Police: Record fentanyl bust on Pa. Turnpike saved countless lives
Investigators believe Monday’s fentanyl bust on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is the latest operation in a network connected to the Dominican Republic that is funneling drugs into Southwestern Pennsylvania.
“We feel strongly that it is a part of the same group,” Trooper Stephen Limani said.
Two New York City men remained behind bars Tuesday after authorities found 3 pounds, 6 ounces of pure fentanyl hidden in a westbound SUV in Mt. Pleasant Township. Limani said the SUV’s destination was a neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
The bust likely was the largest in Western Pennsylvania, police said.
Driver Juan Junior Guzman, 41, and passenger, Hector B. Taveras, 40, both of New York City, were being held in the Westmoreland County Prison on $1 million bail. Limani said the pair’s arrest on drug charges was the latest in the network’s operation bringing illicit substances into the Pittsburgh area.
“They have a network; they have the hub cities where this stuff comes into,” he said.
Troopers pulled over the 2019 Dodge Durango, owned by Taveras, at 8 a.m. after Guzman allegedly failed to move over for an emergency vehicle that was pulled off the highway. The pair gave troopers permission to search the SUV during a traffic stop at mile marker 77, according to court papers.
Investigators found the fentanyl in a vacuum-sealed bag in an after-market secret compartment behind the radio, according to court papers. Neither Tavares nor Guzman had an attorney listed in online court papers. Preliminary hearings for both men are set for July 18.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid more powerful than heroin, has been contributing to an explosion of drug overdose deaths in the region for the past few years. Fentanyl previously had been mixed with heroin and sold in stamp bags, but that has evolved into doses strictly of fentanyl cut with another powdery substance, such as creatine, authorities said.
Fentanyl was developed as a painkiller and anesthetic for pharmaceutical uses, but the drug can be produced illicitly in overseas laboratories and brought into the country.
Limani said about a nanogram of fentanyl would be mixed with a cutting agent in each stamp bag. That means the amount confiscated could have been turned into at least hundreds of thousands of doses with a street value well over $1 million.
“The drug overdoses that could’ve come from this would’ve been epic,” Limani said. “If it’s not divvied up precisely perfect, you’re going to die.”
Westmoreland County Detective Tony Marcocci said the fentanyl could have caused a “staggering amount” of overdoses. He was not involved with the bust but has worked in narcotics detection in Westmoreland County for decades and now helps raise awareness about the drug epidemic.
He said the fentanyl likely would have been split up among different drug dealers, meaning certain stamp bags may have been more potent than others.
“Unless this stuff was divided up perfectly by a pharmacist, a chemist, people were going to die,” Limani said. “Their skill level of how to divide this up … would’ve determined how many people were going to die.”
Drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland County involving fentanyl increased by 364% from 2015 to 2016, according to a coroner’s report. The drug contributed to 367 deaths in Westmoreland from Jan. 1, 2016, to July 1, 2019.
Fentanyl has been the top contributor to drug overdose deaths in Allegheny County since 2016, according to medical examiner statistics. From 2016 to 2018, fentanyl contributed to 1,287 deaths there.
Last July, drug-sniffing dogs with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency discovered 110 pounds of fentanyl during a routine exam of a shipment in the Port of Philadelphia, according to authorities. The agency reported a narcotics detection dog sniffed out the drugs in a shipment of iron oxide that originated in China.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Renatta at 724-837-5374, [email protected] or via Twitter .