Californian sentenced to 20 years in prison for distributing cocaine in Western Pa.

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Everyone agreed that Damon L. Collins was heading to prison for 20 years as one of the last decade’s biggest known sources of cocaine to Western Pennsylvania. The only question was how to interpret his tattoos.

Collins, 47, of Brentwood, Calif., accepted blame for steering 132 kilograms of cocaine to Pittsburgh and for laundering $2.1 million in drug proceeds. He was part of a ring that is being prosecuted for shipping an estimated 2,000 kilograms of cocaine from California to Pittsburgh.

Collins kept an apartment in Elkridge, Md., guarded by a former Washington, D.C., police officer, where drug deals were made and money was counted. When federal agents closed in on him, he went on the run for 20 months, assuming a new identity and enlisting in his efforts at concealment a network of people -- including his mother, who also faces money laundering conspiracy charges.

He was captured after an intensive manhunt that involved IRS Criminal Investigations, subpoenas of financial records, surveillance and door-knocking, and finally cell phone tracking that led to a California address where he was arrested.

The hunt resulted in the discovery and indictment of several co-conspirators, assistant U.S. attorney Ross Lenhardt wrote in pre-sentencing filings.

Collins pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine in the middle of trial in October, accepting 20 years in light of sentencing guidelines that could have put him in prison for life.

In pre-sentencing sparring, Mr. Lenhard and defense attorney Richard B. Mazer debated the significance of Collins’ tattoos. The prosecutor said a “415” on Collins’ right shoulder was a clear sign of affiliation with California’s feared Kumi 415 prison gang. Mr. Mazer countered that it was just a reflection of pride in San Francisco’s area code.

“There’s no basis whatsoever that Mr. Collins was a gang member or associate of any gang,” Mr. Mazer told U.S. District Judge David S. Cercone. The suggestion in court records “puts him at risk” in prison.

“I am ready, willing and able to prove my allegation,” said Mr. Lenhardt, indicating that if the court wanted a tattoo-by-tattoo translation, it needed only to have Collins strip down to the waist.

Judge Cercone declined to rule on whether or not Collins was a gang member, saying it was irrelevant to the sentence.

Collins’ half-million-dollar Brentwood home, Jaguar and Mercedes have already been seized, and he owes the government $2.1 million, if it ever discovers that he has any assets.

Rich Lord: or 412-263-1542. Twitter: @richelord.

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