Seventeen properties, most of them in Hazelwood, have been seized from a man accused of distributing two tons of cocaine worth an estimated $40 million wholesale from 1991 until last year and laundering it through real estate bought with casino winnings and Pennsylvania Lottery tickets.
Terrance Larnell Cole, 36, of Hazelwood, is the owner of the houses, but federal prosecutors plan to take them in a criminal forfeiture as part of an investigation by the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the state attorney general's office and the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS.
Cole, known as "Big Head" or "The Boss," and two alleged co-conspirators, Quincy L. Jones, of Beltzhoover, and Kevin L. Gray, of Duquesne, are under indictment in U.S. District Court.
Jones remains free on bond after his arraignment yesterday, and Gray has also been released on bond.
But Cole, the accused kingpin and a man described by witnesses as a violent drug dealer with a history of gunplay and intimidation, is being held in federal custody pending trial following his arrest May 27.
He has also been ordered held for court on a state charge of carrying an illegal gun during a traffic stop in the middle of the night on Grant Street in January.
If convicted on the federal charges, Cole is facing at least 30 years in prison and could get life because of the volume of drugs and his history. Although he has no convictions, he has been arrested numerous times for rape, murder and other felony offenses, but witnesses have been afraid to testify against him.
During a coroner's inquest in 1999, for example, a key witness arrived carrying a gun to testify against Cole and another man charged with homicide. When the man refused to surrender his gun, he was told to leave.
The homicide charge was later dropped because the district attorney's office couldn't make a case.
According to information presented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Nescott at a detention hearing last week, Cole used both violence and cash payoffs to witnesses to stay out of jail and protect one of the largest drug rings ever prosecuted in Pittsburgh.
The wholesale value of the cocaine that he distributed is estimated at $40 million, Nescott said, with Cole taking in profits of $5 million to $10 million. Witnesses told the grand jury that the ring transported the cocaine in shipments of 100 to 150 kilograms at a time, using moving vans or vehicles with hidden compartments. The source of the drugs has not been identified publicly, but more indictments are expected.
Agents say Cole used drug money to buy $1 million worth of properties between 1995 and 2002, including an apartment building in East Liberty worth $380,000.
As part of the indictment, the U.S. attorney's office has moved to forfeit that building and another apartment building in Wilkinsburg, along with 14 houses Cole owns.
Prosecutors also plan to take his Range Rover and a Lexus, both of which he bought for more than $70,000, in addition to an Acura and a Ford.
Six of his bank accounts holding $146,000 have also been frozen.
Major drug dealers often launder money by buying real estate, but Cole's method was unusual.
According to the charges, he tried to mask his drug income by either converting it into casino checks in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas, where he was a regular gambler, or by buying other people's winning lottery tickets.
He cashed in the tickets, paid the taxes and then, investigators say, used the checks to buy up houses in Pittsburgh, many in his own neighborhood.
His organization rivals and could surpass another huge ring in Pittsburgh dismantled in recent years, run on the North Side by Oliver Beasley and Donald Lyles, both of whom are serving life in prison for flooding the region with cocaine from Atlanta and heroin from New Jersey.
Attorney General John Ashcroft called that ring the largest ever prosecuted in Western Pennsylvania. But when agents mentioned Beasley's name during Cole's arrest, according to testimony, he told them, "Beasley's a punk. I robbed him before and I'll rob him again."
Cole ostensibly ran an auto-detailing shop in a Hazelwood back alley, but witnesses said the shop did almost no work and produced fake receipts. He also incorporated a business called TC Development -- "TC" was another nickname -- through which he bought his real estate.
Those properties will eventually be put up for sale if Cole is convicted.
After prosecutors file for forfeiture, real estate is typically auctioned off to the highest bidder after the criminal case ends.
Torsten Ove can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.