SHAMOKIN - Local, state and federal law enforcement officers on Thursday rounded up 12 individuals suspected of being part of an international drug ring trafficking heroin and cocaine from the Dominican Republic to Luzerne and Northumberland counties.
Based on the testimony of two statewide grand juries, the ring leader, Juan Carlos Alvarez - who is from the Dominican Republic but is currently incarcerated in federal prison in Lackawanna County - has been supplying local users and dealers with bulk quantities of heroin and cocaine since at least 2008. Testimony states Alvarez supplied Pennsylvania associates weekly, sending kilos of cocaine and heroin, according to the Attorney General's office.
Arraigned in Shamokin
Those arrested were arraigned before Magisterial District Judge John Gembic, of Shamokin, and placed in either Northumberland County prison or received unsecured supervised bail. Three were already incarcerated at the time of their arrest.
$2M since 2012
Agents with the Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation unit estimated the organization was responsible for distributing at least $2 million worth of cocaine and heroin in Pennsylvania since 2012, when the investigation began.
According to a grand jury presentment released by the Attorney General's office, one of Alvarez's main associates in Pennsylvania is Jarred Derck, 29, of Shamokin, who setup a local network to distribute the narcotics through an Elysburg pizza shop, a garage in Shamokin and an apartment in Mount Carmel that was used as a stash house.
Authorities said Alvarez has associates who met with cocaine and heroin suppliers in the Dominican Republic and acted as "drug mules," being paid $10,000 to swallow balloons filled with large quantities of cocaine and heroin. The associates flew into New York City before traveling throughout northeastern and central Pennsylvania.
The ring was brought down after agents and local police used confidential informants to make undercover purchases of cocaine and heroin, according to the presentment implicating Alvarez, Jarred Derck, Darryl Kashner and Charles Picarella. Picarella is already in custody on drug-related offenses involving the sale of heroin through his family businesses.
Some calm, some cried
Most arraignments were calm, but some suspects were upset about being arrested.
"I never sold any drugs and never got caught with anything," said Kinda Yost, 25, of Shamokin, crying to the judge. "I'm being railroaded here on the word of a junkie."
Yost was one of the two individuals charged with perjury for making false statements to the grand jury. According to the presentment, Yost and Kevineric Eltringham, 30, of Coal Township, denied under oath any involvement with Picarella. However, nine others testified that Yost and Eltringham allowed Picarella to store and distribute heroin at their garage in Shamokin, helped package it, made deliveries for him and, in October 2012, retrieved bundles from Picarella's Mount Carmel apartment after Picarella's arrest.
"I don't do drugs and I'm getting ready to start back at my old job. Please don't do this," she cried. She was later committed to Northumberland County Prison on $75,000 bail.
Prison pancake day
Other defendants laughed about the charges, including Amber Zwolinski, 26, an inmate of Schuylkill County Prison.
"Man, I really screw up big when I do stuff," said Zwolinski, who faces two counts each on drug possession and delivery charges. "Why couldn't you guys have busted me sooner on this? Then I wouldn't have been in trouble in Schuylkill County."
Zwolinski told the judge she was busted for carrying about 100 bundles of heroin into a DUI checkpoint in Schuylkill Haven. She was happy, however, that despite bail, she was being sent back to Schuylkill County Prison instead of being sent to Northumberland County Prison.
"I just got a radio there and we're going to have pancakes tomorrow," Zwolinski said.
Alvarez, transported from Lackawanna County Prison where he sits in federal custody, sat silent during his arraignment, but called his $200,000 bail "cruel and unusual punishment."
"It's against my constitutional rights, this large amount for bail," Alvarez said, although he is already facing $8 million in bail on federal charges.
David Jordan, a narcotic agent for the Attorney General's office, said Alvarez is a "significant flight risk," which warrants the high price of bail.
"This is a person with a home in New York, and ties to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic," Jordan said.
"There is no evidence against me here," Alvarez said.
"Well if there isn't, then there won't be a problem because it will be thrown out," Gembic said. "If the charges are bound to court, then you can make the argument for or against bail."
According to the grand jury testimony, Jarred Derck, who was also charged in the case, admitted he sold large amounts of cocaine in the Northumberland County area and that Alvarez was his cocaine source, getting two ounces each time either from Alvarez or one of his associates.
Darryl Kashner, another person already facing charges for drug sales, said he sold large amounts of cocaine and heroin that he received from Alvarez and others in 2012, meeting Alvarez or others in the Hazleton area to bring the drugs back to Northumberland County for distribution.
Kashner told the grand jury he bought from Alvarez 20 to 30 grams of cocaine, 6 to 7 grams of cocaine base and a few bundles, about 10 packets, of heroin. He also testified he bought cocaine and heroin from Alvarez more than 50 times.
Derck and Alvarez exchanged pleasantries while the local man was leaving the courtroom and Alvarez was waiting for his turn before the judge.
Many of the other suspects were implicated for making heroin deals, either with Alvarez or the other associates, or selling to confidential informants.
Four at large
Shamokin City Police Cpl. Bryan Primerano said that 12 of the 16 individuals charged in the sweep were taken into custody and arraigned, but officers are still actively on the search for the other four.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane noted in a press release the investigation continues and additional arrests are anticipated.
She thanked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Northumberland-Montour Drug Task Force, under the direction of county district attorney Tony Rosini, and police departments in Shamokin, Coal Township, Mount Carmel, Hazleton and Ralpho Township for their assistance.
All the cases will be prosecuted in Northumberland County by Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Leonard of the office's Drug Strike Force Section.
Preliminary hearings were set by Gembic and are to be scheduled for Tuesday, but said they may be scheduled for a later date.