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U.S. attorney teaming up with Western Pa. DAs to choke guns, drugs

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 7:23 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone, left, stands with United States Attorney David Hickton, second from left, as Washington County assistant district attorney Jerome Moschetta speaks at the Washington County Courthouse about being deputized as a federal prosecutor through funding from the Project Safe Neighborhoods grant, Tuesday, March 17, 2015.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
A federal grand jury indicted 15 Chinese citizens in what authorities say was a long-running conspiracy to take college entrance exams on behalf of others so they could get into American colleges and obtain student visas. “This case establishes that we will protect the integrity of our passport and visa process, as well as safeguard the national asset of our higher education system from fraudulent access,” U.S. Attorney David Hickton in Pittsburgh said Thursday.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton is teaming with district attorneys in counties bisected by major interstates and highways to help choke the flow of drugs and guns into Western Pennsylvania.

“We have learned that the highways are the arteries for some criminal enterprises, like drugs and guns,” Hickton said in announcing the trial effort Tuesday in Washington County.

Cambria, Erie and Lawrence counties are joining the program. Together they create a geographic “star-cluster” for entry into the region, Hickton said.

Interstates 70 and 79, the major east-west and north-south arteries in the western part of the state, intersect in Washington County. Erie sits at the junction of I-79 and I-90 — a highway that runs into New York state and connects the region to Cleveland, Detroit and other areas known to supply drugs and guns. Lawrence County includes I-376, which runs north-south and connects I-80 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the two major east-west arteries in the state.

Cambria County is crisscrossed by three major U.S. highways: 22, 219 and 422.

The program will embed a deputy prosecutor from each county in Hickton's Downtown office for six-month terms. The cross-designated “special assistant U.S. attorneys” will work with Hickton's violent-crime team and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as have access to federal investigations and resources even as they continue working on their county caseloads.

District attorneys in the four counties will split $44,000 in Project Safe Neighborhood money not spent in 2010 and 2011 for the effort, Hickton said.

“If it proves successful, I hope to extend it,” he said.

Jerome “Jerry” Moschetta will represent the Washington County District Attorney's Office. He will focus on major drug and gun cases that might rise to federal prosecution and help identify defendants from federal investigations who might be best prosecuted on the state level.

“I think it will simply be a case of prioritization,” said Moschetta, who has been a Washington County prosecutor for six years.

District Attorney Gene Vittone said his office routinely partners with various law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Attorney's Office.

“Cooperation is vital in law enforcement,” Vittone said. “We're going to prosecute the cases in the best places to prosecute them, and we're going to have the best results in the name of justice.”Federal sentences often are harsher than state sentences, Hickton said. But he hopes the program leads to more criminal cases on all levels.

“We will be able to marry the information we have on the state and federal level, which will make it much more difficult for criminals,” he said.

Hickton's federal jurisdiction covers 25 counties in Western Pennsylvania. He said reducing the flow of drugs and guns into the counties via major highways could benefit the entire region.“We have come up with a new strategy that we think will better protect the perimeter of Western Pennsylvania,” Hickton said.

The Associated Press contributed. 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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