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Recent busts highlight heroin's reach across Western Pa.

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A string of heroin busts across Western Pennsylvania this month highlights the prevalence of a “drug of choice,” law enforcement officials said.

Police in Wilkinsburg, Canonsburg and North Huntingdon this week arrested suspects and confiscated heroin and cash.

Other agencies in the past month made heroin arrests in the North Side, Harmar and Robinson, where Allegheny County sheriff's deputies apprehended two New Jersey men who allegedly had 26,000 bags of heroin valued at $400,000.

“For the past decade, heroin has been the drug of choice in Allegheny County and remains so today,” said Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who has a countywide narcotics task force. “What is different today is that you have a large number of people who come into the inner city to purchase the drug and then take it back to the suburbs. That never used to happen.”

The reality is that the drug can be found in every community, said Canonsburg police Chief R.T. Bell.

“No matter how big or small, I think we all have the same problem,” Bell said.

On Wednesday, his officers arrested two men accused of shuttling about $40,000 worth of heroin from Pittsburgh each week, using a substantial amount and selling the rest on Washington County streets to support their habits, said Detective Alex Coghill.

“These were midlevel dealers,” Coghill said.

Arrested were Jason Hollman, 42, of North Strabane and Damen Gamble, 22, of Canonsburg. Both remain in the Washington County Prison.

Detectives received a tip about the activities of Hollman and Gamble and had them under surveillance for weeks, Coghill said.

Officers waited at the Canonsburg exit off Interstate 79 for the men after learning they went to Pittsburgh to buy heroin. The occupants of Hollman's car could not say where they had been, and Angela Hollman, his wife, acted anxious, Coghill said.

“Nervousness leads to further questions,” he said.

Angela Hollman told officers that she had heroin in her purse, and Jason Hollman said he had asked her to stash it for him, Coghill said.

Police confiscated $2,000 in cash and seven bricks of heroin, each of which contains 50 bags that sell for $15 each in Canonsburg, Coghill said. The two men told officers that they each used between 20 and 30 bags of heroin daily, he said.

Dealers often are users, Manko said.

“You have to understand that a new heroin addict usually approaches their problem like a Ponzi scheme in that they have to get other people to purchase heroin off of them in order to get enough cash to feed their own habit,” Manko said. “That's also why you have seen this problem explode in places that people would not necessarily associate with drug use.”

On Thursday, Wilkinsburg police arrested four people — Robert Thomas, Cheron Shelton, Aymund Knight and Justin Gomez, whose hometowns were not available — and found $8,000 worth of heroin in raiding a Hill Avenue apartment. Officers seized a cache of weapons, including two military-style weapons, and $8,400 in cash, according to Tribune-Review news partner WPXI.

Wilkinsburg police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman did not return calls.

State police on Wednesday arrested two Turtle Creek residents — Jeffrey N. Baldwin Jr. and Jermaine D. Cobb Jr., both 19 — in a North Huntingdon hotel and seized 20 bricks of heroin and an undisclosed amount of cash.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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