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Ex-drug kingpin lands back in jail; life sentence in 2003 was set aside because he helped investigators

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Friday, April 26, 2013, 2:21 p.m.

A former drug kingpin who claimed in February that he had turned his life around is back in jail on a drug charge, according to federal court documents.

Sentenced in 2003 to a mandatory life sentence, Donald Lyles, 39, cooperated with drug investigators and walked out of federal prison in 2009.

Lyles was jailed in October, when Pittsburgh police arrested him for driving with a stolen gun in his car. The offense led to pending state criminal charges and a federal probation violation.

He struck a plea bargain on the federal probation violation that resulted in a four-month sentence and allowed him to get out of jail on bail while awaiting trial on the state charges.

Federal and local law enforcement agents on Thursday tracked Lyles as he tried to deliver more than 100 grams of heroin to a North Side address, according to an affidavit by FBI Special Agent Karen Springmeyer.

After his arrest on Hoffman Street, Lyles admitted he was delivering the bag of heroin on the front passenger seat of his car, the affidavit says.

He is being held without bail, and his initial appearance before a federal magistrate is scheduled for Monday, according to court records.

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment. Lyles' attorney, Emily McNally, couldn't be reached.

“What you see in this case is an extreme example of what's going on throughout the system,” said Wes Oliver, a Duquesne University law professor and director of the college's criminal justice program.

Federal sentencing guidelines are designed to reward criminals who cooperate with police, not those who change and are unlikely to commit more crimes, he said.

Because drug kingpins have more information than low-level drug dealers, they get the most credit when they cooperate. Kingpins often get lighter sentences than their subordinates, Oliver said.

“The most dangerous people are given the greatest degree of mercy,” Oliver said.

Lyles was once the top lieutenant in a drug ring that sold more than 60 pounds of heroin and 300 pounds of cocaine in four years.

Authorities in 2002 said the drug ring that Lyles helped lead was the largest supplier of cocaine and heroin to Western Pennsylvania. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft came to Pittsburgh to announce the arrests.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or

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