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Murrysville car dealer pleads guilty to laundering money for drug ring

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 7:23 p.m.

A Murrysville car dealer pleaded guilty in federal court to laundering money for a drug ring that shipped $7 million worth of cocaine into Westmoreland County until it was dissolved two years ago.

Thomas Pennavaria, 57, entered the plea Thursday before Judge Stewart Dalzell in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. Dalzell will sentence Pennavaria in August.

Pennavaria was scheduled to start trial this week along with Omar Bennett, 31, of Greensburg, who investigators say was a key lieutenant for former high school basketball star Rakyym Hetherington, of Greensburg, who sold between 4 and 5 kilograms of cocaine a month in the region.

Hetherington, who pleaded guilty to drug charges last August, has agreed to testify against Bennett and other defendants. Testimony began Thursday in the trial for Bennett, who is serving a three- to six-year state prison sentence on drug charges.

In 2002, federal agents arrested 38 members of the Philadelphia-based network that sold $24 million worth of cocaine since 1997. The ring's link to Westmoreland County was Hetherington, who faces a minimum of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced later this year.

Pennavaria's role was to provide leased cars for the drug dealers in a way designed to thwart police surveillance.

He managed J & B Motor Cars Inc. and Leasing Unlimited Inc. in Murrysville. Investigators said in exchange for lucrative cash payments, Pennavaria helped ringleaders Courtney Carter and James Patterson conceal the ownership of the luxury cars, sport utility vehicles and trucks that he leased to them.

Pennavaria listed his businesses as the lessee of automobiles even though they were actually driven by Carter, Patterson, Hetherington, Bennett and other defendants. Pennavaria also arranged for insurance coverage of the automobiles through his dealership, investigators said.

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