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Lebanon part of 'lucrative' area for heroin dealers

Written by Daniel Walmer/The Lebanon Daily News | Jul 21, 2017 10:04 AM
heroin_pipeline_lebanon_county.jpg

The same highway infrastructure that makes Lebanon County attractive to retail warehouses makes us optimal for selling and moving illegal drugs. (Photo: Sean Heisey, York Daily Record)

Police: A rural location close to several large cities is ideal for traffickers of the popular opioid.

(Lebanon)  -- Julio Aviles likely went to work each morning filled with the satisfaction that comes from knowing you are good at your job - in his case, both master chef and factory supervisor.

At an unassuming garage building in south Lebanon, he mixed his special recipe in a grinder each day: 20 Oxycodone pills, 15 Xanax pills, and 30 Morphine pills. He then added the concoction to 100 grams of bulk heroin, according to a May 2015 affidavit of probable cause. 

rom there, Aviles ran his 513 Arnold St. drug operation almost like a food factory. At least five employees clocked in on a daily basis for weekly paychecks, according to law enforcement. They packed the Aviles product into small bundles for retail sale and even worked as taste testers to ensure quality.

The business was nothing if not efficient, processing more than $5-6 million worth of heroin and other drugs in a six month period, according to a U.S. Attorney.

Aviles is off the streets now, convicted in April of drug crimes - but there are likely others like him still operating nearby.

That's in part because of one of south central Pennsylvania's most popular attributes: a centralized location and lots of good roads for making day trips to Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York City.

"Our easy access to other cities and being at the intersection of major interstates makes us a lucrative target for drug dealers," said Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.

And given Pennsylvania's insatiable demand for heroin, business is booming.

Location, location, location

The Lebanon Daily News reviewed Drug Enforcement Agency reports, police and court documents and conducted interviews with experts in fighting the drug trade to learn exactly how the Lebanon area fits into the complex web of heroin trafficking.

But Philadelphia-based DEA spokesman Pat Trainor says you don't have to overthink it.

"It's just like Coca-Cola," he said. "It follows all the same principals of economics and distribution."

It isn't hard to see why south-central Pennsylvania is attracting more and more warehouses for companies like Amazon and Target. From Fredericksburg, for example, truckers using Interstates 81 and 78 can reach about 1.7 million people within one hour's drive, according to Rock Real Estate. From Shrewsbury, York County, almost 3.5 million people and 138,000 businesses can be reached within a one-hour drive.

Drug traffickers similarly find central Pennsylvania attractive. On one hand, dealers can make more money here than they can the big cities, Marsico said. But on the other hand, it isn't inconvenient to travel to the large cities to replenish their supply.

Even back in 2011, a U.S. Department of Justice threat assessment warned that drug dealers and gangs typically associated with Philadelphia and Reading would keep moving west, "where drug prices are higher and where smaller communities often lack the law enforcement strength to deter highly organized drug distribution groups."

What they didn't know then was the extent to which heroin would come to dominate the trafficking market within a few short years.

Journey of an opioid

Just like other internationally distributed products, heroin travels a long way before reaching its ultimate user. Most of it comes from Mexico and Latin America before hitting the port-cities of Philladelphia, Newark and New York.

Mass-produced legal goods typically don't go directly from the producer to an end user, but are stored in and possibly altered at a warehouse along the way. Similarly, drugs sometimes go to central Pennsylvania middlemen because of the area's banquet of transportation options.

People will buy 30,000 bags worth of heroin in the badlands of Philadelphia, and then share it with other dealers in Harrisburg, for example, Trainor said. The purchasers in Harrisburg will then take it to their home towns to sell in even smaller quantities.

Customers then visit the homes of leaders like Aviles, purchasing blue bags that obscure a white, powdery substance - heroin. They use portions of blocks themselves while selling the rest in street-level drug deals, according to a DEA Trends in the Traffic report.

While it's "impossible" to know if there is another heroin factory like the one on Arnold Street in Lebanon County, it is probably the case that heroin packaged in Lebanon is then distributed to other communities within and outside of the county, District Attorney Dave Arnold said.

A statewide grand jury report recently laid bare the details of one drug ring that used central Pennsylvania as a center for secondary distribution. Members of the drug ring would frequently travel to New York City for a new supply of heroin. They would then divide it into bundles equal to about 10 bags of heroin, which they would sell to street-level drug dealers who would distribute it locally and to other areas like Altoona.

