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Dozens indicted on federal drug charges tied to heroin rings out of Wilkinsburg

| Thursday, May 29, 2014, 10:31 a.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
U.S. Attorney David Hickton holds a news conference on Thursday, May 29, 2014, in the FBI's headquarters in the South Side.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
U.S. Attorney David Hickton holds a news conference on Thursday, May 29, 2014, in the FBI's headquarters in the South Side.

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 in Monroeville and across the region, federal officials said on Thursday.

They said dealers sometimes used junior high school students to hawk 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,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton said during a news conference at FBI headquarters in the South Side.

Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole, who attended the news conference, said his department participated in the investigation, but he otherwise declined to comment. Mayor Greg Erosenko, municipal Manager Tim Little and Frank Horrigan, president of the Monroeville Area Chamber of Commerce, couldn't be reached for comment.

More than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officers fanned out in Western Pennsylvania on Thursday to arrest many of the 44 people charged with participating in the drug ring. About a dozen remained at large on Thursday afternoon, but police were still making arrests, said Patrick Fallon, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Pittsburgh office.

The raids seized about $500,000 in cash, large quantities of drugs and many guns, Hickton said. He would not elaborate.

The busts follow a report on Wednesday by researchers who say the great majority of heroin users are white men and women who live primarily outside cities.

Their study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, tracked data from almost 2,800 heroin users and found that first-time users are generally older than those who began taking the drug in the 1960s. About 90 percent are white, according to the study, and 75 percent live in non-urban areas.

The research confirmed a link between the rise of opioid abuse and the growing use of heroin noted in earlier studies. Heroin use jumped 80 percent to 669,000 users from 2007 to 2012, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, after being relatively stable since 2000.

Heroin “is not confined to inner-city areas,” said Theodore Cicero, the lead author and vice chairman for research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It's now a mainstream problem.”

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. He declined to provide more details on that end of the investigation. 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.

Although authorities described the ring as being based in Wilkinsburg, the list of suspects includes only one person with a Wilkinsburg address.

Eleven suspects have Pittsburgh addresses, and five have Duquesne addresses. Other than the one suspect from Newark and another from Northampton County, the remaining suspects had addresses in communities in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Armstrong counties.

The defendants range in age from 18 to 43, and most are men.

Hickton declined to say how long the ring operated or how much heroin it brought into the area, but he said authorities believe the arrests have effectively dismantled the organization.

“As of today, they are on the run and headed out of business,” Hickton said.

Staff writer Richard Gazarik contributed to this story. Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Total Trib Media. Contact him at 412-325-4301 at bbowling@tribweb.com. Reuters contributed.

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