29 to arrest many of the 44 people charged with participating in a heroin ring that performed drug deals regularly in the Monroeville business district, according to local and federal law enforcement.

About a dozen suspects remained at large Tuesday morning, Cole said.

If the remaining suspects do not turn themselves in to authorities, they would be deemed fugitives and subject to a manhunt by U.S. Marshals, he said.

Authorities seized about $500,000 in cash, and large quantities of drugs and guns, U.S. Attorney David Hickton said.

One search warrant was conducted in Monroeville at the Northern Pike Apartments.

Wearing T-shirts with the slogan “a hundred bricks at a time,” members of the Wilkinsburg-based “Bricks R Us” drug ring openly sold heroin across the region, federal officials said.

They said dealers sometimes used junior high school students to sell the drug in communities across four Western Pennsylvania counties. A brick is 50 stamp bags of heroin, each bag worth about $10.

“They brazenly conducted most of their drug trafficking along the Monroeville business district in open parking lots and behind bathroom doors,” Hickton said during a May 29 news conference at FBI headquarters in the South Side.

Some heroin users who drove to Monroeville to purchase the narcotic would then overdose in public places, while Monroeville paramedics have reported a more potent and less expensive version of the opiate.

In fact, heroin use has become an “epidemic” among young people throughout the region in recent years, said Sherry Philips, executive director of the Wellplace drug treatment center in Monroeville.

Heroin addiction often stems from an addiction to prescription pills such as Oxycontin, which typically are a lot more expensive than heroin. “It used to be the mentality among (patients) that heroin was a drug they wouldn't touch,” Philips said. “But that doesn't exist anymore.”

The Western Pennsylvania investigation started with police looking at drug dealing and gang activity in the Wilkinsburg area, Hickton said.

“It quickly branched out to encompass Duquesne, Penn Hills, Monroeville, as well as the city of Pittsburgh and other locations in Allegheny County, in Westmoreland County, in Armstrong County, in Indiana County,” he said.

The drug ring obtained heroin from a supplier in Newark, he said. The ring has not been tied to the fentanyl-laced heroin connected to at least 22 overdose deaths in Western Pennsylvania this year, he said.

Drug couriers frequently run heroin from New Jersey west using the Pennsylvania Turnpike. State police said they seized $8.5 million worth of heroin along the turnpike in the first three months of this year, which represents slightly more than half of all the heroin the agency seized during that time.

A federal grand jury indicted the 44 people on May 21 in six separate indictments.

In addition to the regular drug trafficking counts, several of the people are charged with using minors in their drug operations.

The drug dealers would use the minors, some in junior high school, to deliver heroin to their customers, Hickton said. That's a growing trend authorities want to reverse, he said.

“In all these cases, we are working hard to identify and stop this trend to ensure that we do not lose another group of our youth to this way of life,” Hickton said.

Kyle Lawson and Brian Bowling are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Lawson can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755. Bowling can be reached at 412-325-4301.

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