Dealers like Katrina Leonard often hid in plain sight, the report stated. Leonard would board a public bus in York with an empty suitcase, then return with the same suitcase filled with 200-300 grams of heroin.

Trucking trouble

Not all the heroin that flows through central Pennsylvania ever even stops here. Interstate 81, for example, serves as a major route for bringing drugs up from the southwest border, crossing Lebanon County in the process, according to a DEA report.

Trucks can end up carrying drugs Point A to Point B for a variety of reasons, according to Doug Morris, director of safety and security for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and a former commander with the Maryland state police.

While "99 percent" of drivers are law-abiding professionals, some can get themselves in a tight financial spot and take a bribe to deliver drugs with the rest of their cargo, Morris said. On the opposite end of the spectrum, distribution companies that exist solely to smuggle drugs are also rare, although they do exist.

Perhaps slightly more common are companies that ship bananas, for example, but mix in a shipment of drugs, he said. Finally, there are drug rings that manage to slip drugs onto trucks without knowledge of anyone in the trucking industry, instead paying people at the destination warehouse to gather the smuggled substances.

Drivers can face stiff prison sentences even when they didn't know they had drugs on board.

"It's sad, but it's just the nature of the business," Morris said.

Into thin air

Central Pennsylvania also boasts a network of airports, including Harrisburg International Airport, the third-busiest passenger airport in Pennsylvania and an active cargo hub.

Air travel offers some natural advantages to drug dealers, according to a 2015 report from the Naval Research Laboratory: speed of transportation, the fact that security dealing with passenger flights is often focused more on passenger security than drug interdiction, and the ability of drug traffickers to change flights at the last minute or leave at a layover stop if needed.

Cocaine in particular sometimes enters Harrisburg airports from Puerto Rico, and currency sometimes leaves the Harrisburg area via airports, according to DEA reports.

In one 2016 case, a courier managed to carry $230,000 in cash from drug proceeds onto a Harrisburg-area flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico without checking any bags, the report said. She carried some of the money in her purse and some in a carry-on suitcase.

Harrisburg International Airport Police Lt. Stephen Kiessling said the airport works with both state officials and the Transportation Security Administration to prevent drugs coming through with passengers, and heightened airport security in the age of terrorism has helped those efforts. Mailed packages that arrive at the airport are also scrutinized, he said.

Money, of course, doesn't show up on scanners and is not detected by drug dogs, he said.

There are sometimes currency seizures at the airport, although "it is not with any frequency that I can say," he said. Not all situations in which a person is carrying a large amount of cash are related to drugs, he noted.

Fighting back

Drug traffickers use an astounding variety of methods to stop law enforcement from intercepting their heroin distribution line, from placing it in false compartments in suitcases, to smuggling it in cargo and even body-carrying or swallowing packets containing heroin for later rectal retrieval, according to a DEA Trends in the Traffic report.

But despite the creativity of drug dealers, central Pennsylvania law enforcement is trying to get a handle on the drug rings - and sometimes succeeding.

Pennsylvania State Police, in fact, have units dedicated to nothing but intercepting drugs on the way to street-level dealers, Public Information Officer Cpl. Adam Reed said. Troopers are taught how to detect secret compartments, how to use K-9 units, and given information about search and seizure laws, state police told the Lebanon Daily News for a previous article.

They catch an astounding amount of drugs, especially heroin. In the first quarter of 2017, state police seized more than 29 pounds, valued at more than $10 million, of the popular opioid, according to a quarterly report.

One surprisingly effective means of catching criminals is a truck weigh station at the Interstate 78 border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a March Associated Press report found. While trucks are only required to stop for size and weight checks, problems arising at those inspections led to Greenwich Township, New Jersey intercepting more than 160 kilograms of heroin last year, according to New Jersey state police data.

Meanwhile, Lebanon city and county detectives form the core of the Lebanon County Drug Task Force, assisted with officers from other departments as they are able, Arnold said. The task force is continually working with a variety of local, state and national organizations, including DEA, US Marshalls, the FBI and even the US Postal Service.

There are also success stories at the prosecution level.

The drug pipeline that was transporting heroin and ecstasy from New York City to York to Altoona has been shut down, investigators say.

Aviles and several other leaders of the Lebanon "heroin mill" were convicted in April.

"It's going to keep happening and we're going to keep hitting them," DEA agent Jeffrey Bielski said at a press conference following the conviction of Aviles, according to PennLive.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

 

Published in Lebanon, News

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