"We're not messing around."
With those words, Schuylkill County District Attorney Karen Byrnes-Noon announced details of the arrests of 14 alleged Tamaqua area drug dealers on Thursday.
Flanked by members of her staff, Tamaqua police officers, agents from the Schuylkill County Drug Task Force and the Schuylkill County Sheriff's Department, as well as state police from the Frackville barracks, the DA served notice that the fight against drugs is one of her priorities.
Tamaqua Police Chief Rick Weaver and Patrolmen Anthony Stanell and Thomas Rodgers have conducted the bulk of the investigations on this side of Schuylkill County, with assistance from Lansford police and Rush Township Sgt. Duane Frederick.
"In the past seven months, we've been concentrating our efforts on heroin and cocaine dealers," Weaver said, "but our drug buys have been equal opportunity, including marijuana and prescription drugs such as oxycodone."
His officers made more than 30 controlled buys during the seven-month-long operation, making for some long hours as the deals were made at all times of the day and night. The chief thanked borough council and the mayor for supporting the department's efforts.
All but one of the defendants picked up this week faces charges for multiple incidents, which according to Weaver, "proves the sale is not a once and done occasion. The type of drug sold makes a difference when it comes to sentencing guidelines, as does the number of buys that are made. Three controlled buys means some serious jail time. To do that takes time and I'd like to thank the public for their patience after calling us with tips."
Byrnes-Noon noted an increase in confidential, anonymous tips to the Schuylkill County Drug Tip Hotline, 1-800-414-1406.
"When we started this push to rid our county of drug dealers, we placed large billboards in the western part of the county. I was invited to a meeting of the Tamaqua Safety Initiative, where citizens expressed their concerns with drug-related activity in the Tamaqua area. Council members and the mayor asked if it would be possible to have hotline posters placed in the Tamaqua area," said the District Attorney.
"We supplied those posters, which immediately found their way to homes and businesses. We began receiving tips involving drug transactions in Tamaqua, turned them over to Tamaqua police and Officers Rodgers and Stanell worked many, many hours, with the backing and help of Chief Weaver, to reach this point."
Jennifer Lehman, assistant district attorney, serves as the prosecutor for the bulk of the cases heard in the court of District Judge Stephen Bayer. She wants the public to know that "tips are important. They do pay off, even if it's not immediately."
She noted how the public, law enforcement agencies and the district attorney's office work together."
"Drug dealers don't just lose their freedom. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has the right to seize any property used in the commission of this crime. That could be something as simple as a cell phone to vehicles and even homes and businesses." (John O'Keefe, owner of Nirvana's Closet in the Schuylkill Mall, Frackville, and Dragon Chasers Emporium in the Fairlane Village Mall, Pottsville, was prosecuted last month through the combined efforts of the Schuylkill County Drug Task Force and Berks County Police.)
"While a few work together, maybe on one or two sales, most are working individually" said Patrolman Stanell. "It's not really an organized effort."
He noted that the vast majority of the sales took place within Tamaqua Borough limits, while the rest were just outside of the town's borders.
According to Officer Rodgers, "It's not like it's concentrated in one area of town. It's all over. These people are dealing from their homes, from their cars, near schools and day care centers. Drugs are a big problem, not just here, but everywhere."
In the past several weeks, authorities have conducted drug dealer sweeps throughout the county, including McAdoo last week and Tamaqua this week. Those efforts, according to Chief Weaver, will continue.
"Drugs are a major problem in this area, affecting the entire town, and we are going to do everything we can to clean up this mess."