Ambridge businessman faces jail for marijuana
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In 1904, American Bridge Co. erected a stately borough building for Ambridge, the company town, which was incorporated the next year.
For generations, the proud Victorian structure on Merchant Street housed the borough council, the tax collector, a police station, a community stage, even, at one time, a stable and hayloft for the fire department's horses.
When Ambridge built a new municipal complex in 1996, there was talk of turning the relic into a museum.
Instead, a local steel industry draftsman named Thomas E. Throckmorton bought it a couple of years later for $45,000 and renovated it for his company, Industrial Construction Enterprise. Then he filled it with pot.
Part of Mr. Throckmorton's enterprise, it turned out, was distributing huge amounts of Mexican marijuana trucked in from Arizona. One informant told state police he was storing 300 pounds at the Merchant Street building a week before troopers and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided it last summer.
Mr. Throckmorton is scheduled to appear Friday in federal court, where he could be sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for shipping 233 pounds of marijuana to Beaver County.
"The government would aver that the total amount of marijuana that could be considered for sentencing purposes is 1,253 pounds," Assistant U.S. Attorney Almon Burke wrote in court papers.
News of Mr. Throckmorton's descent into the drug trade surprised many who had worked with him over the years and knew him as a gregarious and friendly businessman. Others were not so surprised. They said he was impetuous and violent, given to threats and not to paying his workers or his bills.
Mr. Throckmorton's attorney, Paul Boas, didn't return a phone call, but in court papers, he downplayed the drug operation, describing it as "small, unsophisticated and relatively recent."
In arguing for leniency, he cited Mr. Throckmorton's myriad health problems and said the drug-dealing was an aberration for a family man who is an asset to the Ambridge community.
"For whatever reason Mr. Throckmorton got involved in the misconduct in question," he wrote, "it appears to be a totally isolated event in 62 otherwise good years of this man's life."
Maybe, but there was an incident in 2002 in which, police said, Mr. Throckmorton, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 300 pounds, barged into his late brother James' house in Bell Acres armed with a sawed-off shotgun and got into a brouhaha with James, James' son and two handymen.
It's not clear what that battle was about, but Mr. Boas said felony charges of aggravated assault were reduced to simple assault. At Mr. Throckmorton's trial in U.S. District Court this year, a judge ruled that the jury would not hear about that case.
Mr. Throckmorton's wife, Nancy, and his daughter, Julie Throckmorton-Meunier, a consultant for the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, also have extolled him as a fine man.
"Not only has he been loving, helpful and supportive to me, but also to most of the people around him," Ms. Throckmorton-Meunier wrote in a letter to the judge.
She didn't return a phone call, and Mrs. Throckmorton couldn't be found.
Court papers in Beaver and Allegheny counties show that Mr. Throckmorton's company had serious financial problems and was sued numerous times for failure to make payments.
"Tom owed a lot of people a lot of money," said Patti Kelley, the former treasurer of Contract Employment Services in Bridgeville, which won a judgment of more than $80,000 against Mr. Throckmorton's company.
Still, she said, the man she dealt with was always a gentleman.
"He never got belligerent with me," Ms. Kelley said. "He really was a nice guy. The first impression was that he was sincere."
Born in Beaver, where his father was a constable, Mr. Throckmorton grew up in rough circumstances, according to the letter his daughter sent to the judge.
"I feel that many of my father's problems have been caused by an unstable and abusive youth, and severe depression throughout his life, especially into later adulthood," she wrote. "This has caused him to not make the best life choices."
Mr. Throckmorton spent much of his career working in the steel industry as an engineer at companies such as Koppers, Alcoa, Green International in Sewickley and Centerline Engineering in Pine. In 1993, he incorporated Industrial Construction on Duss Avenue in Ambridge, at one point employing 35 engineers on jobs at local steel plants.
By the time he moved the company into the old borough building, he was largely a lone contractor working general construction jobs with a handful of employees.
He rented part of the space to WatchWORD Productions, which sells Bible videos and DVDs. He has since sold the building for $250,000 to an entity called GDT CGI, which plans to turn it over to WatchWORD.
Ambridge police said they didn't know anything about him. Neither did detectives with the Beaver County district attorney's office.
Councilman Mike Mikulich said that, once the borough sold the building, everyone pretty much forgot about it.
"We were just as shocked as anyone else" to read about the drug shipments, he said.
The operation was exposed July 17, 2005, when the Missouri State Highway Patrol pulled over a GMC truck on Interstate 44 driven by Robert Gailey and registered to Industrial Construction Enterprise.
Troopers found 233 pounds of pot in a secret compartment.
Mr. Gailey said he was transporting the drugs for Mr. Throckmorton, who told him to drive to Tucson, Ariz., to "pick up weed." He told police he had made similar trips to Arizona.
The first time, he said, he drove a truck to a Motel 6 near Tucson, left it there and flew back to Pittsburgh. Sometime later, he said, he flew back to Tucson. After a few days of waiting at the motel, the truck reappeared with 100 pounds of pot inside.
Mr. Gailey drove the truck back to Ambridge and delivered it to Mr. Throckmorton's business.
Mr. Gailey said he followed the same procedure last July. After being pulled over, he agreed to cooperate with the state police and DEA, who set up a controlled delivery.
As Mr. Gailey drove into Pennsylvania, Mr. Throckmorton told him to go to his home, a house in Economy that Mr. Throckmorton had converted from a barn overlooking rolling hills on Ridge Road Extension.
Mr. Gailey left the truck there and drove his motorcycle to the old borough building. Wearing a body wire, he recorded Mr. Throckmorton discussing the shipment and asking Mr. Gailey to go back to Tucson that Friday to pick up another 720 pounds of pot.
Agents and police, who were watching Mr. Throckmorton's house and business, took Mr. Throckmorton into custody and searched both places.
Mr. Throckmorton and Mr. Boas challenged the damning evidence in court, contesting the search warrants, the recordings and the original traffic stop in Missouri. The judge did toss the search warrant for the borough building, but the jury returned a guilty verdict.
Since then, Mr. Boas has claimed that Mr. Throckmorton's health is failing. His client, he said, deserves leniency because it is "unlikely that he will survive a lengthy sentence."
First Published July 30, 2006 12:00 am