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Vending business sold after pot-growing operation found in Lawrenceville

| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

The former owner of a Lawrenceville vending machine business sold his company about a month after Pittsburgh police discovered a major marijuana growing operation on the second floor of the building's warehouse.

CRH Catering Co., based in Connellsville, took over Complete Vending Service Inc. on July 1, but continues to employ former Complete Vending owner John Balsamico, CRH Vice President Pete Cordaro told the Tribune-Review this week. He would not disclose how much he paid for the business at the corner of Davison Street and Urbana Way.

A 911 call about suspicious activity early May 29 led police to the Complete Vending warehouse. On the second floor, police found a marijuana-growing operation with about 325 plants, a dozen bags of dried marijuana and numerous bags of buds. The street value of the plants alone was estimated by police to be $500,000.

City police charged three men from McKeesport with burglarizing the business, but have not publicly identified the operator of the marijuana grow lab. Balsamico isn't charged. Police have said it was the biggest marijuana operation they've seen in decades.

“We are still investigating,” Public Safety Department spokeswoman Sonya Toler said Wednesday. “I'm not at liberty to discuss the details of where the investigation is leading.”

Toler said the city's Bureau of Building Inspection issued a citation to Complete Vending's owner “stemming from the bust concerning constructing an HVAC system without permits.” HVAC refers generally to heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems that control air temperature and air quality inside a building. Toler did not provide details of the citation, but she said building owners are typically given an opportunity to correct violations and have a reinspection. She said there were no previous inspection violations.

Neighbors on Davison Street said they've received no updates from police about the investigation. They're frustrated by the lack of communication.

“I would like somebody to step up and say something,” said Laura Smith, 46. “Our community wants to hear something. There are so many young kids in the area and a lot of elderly. What if they had guns? There could've been a lot more to it than what happened that morning. People could've got hurt.”

Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a nonprofit that focuses on improving the quality of life in the neighborhood, said residents have wondered about arrests, but she hasn't heard complaints.

“It has heightened folks' awareness,” Byrne said. “It's nice that people have become more aware of vacant buildings and spaces in the community in case they are being used for these things.”

Cordaro said CRH had been eyeing Complete Vending for possible acquisition for about five years. He said he was aware of the marijuana bust through newspaper reports.

“Why John decided to sell now, I have no idea,” Cordaro said. “You'd have to ask him.”

A man who answered the door at the Complete Vending warehouse referred comment to CRH. Balsamico has declined previous interview requests.

Complete Vending has contracts to supply vending machines to city and county governments. Cordaro said CRH will continue to provide those services.

He said the company sent a letter to county and city officials notifying them of the change in ownership.

Cordaro said police haven't contacted him. He said he isn't concerned about the investigation into the grow lab.

“It has no reflection on what we're doing,” he said. “We're in the vending business only. It has no bearing.”

Margaret Harding is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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