Investigators widen scope of drug smuggling scheme at Pa. prison
A detective said his investigation, which has resulted in 14 arrests, could expand
By Renatta Signorini
WESTMORELAND COUNTY, Pa. — Investigators are looking at more potential suspects in a scheme that authorities said used legal mail to deliver drugs into the Westmoreland County Prison.
County Detective James Williams said Thursday that his investigation, which already has resulted in 14 arrests, could expand. He declined to elaborate.
“There’s other individuals I’m looking at right now,” he said while testifying against one of the suspects arrested in April.
Preliminary hearings were scheduled Thursday against 12 of 14 people who are facing charges in connection with the alleged yearlong operation that brought K2, or synthetic marijuana, into the lockup. Corrections officers listened to inmate phone conversations to intercept pieces of mail and county detectives staked out the courthouse to watch papers contaminated with drugs change hands before ending up at the jail.
Jail Lt. Brad Tomasello testified that guards scrambled to figure out how a “massive outbreak” of K2 infiltrated the jail in 2018. They caught a break when a sheet of paper detailing the alleged scheme was left behind by Bari Coleman, 28, of Pittsburgh in the jail’s library. In early 2019, guards started listening to his calls to then-girlfriend Sandra Gonzalez-Morales, 23, of New Kensington, Tomasello said.
“Through that phone call, that’s when the whole thing started branching off to other inmates,” he testified.
Jail officials in June 2018 started giving inmates photocopies instead of actual mail over concerns that the parcels might have been sprayed with synthetic marijuana. Williams testified that the inmates then switched delivery methods.
“Initially, it was mailed in through regular mail, then it was mailed in the legal mail,” he testified.
Tomasello said he found that inmates were calling women outside the jail to have sheets of paper sprayed with K2 sent in under the guise of being legal documents. The purported legal mail was marked with the return address of a Pittsburgh attorney who didn’t have a client at the jail, he testified.
There was a large influx of legal mail coming into the jail, but officials weren’t able to determine if the names of other attorneys were being used to send drugs, Tomasello testified.
Those sheets of paper could bring in between $2,000 to $4,000 when cut up and sold to inmates, Williams said.
Detectives conducted a stakeout at the courthouse and saw women carrying papers and an envelope that later were passed to two suspects. Those documents later were found to contain synthetic marijuana, according to investigators.
Tim Miller, attorney for Sammie Edward Lane Jr., 31, of New Florence, argued that his client had little involvement in the alleged conspiracy. Lane and Coleman were cellmates and authorities seized items containing synthetic marijuana from Lane, according to testimony.
“I heard no evidence that Mr. Lane delivered any of the drugs here,” Miller argued. “Mr. Lane just happened to share a cell with him. … I don’t know where Mr. Lane fits into this short of wrong place, wrong time.”
District Judge Mark Mansour ordered charges against Lane, Tarrae William Johnson, 28, of Waynesburg; Shaquille Edward Pollard, 27, of Albion, be held for court after a preliminary hearing. All of the suspects are facing charges of corrupt organization and related offenses.
Preliminary hearings were scheduled Thursday for Lauren Sydney Banks, 22, of Jeannette; Demetra Monike Franklin, 46, of Pittsburgh; Whitney J. Sumpter, 32, of Homestead; and Tywan Devante David, 23, of Pittsburgh.
Coleman, Gonzalez-Morales and Takeya Shantail Woods, 24, of Johnstown, waived their rights to a hearing. Hearings for Maurice Williams, 25, of Jeannette, and Dameon Jerod Hill, 30, of Pittsburgh, are being rescheduled.
Derrick Lamont Hart, 51, and Donald Tyree Smith, 33, both of Pittsburgh, have not been arraigned in their cases.
©2020 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)