Feds indict 13 on drug trafficking charges

PETE SIRIANNI | New Castle NewsMercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker speaks during a news conference Tuesday at the Lawrence County Government Center while Scott W. Brady, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, listens.

NEW CASTLE – The arrests of 13 accused drug traffickers working in New Castle, Farrell and Sharon resulted from federal grand jury indictments in Pittsburgh that were unsealed Monday.

Their major operation stemmed from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Florida and involved four suspects who are from — or previously lived in — New Castle, according to information provided Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Pennsylvania. Several others are from Farrell and Sharon.

Bruce McKnight, 53, of Columbus, formerly of New Castle, played a lead role in the sales of heroin, cocaine and fentanyl, according to U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady, who provided details at a news conference Tuesday at the Lawrence County Government Center. McKnight and his associates are accused of distributing five kilograms or more of cocaine and more than 40 grams of illicit fentanyl across Pennsylvania, Brady said.

“This was a significant international operation,” Brady said. “The price of cocaine during COVID might be $40,000 a kilogram, so we’re talking about millions and millions of dollars coming out of this region, going to back through Columbus to Florida, Puerto Rico and Mexico.”

McKnight was sending couriers to and from New Castle and Farrell every week with multiple kilos of cocaine to those communities. The money from the sales was sent back weekly to Columbus and Florida, and when COVID-19 hit and the price of cocaine went through the roof, “they also added fentanyl, because the cartels don’t care.”

The suspects were rounded up by 262 federal, state and local agents and officers with nine SWAT teams, who executed arrests and search warrants simultaneously in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. The arrests culminate an 18-month investigation that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, all working jointly dubbed “Operation No Mercy.” Two warrants were served in New Castle, seven in Farrell, three in Columbus, one in Gettysburg and one in Florida, Brady said, and officers seized three kilos of cocaine, three kilos of heroin, 29 kilograms of marijuana, $125,000 in cash and 26 firearms in Monday’s sweep.

The indictments charge the 13 individuals with conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine between March 2019 and September 2020.

Lawrence County District Attorney Joshua Lamancusa, whose drug task force and the New Castle Police Department played an integral role in the investigation, said 12 of the 13 suspects arrested Monday were taken directly to federal prison in Pittsburgh. Bruce McKnight’s nephew, Nathaniel McKnight, 28, of New Castle, was expected to turn himself in to the authorities Tuesday, he said.

The list of suspects also includes Tony McKnight, 55, and Darnell Latham, 51, both of New Castle; Michael Talbert, 41, Thomas Pierce Jr., 48, Thomas Jones, 44, and Romondo Oatis, 46, all of Farrell; Trevor Austin, 46, of Sharon; Norberto Castillo-Lopez, 31, of Mexico; Jossian Ayala-Ruberte, 39, of Kissimmee, Fla.; Luis Mattei-Albizo, 39, of Columbus, Ohio; and Brandon Jetter, 39, of McKeesport.

Bruce and Nathaniel McKnight also are charged with conspiring to distribute and possession with intent to sell 40 grams or more of fentanyl between March and September this year.

“These are significant federal charges,” Brady said. Because of the seriousness of the crimes and quantities of drugs involved, each offender could face fines of up to $10 million and mandatory sentences of 10 years to life in federal prison without parole, upon conviction. If they have prior drug convictions, the mandatory sentences could start at minimums of 15 or 25 years, he said.

In addition to Brady, multiple other state, federal and local law enforcement agency leaders attended Tuesday’s news conference from the departments that participated in the investigation and the arrests. They included Lamancusa, Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker and New Castle police Chief Bobby Salem.

“One thing we in law enforcement struggle and fight against every day is Mexican cartels and the drug trafficking that is coming to our communities from Mexico to both urban centers and smaller municipalities,” Brady said. “Mexican cartels and their drug trafficking are the greatest threat to our American way of life. Drugs from Mexico are flooding our streets,” he emphasized.

He named the communities of New Castle, Sharon, Farrell, Greenville – of which he is a native – and other parts of Lawrence and Mercer counties that have been afflicted by the drug trafficking.

“Much of these drugs are coming from source cities in Ohio, and they’ll sell whatever they can. They don’t care,” Brady said. “They’ll sell cocaine, they’ll sell fentanyl, heroin. The drugs the cartels are selling in our communities are cheap, they are pure, they are mass produced in clandestine labs in Mexico and they are shipped all over the United States. And as we in law enforcement know all too well, violence is a huge part of the cartel’s activities.

“How do we fight that? How do we keep your loved ones safe?” he asked. “We do it by standing shoulder to shoulder, as we are today. We do it by being relentless and going after the cartels and their U.S. distribution networks. And we give them no corridor in Pennsylvania. Between our state, local and federal agencies and prosecutors, there is no gap in the shield.”

The drug traffickers were bringing kilo quantities of cocaine and fentanyl into the western Pennsylvania region and had ties to the Jalisco New Generation cartel, one of the most violent cartels in all of Mexico, Brady said. Members of the conspiracy sent between 7 and 8 kilograms of cocaine to Columbus every week from Puerto Rico and Florida.

“Our goal in every investigation is ... to dismantle an entire operation,” Brady said. “Cartels are big business. They are violent, they don’t care who they hurt, and they don’t care about the lives they destroy. So we have to take the gloves off.”

Federal mandatory minimum sentences are absolutely essential to dismantling this kind of operation, he stressed. Brady touted the local leadership of Lamancusa and Acker as “absolutely indispensable for attacking an organization like this.”

“It would not have been a success without their leadership and their partnership,” he said. He also commended the New Castle and Farrell police departments, the Lawrence County Drug Task Force and Special Investigative Unit, the state police and the state Office of the Attorney General.

Also participating in the investigation partnership were the federal Drug Enforcement Administration bureaus in Pittsburgh, Columbus and Orlando, Fla., the Postal Service Office of the Inspector General, Homeland Security Investigations and the Internal Revenue Service.

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