Police say the kingpin of a major heroin processing operation chose a modest apartment near a quiet Richland Township neighborhood to avoid drawing suspicion.
But authorities have been tracking James Andre Hendricks, 37, for about three years and were able to connect him with several heroin deals before raiding the apartment off Bedford Street near Alvin Street Thursday.
Inside they found what appears to be the largest heroin operation ever uncovered in Cambria County.
“I’ve never seen that much raw heroin at one single time,” said Detective Kevin Price of Cambria County Drug Task Force.
“I’ve been working in central Pennsylvania since 1999,” said Anthony Sassano, a special investigator with the attorney general’s office. “This is the most I have, personally, ever seen.”
The investigation and search of the apartment led to the arrest of Hendricks, along with Dian Shanell Lassiter, 30, and Logan Harris, 31.
Hendricks and Lassiter were living in the Bedford Street rear apartment, while Harris’s address is listed as Plainfield, N.J.
Price said Hendricks was also from New Jersey, and Lassiter is from Johnstown.
Inside the apartment, police found large quantities of heroin, drug paraphernalia and packaging, along with a marijuana growing operation, two handguns, 13 cellphones and cash.
Hendricks was charged with seven drug-related offenses and one charge each of receiving stolen property and illegal possession of a firearm. Five of the counts are felonies.
Harris faces eight drug charges and two illegal possession of firearms counts. The charges include six felonies.
Lassiter was charged with seven drug crimes and illegal possession of a firearm. Three are felonies.
Hendricks and Lassiter also are charged with selling drugs in connection with controlled buys involving police informants. Hendricks sold to informants on Aug. 8 and twice this week in parking areas around Richland Town Centre, police say. Lassiter was charged in Jan. 10 sale in Moxham.
All are in Cambria County Prison on $1 million bond each, District Attorney Kelly Callihan said during a press conference at Richland police headquarters.
Hendricks was taken into custody Thursday at Richland Town Centre after a drug buy. Police immediately entered the Bedford Street apartment with a search warrant and found the drug operation in an upstairs bedroom, Richland Detective Thomas Keirn said.
Local police have been aware of Hendricks’ operations for about three years, but found it difficult to track his movements, Price said.
“He spent a lot of time out of the area, going back and forth,” Price said.
The situation changed when the attorney general’s team joined the investigation, along with FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency resources.
Local operations moved several times, using different homes, apartments and hotel rooms, Price said.
“They knew we were after them,” he said.
The team also used numerous rental cars to avoid detection, Price said.
“This had the makings of a big drug business,” Callihan said, noting the car rentals and cellphones seized.
“You can read between the lines,” she continued. “Why do they need so many cellphones? This is the way drug dealers try to avoid detection.”
Heroin seized in the raid had an estimated street value of $250,000, and the packaging operation was just as ominous.
There were scales, grinders, individualized stamps and 30,000 “stamp bags” ready to be filled. Each bag has a street value between $15 and $20.
Authorities believe the operation distributed $100,000 in heroin each month in Cambria, Somerset, Blair and Indiana counties.
Although it is good news there is less heroin on the streets, Callihan warned the drought may lead to a spike in property crime as desperate addicts compete for reduced supply.
She advised residents to be vigilant, but not frightened. Locking doors and being aware of the surroundings are always good ideas, she said.
“Anytime you take out an operation this big, people need to find other means to feed their habit,” Callihan said.
The investigation is not over, Price said, noting the extended investigation touched other individuals.
Shortly after the investigation, a local towing company was helping police take possession of Mercedes-Benz car owned by Lassiter and parked outside the Bedford Street apartment.
Richland police Chief Michael Burgan said Thursday’s roundup illustrates the value of police agencies’ cooperation.
“This shows, with teamwork, how we can do a good job,” Burgan said. “All the agencies worked together.”
Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.