Drug bust in Venango County nets 16 of 21 people charged

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Agents from the state attorney general's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and local police officers yesterday began arresting 21 people who are charged with selling heroin and cocaine in Venango County.

The charges, based on the recommendation of a statewide grand jury, stem from a 10-month investigation dubbed "Operation Raw Deal."

As of yesterday afternoon, 16 of the 21 suspects were in custody, said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

Attorney General Tom Corbett said that between Feb. 2, 2006, and Nov. 8, BNI agents made 39 controlled drug purchases in Venango County. Most of them occurred in Oil City, but drug deliveries also took place in Franklin, Titusville, Sugarcreek and Cranberry Township.

Mr. Corbett said the drug sales occurred at homes, apartments and trailer parks in the county, as well as at the library, fast-food restaurants and various businesses in Oil City.

"This investigation demonstrates how pervasive illegal drugs can be and how quickly communities like Oil City can become the center of a drug trafficking network," Mr. Corbett said.

The grand jury identified the principal figures in the drug organization as Leroy Birchard, 24, of, Venus, Venango County, and John Watkins, 35, of Cleveland.

The charges allege that on a weekly basis, Mr. Birchard and Mr. Watkins traveled to Pittsburgh and Hazleton, Luzerne County, respectively, to buy heroin and cocaine. They would then repackage the drugs for distribution through street-level dealers in Oil City.

Mr. Corbett said that during the investigation, BNI agents made six controlled purchases from Mr. Birchard and two from Mr. Watkins, who remained at large yesterday.

The grand jury found that Brian O'Reilly, 31, of Hudson, Ohio, was involved in the sale of heroin, along with Oil City residents Jerry Buck, 34; Misty Goodman, 28; Anthony Hale, 25; Kevin Hibbard, 23; Wendy Hoover, 45; Steven Jackson, 23; William Scholl, 40; Ronald Swanson Jr., 25; and Kevin VanWormer, 22.

Additionally, Mr. Corbett said the grand jury found that Mr. Birchard, Mr. Hibbard, Mr. Goodman, Mr. Scholl, Mr. O'Reilly and Mr. VanWormer were involved in the sale of cocaine, along with Mr. Hale and his wife, Kimberly Hale, 27; Jason Quigley, 23; Shane Stahlman, 20; Brian Reed, 24; and Jerry Ray Breck III, 23, all of Oil City. Agents also made a controlled purchase of ecstasy from Mr. and Mrs. Hale, he said.

Agents are also charging several Venango County residents with delivery of other controlled substances. Shirley Crispen, 50, of Oil City, is charged with the delivery of morphine; Sherry Luhellier, 36, and Rodney Plowman, 40, both of Oil City, are charged with the delivery of hydrocodone; Ms. Hoover is also charged with the delivery of marijuana; and Shelley McElhatton, 43, of Franklin, is charged with the delivery of hydromorphone.

The Hales, Mr. Breck and Ms. Crispen also remained at large yesterday.

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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