HAZLETON — Law enforcement officials converged on a downtown garage Tuesday morning and dismantled what they called one of the largest ecstasy warehouses in the state.
Agents with the state Office of Attorney General served a search warrant at 217 E. Spruce Alley, located behind Zenier’s Towing on the opposite side of the alley, between Poplar and Cedar streets.
Wearing white hazardous materials suits and breathing apparatuses, a response team began carrying out buckets — and later barrels — full of the toxic, potentially explosive chemicals used to manufacture MDMA, an acronym for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, with the street name ecstasy.
“Mostly, in Pennsylvania, what we’ve seen in the last couple years were one-pot labs — small, very small, almost for personal use. This is not that,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who was at the scene. “This is a manufacturing and distribution facility, and this is one of the most substantial that we’ve seen in Pennsylvania.”
Kane said the raid was the result of a continuing investigation after the discovery of an ecstasy lab last week in Hazle Township, which she called “one of the most substantial labs manufacturing ecstasy that we’ve seen in Pennsylvania.”
Link to Hazle Twp.
Kane said Martin John Kelly, who her office arrested in connection with the suspected lab located at 500 Ridge Ave., Hazle Township, also owns the Spruce Street garage agents raided Tuesday.
Agents on July 27 found 50 kilograms (about 110 pounds) of ecstasy, safrole oil, various glass vessels, unidentified liquids and chemicals, heat sources, receipts, $37,000 cash and manufactured waste sludge in Kelly’s residence, according to the criminal complaint and a news release from Kane’s office.
Kelly, 32, was charged with two counts of possession with intent to manufacture a controlled substance and one count each of possession of a controlled substance, possession of chemicals with intent to manufacture a controlled substance and risking a catastrophe. He was arraigned and jailed for lack of $1 million bail.
“Last week’s arrest, if that lab had blown, it would have taken out half the block. And the chemicals stored in this area are just as dangerous,” Kane said, referring to the Spruce Alley garage.
“This seems to be the place where they have stored, shipped and brought the chemicals to in barrels, substantial amounts, stored the chemicals there and then brought them for manufacturing to another area,” she said.
Kane said her agents applied for more search warrants following the Hazle Township lab discovery and acquired documentation to show where the chemicals were either being shipped or stored. “And we also have a confidential informant,” she said.
Hazleton Police Chief Frank DeAndrea said he was grateful to Kane and her agents for conducting the raid and removing the chemicals.
“We don’t have the ability, the staffing, the expertise to take down a drug lab of this magnitude. You’re talking about hundreds of pounds and hundreds of gallons of chemicals,” DeAndrea said. “This is not just a quality-of-life, I-can’t-sit-on-my-porch, something-stinks. This is an extreme danger, exploding-a-block type of issue.”
DeAndrea noted that it was members of the Office of Attorney General’s Child Predator Section that discovered the suspected Hazle Township lab while serving a warrant related to child pornography.
“They were expert enough to recognize … all of these makings of an ecstasy lab. And so they called the lab team in. They do that, and then they don’t ride on the laurels of taking down what was the largest ecstasy lab in the area. They go into an investigation, interviews, and that leads us here today,” DeAndrea said.
DeAndrea recalled Kane’s last visit to Hazleton in February 2014, when her Mobile Street Crimes Unit made more than 40 arrests and seized 9,060 packets of heroin in a three-day sweep. She trumpeted the fact that the unit had made more than 100 arrests and seized more than 35,000 packets of heroin in southern Luzerne County over the previous five months.
“The General, when she left here Feb. 19, 2014, told the entire commonwealth and the community, ‘You are not forgotten, every street counts, and I’ll be back as many times as you need me.’ This is one of those times where we needed the AG’s help,” DeAndrea said. “I’m just (grateful) that she is willing to come into our community and into our area as often as she does.”
Kane said meth and ecstasy had not been seen as a big problem in Pennsylvania a few years ago. But her intelligence unit has since discovered that drug suppliers have three basic “substations” in Pennsylvania, “and this one, in the Hazleton area, is one of them.”
“They’re coming to this part of the state because the drug cartels create a marketplace. So where there was none before, they will front the drugs, they’ll get people hooked on the drugs and then they’ll create this marketplace with a continuing revenue stream,” Kane said.
Kane said rural areas such as the Hazleton, Scranton and Altoona areas are “easy to reach” by interstate, “and the cartels know we have limited forces in this area, whether it’s through local police or whether they have state police coverage. So more of the rural areas are seeing more of a problem now with ecstasy and meth.”
Kane said she and her agents came to Hazleton on Tuesday because of her office’s partnership with DeAndrea, the Hazleton Police Department and state police.
“We want everyone to know that we work together, that this is good, old-fashioned police work and that we don’t forget neighborhoods like Hazleton, we don’t forget streets such as this, such as Spruce Alley,” Kane said. “And we are going to make sure that we hit every street, clean up every neighborhood and run these dealers out of Pennsylvania.”
Reach Steve Mocarsky at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @TLSteveMocarsky.