Heroin dealer from North Side crew blows second chance, sent back to prison

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A former top-level drug boss who got a second chance at a law-abiding life blew it and was sentenced today to 10 years in prison for heroin possession and intent to deliver.

Donald Lyles, 39, who has addresses in Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills, was sentenced in 2002 to life in prison for engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. He was one of the two leaders of a North Side-based crew that then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the largest drug ring ever prosecuted in Western Pennsylvania.

In 2009, U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose changed Lyles' sentence to time served and referred him to the court's workforce development program. The reasons for the reduction in sentence are sealed.

The big break seemed to be paying off in early 2012, when a lawyer for Lyles reported to the court that he was working for Coca-Cola. But late last year Pittsburgh police caught him with a gun and in April he was arrested delivering around 100 grams of heroin.

Without the past conviction, Lyles might have faced just six or seven years in prison. The past conviction set up a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.

"I could talk for four days and you wouldn't change your mind," defense attorney Gary Zimmerman told U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone. "Or you would be in the cell next to Don."

"The sentence was pretty much predetermined," Judge Cercone agreed.

Lyles declined to explain his crime to the judge.

After release, Lyles faces eight years of federal probation. Mr. Zimmerman argued unsuccessfully to have that reduced to four years.

Asked why Lyles didn't stay on the straight and narrow, Mr. Zimmerman attributed it to the seven years he served.

"When you incarcerate someone for a long period of time, and they go back out to society, it's very difficult to adjust," he said. "I think if someone's in jail for more than five years it affects them mentally."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord.

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