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Local police hope to cash in on drug busts

Chuck Biedka
| Saturday, April 9, 2005

They might not see a cent, but that hasn't stopped Valley police departments from pondering what they could buy with money and assets seized in drug-related criminal cases.

New Kensington and Westmoreland County detectives, and federal agents hope they eventually can obtain money from the sale of two houses owned or used by an alleged Arnold-based drug ring, law-enforcement officials said.

Money and other items also were confiscated after a raid last spring.

Asset forfeiture happens when money or other property is confiscated during an arrest. After a conviction, a court determines that the proceeds should go to police. Local departments can get part of the money even if federal or state agencies are involved.

"The amount varies depending on how much the local officers were involved," said James Harper, a supervisor with the Pittsburgh office of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Monroeville police used asset forfeiture money from the Allegheny County District Attorney's drug seizure fund to buy two police dogs, Assistant Police Chief Doug Cole said.

The Pittsburgh Police Department has benefited significantly from the money, too, said Regina McDonald, assistant chief for investigations.

For example, the department received about $500,000 from its joint investigation of a drug ring run by Oliver Beasley and Donald Lyles, she said.

Prosecutors said the ring brought about 12 kilograms of heroin and 10 kilograms of cocaine -- valued at about $11 million -- into western Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2002. The investigation was started by Pittsburgh police.

Police used the money to equip a mobile crime lab and to buy computers, printers and digital cameras used for crime fighting. A fingerprint computer also was moved into the lab, McDonald said.

State police also received forfeiture money and used it across the state. The amount varies yearly.

State police received about $1.2 million in the 2003-04 budget year from asset forfeitures, most from drug cases, said spokesman Jack Lewis. State police received about $900,000 in 1997-98, and about $4 million in 1999, Lewis said.

In 2002, Westmoreland County Detective Terry Kuhns started to investigate an alleged Arnold drug ring. He later was assisted by New Kensington Detective Lt. Ronald Zellers, county Detective John Clark, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agent Robert Landis and others.

Arnold police, FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents also took part in the March 2004 raid at 1350 and 1352 Third Ave., so they may qualify for any available asset forfeiture money, too.

After the raid, six women were charged with conspiring to sell at least 50 grams of crack cocaine at various times from January 2002 to March 2004. One also was charged with selling heroin.

The federal government has since dropped charges against one of the women, and Geraldine D'Argon, 28, of Fourth Avenue, Arnold, pleaded guilty to one count of distributing crack cocaine. She is scheduled to be sentenced May 31.

Still charged in the drug case are Angel Hensley of 1352 Third Ave. and Collins Drive, Pittsburgh; her sister, Darlene Hensley, 26, of Rampart Boulevard, Plum; Latoyia Graves, 21, of Blossom Road, Baldwin; and Monica O'Neal, 21, of Fifth Avenue, New Kensington.

Angel Hensley's case is scheduled for May 11 and Darlene Hensley's case is set for June 1, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. The other cases haven't been scheduled, authorities said.

If money is forfeited from the case involving the women, New Kensington police know what's at the top of their wish list.

"We need a new undercover vehicle," New Kensington Police Chief Chuck Korman said.

Verona police hope they, too, will receive part of the money taken from a man facing charges from their department and the DEA if the suspect is found guilty and the court allows the government to keep the money.

On Jan. 5, Nozine Burton, 27, of Homewood needed something from the Giant Eagle in Verona, but borough police said they were concerned when he left the engine running in his car with his two children -- ages 7 and 8 -- inside.

When he left the store, Burton was cited for child endangerment, police said.

Then, he was patted down. Police said they found 15 oxycodone pills and about $1,000 in Burton's pockets. That made it possible to search the car.

Inside Burton's rental car, police said they found about $22,000 inside a popcorn box.

"It was wrapped in bundles of $1,000," Verona Police Chief Guy Truby said.

He said the money was sent to the DEA's Pittsburgh office where agents started asset forfeiture procedures.

If the application passes court muster after a trial, Verona police will receive a share on the confiscated money.

As the Verona investigation continued, police found a key to a safety-deposit box in a Pittsburgh bank, Truby said.

When that box was opened, police and agents found about $45,000.

That money also was turned over to the DEA.

Now the agency will try to prove that all of the $68,000 was involved in illegal drug trafficking and therefore subject to forfeiture.

That would require going in front of a federal judge, said Ed Childress, a spokesman at DEA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"A lot of investigation needs to be done," he said.

If the DEA and Verona police prove the case, then both would get a share of the money.

Police working with the FBI also qualify for asset forfeiture, said FBI spokesman Jeff Killeen in Pittsburgh.

"If there is a decent car that doesn't have liens on it and it has been used for drug distribution, for example, we can seize it and sell it and share the money, or the car can be given to another department for police use," he said.

"We routinely do that," he said.

Asset forfeiture and sharing with local departments "encourages departments to work with us," Killeen said.

"It's a wonderful tool and a money-maker for the government," he said. "It also takes something out of the hands of accused criminals."

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