Tony Sassano

Tony Sassano, acting special agent in charge of the state Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation, said that many drug kingpins never set foot in places like Johnstown where their drugs are sold.

In the spring of 2011, Kenneth Irving Carter started selling heroin in Johnstown.

Carter didn’t live in Johnstown, however – he ran his 15-member drug-dealing ring from Detroit, his hometown. 

His business in Johnstown was supervised by two lieutenants, Jelina Montez Cook and Dewann Jamal Macon.

Low-level ring members drove the drugs from Detroit to Cook’s residence, a so-called “stash house” on Bedford Street in the Hornerstown neighborhood of the city. 

There, the heroin was packaged for distribution.

The packaged heroin was then delivered to the Carter ring’s base of operations in western Pennsylvania – Macon’s rental house, located on a secluded country road near Blairsville – from which it was distributed to buyers throughout Cambria, Indiana and Westmoreland counties.

Carter’s ring operated for about a year before it was busted in 2012. 

Then in 2015, Carter was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Carter’s ring is a “very typical” example of how heroin and other drugs are brought to and sold in the Johnstown region, said Special Agent Patrick J. Trainor of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia division.

The Carter ring’s three-tiered structure – the boss at the top, his trusted lieutenants in the middle and local recruits at the bottom – is very common among drug operations in small towns and rural areas, according to Acting Special Agent in Charge Tony Sassano of the state Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation.

Sassano said many drug kingpins never set foot in the small towns where they sell their product.

“They don’t want to get arrested,” Sassano said.

Instead, the leaders send their subordinates to do the dirty work.

“These guys that keep coming over here have a short shelf life,” Sassano said. 

“They send these people over, make as much money as they can, and when these guys get arrested, it’s no big deal to the boss. He just sends another runner.”

Locals who are recruited into the ring are even lower in status. 

Sometimes they’re trusted to sell drugs, but often they simply provide the out-of-towners with places to stay, give rides and do the grocery shopping, Sassano said. 

Often, he added, these third-class conspirators are paid for their services in heroin.

“They’re more or less servants to the drug dealers who come to Johnstown,” Sassano said. 

‘Any port or airport’

By the time the heroin these dealers sell gets to the large American cities from which it is distributed around the country, it has already made several stops in its journey. The heroin that is distributed and used in western Pennsylvania and across the United States isn’t homegrown – it must be imported from outside the country, the experts said.

“Opium poppies don’t grow in Pittsburgh, obviously,” Trainor said. These flowers, from which heroin is produced, typically grow in South America and the Middle East, he said.

Sassano said Afghanistan is an especially significant source of opium poppies, adding that Mexican cartels have also been involved in heroin production.

Most American heroin comes from Mexico or South America and is transported into the country across the Mexican border, Trainor said. Still, every port city is vulnerable to drug trafficking, he added.

“Any port or airport where you have large amounts of cargo or commercial traffic going through is going to be of interest,” Trainor said. “Cities like New York, even Philadelphia, have pretty large ports with cargo ships coming in.

“Any major city that’s got a vibrant commercial hub is pretty desirable.”

The methods by which drug traffickers transport their product across borders are “as varied as you can imagine,” Trainor said. Sometimes, drug “mules” swallow bags of heroin or insert them into the soles of their shoes. Larger quantities can be moved in shipping containers or on trucks.

Other methods are more bizarre.

“We actually had a case in York where they sewed heroin into puppies,” Trainor said. 

“They surgically opened them up and implanted it inside Labrador retriever puppies.” 

‘Link to Johnstown’

Once it’s in the United States, heroin takes many different paths on its way to Cambria and Somerset counties.

In Pennsylvania, York and Philadelphia are the major hubs from which heroin is distributed, Trainor said.

The heroin sold in Johnstown typically comes from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York City, among other cities, according to Sassano.

“Columbus, Ohio, seems to have a direct link to Johnstown for some reason,” Sassano said.

Within the United States, heroin and other drugs are mostly transported by car along “the same corridors that you and I use on a daily basis,” Sassano said.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, a toll highway that runs from east to west across the state, provides one of the most convenient ways to transport cargo – legitimate or otherwise – from New Jersey and Philadelphia to western Pennsylvania, into Ohio and beyond. 

“(The turnpike) bisects the whole state,” Trainor said.

Many drug busts take place in Somerset because there’s a turnpike exit nearby, Sassano said. 

‘Heroin is everywhere’

The turnpike is by no means the only highway along which drugs are moved, though. 

Interstates 80 and 79 are also commonly used as thoroughfares for drug trafficking into the Cambria-Somerset region, according to Trainor.

Interstate 80, a coast-to-coast east-west route that runs across northern Pennsylvania, connects Pennsylvania to Cleveland and New York City. It intersects Interstate 79 – a north-south route that connects to Erie and Pittsburgh – in Mercer County.

Sassano also listed Interstate 99 as a major drug-trafficking corridor in western Pennsylvania. 

It intersects Interstate 80 near Bellefonte, Centre County, and runs south to Bedford. 

The highway connects to U.S. Route 22 in Hollidaysburg, Blair County, allowing travelers – including drug dealers – to head west, toward Ebensburg, Johnstown and Pittsburgh.

“The interstate highways we have are great for transporting you and me to different places,” Sassano said. “They’re also great for transporting drugs.”

The mobility afforded by America’s highways is just one of the reasons why heroin overdoses, including fatal overdoses, have skyrocketed to unprecedented heights in the Johnstown area and across the United States, in big cities and small towns alike.

“For a long time, crack cocaine was kind of an inner-city drug – not exclusively, but for the most part – and methamphetamine was sort of a rural drug, but heroin is everywhere,” Trainor said.

“It does not discriminate. It’s in every town, every demographic.”

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.