Federal authorities are taking over the prosecution of two men accused of having a large amount of pure fentanyl during a traffic stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Westmoreland County last week.
A federal indictment was filed and arrest warrants were issued Tuesday for Juan Junior Guzman, 41, and Hector B. Taveras, 40, both of New York City.
Preliminary hearings Thursday on state drug charges connected to the bust were rescheduled while federal authorities prepare detainers for the Westmoreland County Prison, where both men are being held on $1 million bail.
State police found 3 pounds, 6 ounces of fentanyl on July 8 hidden in a westbound SUV being driven by Guzman in Mt. Pleasant Township. The SUV was headed to Pittsburgh, police said. They did not identify the neighborhood.
Authorities believe the bust was the latest operation in a network connected to the Dominican Republic that is funneling drugs into Southwestern Pennsylvania.
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. Investigators found the fentanyl in a vacuum-sealed bag in an after-market secret compartment behind the radio, according to court papers. Taveras was a passenger in the SUV.
On Thursday, Guzman and Taveras each had several family members at district court in Norvelt for their scheduled hearing. Senior District Judge Roger Eckels denied defense motions to reduce their bail.
“Did I hear them correctly, trooper — 3.6 pounds?” Eckels asked Trooper Zachary Del Sordo after the attorneys made their arguments.
Del Sordo confirmed the amount.
“Bail shall remain the same,” Eckels said.
Defense attorneys Tim Dawson and David Shrager argued that their clients have full-time jobs at home and called $1 million bail excessive.
“One million (dollars) is unreasonable; it’s punitive,” said Shrager, who is representing Taveras.
“A million dollars to me was just a reaction by the sitting magistrate at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t my client’s car. He’s no threat to the community.”
Dawson requested a $50,000 bail, “similar to other drug cases.”
Assistant District Attorney Theresa Miller-Sporrer pointed to the amount of drugs in question in arguing bail should remain the same.
“This isn’t just any other drug case,” she said.
Guzman and Taveras are charged in the federal indictment with conspiracy and possession with intent to deliver. Federal authorities are seeking the forfeiture of $75,250. The money’s source was unclear from court papers.
No federal court action had been scheduled.
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 was developed as a painkiller and anesthetic for pharmaceutical uses, but the drug can be produced illicitly overseas and brought into the country.
The amount confiscated — likely was the most in Western Pennsylvania history — could have been turned into at least hundreds of thousands of doses with a street value well over $1 million. Fentanyl has been the top contributor to drug overdose deaths in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties for the last few years.