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Published: July 31, 2009 11:16 pm   

DRUG BUST: Inside the drug group

Staff Reports
Niagara Gazette

Law enforcement officials are remaining tight-lipped about Thursday’s drug raids that yielded 21 arrests. But a review of the criminal complaint filed by FBI Special Agent Dennis Mattson with U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh B. Scott verifies the level of cooperation between federal, state and local authorities that brought down a major drug trafficking operation in Erie and Niagara counties.

One break may have occurred in August 2007 when Jason Hankinson was arrested by the Niagara County Drug Task Force on charges of possession of several ounces of cocaine. With Hankinson at the time of his arrest was Mark “Real Deal” Dumond, who a source said oversees Hankinson’s transactions for Keith Simmons, considered the brains behind the busted operation.

At a Thursday news conference announcing the arrests, State Police Lt. Kevin Barnas called the investigation “a classic case of law enforcement coming together for a common purpose.”

FBI Special Agent Earl Gould said it’s not unusual for various branches of law enforcement to work together and share information.

“They’ll come across something and bring it to our attention, or we’ll come across something and bring it to their attention,” Gould explained, but did not reference a specific case. “There’s dialogue that’s established.”

Up to seven “confidential sources,” including some former “associates” of the operation provided authorities with information that eventually led them to identify Simmons as the group’s leader. The sources allege that Simmons’ group has been distributing “multiple kilograms of cocaine per week for more than 10 years,” Mattson wrote. However, his group was only under surveillance since late 2007.

Simmons, the FBI alleges, centered his influence in North Tonawanda. A second “line of operation” in his group was operated by a second person. As authorities focused their investigation on Simmons, they found he frequently visited some of the most popular bars in the Twin Cities, but he also was known to conduct meetings at a Niagara Falls Boulevard restaurant in the Falls.

During surveillance, an undercover New York State Police agent got in touch with Simmons through a confidential informant and eventually met Simmons in the parking lot of a Grand Island restaurant to make three cocaine purchases in 2009, two in May and one in June, investigators said.

The complaint indicates that Simmons stored cash and drugs at several addresses, and he often stayed overnight with several girlfriends. He maintained an apartment on Grand Island, but his vehicles were registered in his name to his mother’s Town of Tonawanda home.

Confidential informants painted Simmons as the brains of the organization, while his top associate, Anthony “Soprano” Lamarand, who is also known as Murray Lamarand, acts as the brawn. He appeared to hold influence over many associates and, with Lamarand, allegedly threatened and harassed victims who crossed him. Lamarand is still at large, police said.

Surveillance indicates Simmons had dealers who also served as collectors, others who “held” product, and in some cases, observers. Transcripts of phone and text message conversations show he is sometimes demanding, but he also instructs dealers who owe him money that they can help themselves out if they provide “junk,” or diluted, product to their users. In several situations, people who allegedly owe Simmons money are called “faggot” by Simmons or Lamarand in police transcripts.

Speaking in general terms, Gould said it’s not unusual for a drug trafficking organization to have a certain level of structure, with several members assigned to certain tasks.

“There’s always a hierarchy. I don’t know if they have a five-year plan,” Gould added, “but they usually figure out who’s distributing, holding product. Some are very sophisticated, some are haphazard.”

Among locations where Simmons stored drugs and money was his “shop,” a garage at 146 1/2 Ironton Street in North Tonawanda, where he and Lamarand were observed making quick stops before making alleged drug transactions.

One informant said Simmons had at one point tried to go straight, but his business ventures all failed, so he remained “in the game.” The criminal complaint notes that although Simmons appears not to have a legitimate source of income, he laundered money into real property, including businesses, trucks, cars and boats.

His “prized possession” was a cigarette-style speedboat with flames and a skull custom painted on the side. The boat was sometimes maintained at a slip in the East Pier Marina in North Tonawanda, the federal complaint said.

Simmons apparently wasn’t afraid of being caught by authorities. He “has been bragging to the (confidential informant) working with the (undercover agent) about his ‘untouchable’ status and that he will not be subject to any consequences for selling cocaine. Simmons stated that his group of lawyers representing him are too strong,” the complaint said.

The complaint alleges the extent of his Simmons’ controlling nature was displayed in June when Simmons sought revenge on a victim whom he believed burglarized his Montrose Avenue apartment in the Town of Tonawanda in April 2008. On June 12, 2009, Simmons allegedly attempted to arrange with Joseph “Care Bear” Kozak to “set up” the victim and have Lamarand beat up the victim. The arrangement doesn’t happen.

Finally, on July 1, Lamarand allegedly assaulted the victim, who required stitches and plastic surgery. Authorities say the victim was assaulted after Simmons and Lamarand saw him driving his truck in the vicinity of River Road and Wheatfield Street.

Among phone conversations and text messages alleged in the transcript of the incident:

“Lamarand slammed on the brakes, got out, put this dude’s teeth through his ... jaw,” Simmons said. When asked who the victim is, Simmons replies “The kid that robbed the house.”

In another conversation, Simmons allegedly stated: “We tried to grab him out of the car, too.”

In a July 2 conversation, transcripts allege Simmons stated that Lamarand “grabbed him by the arm to pull him out ... cause I was gonna throw him in the back of the pickup and kidnap him.”

Part of the investigation centered around the popular Wheatfield night spot JT Wheatfield’s and one of its owners, Joe Tomasino, 2795 Colvin Blvd., Town of Tonawanda. Authorities provided in their federal complaint several examples of Tomasino’s alleged involvement in the drug trafficking organization.

Cell phone and text message conversations indicate Tomasino attempted to arrange a cocaine delivery by Lamarand to JT Wheatfield’s on June 5, and again on June 19. When Lamarand arrives on the 19th, however, Tomasino is gone.

“Now he gets nothing ... I have kids ... like Joe,” Lamarand allegedly said in a phone call to Simmons. Simmons told Lamarand to shove “it” under the door and that “he” will find them and pick them up later, indicating Tomasino will retrieve the delivery later.

Another time, Simmons and Lamarand plan to arrive at JT Wheatfield’s together, but they are running late. Tomasino allegedly sends a text message asking “What’s going to get here first, u or xmas?” to which Simmons replies “funny you should ask that.”

Investigators believe Simmons’ response is a reference to cocaine as snow and Christmas generally a time of year with snow.

According to the complaint, Simmons on July 3 called Lamarand and asked him to pick him up on the “Island” and not to forget paperwork for Joe, adding “JT’s needs us there too.”

“Based on other intercepted conversations and analysis of this conversation, it us believed that Simmons is telling Lamarand they need to re-supply Joe Tomasino and JT Wheatfield’s with cocaine,” the complaint states.

All of Tomasino’s alleged text messages end with the tag line, “JT Wheatfield’s. Food, Fun and Spirits!”

Phone and text message conversations indicate that Picone, the owner of Midas muffler shop on Payne Avenue, was a dealer, and that Kozak, one of his employees, is a user. Various conversations indicate Kozak owes Simmons a significant amount of money.

A series of text messages on June 5 indicate that Simmons wants Picone to withhold Kozak’s pay because he owes Simmons money:

“Find out how much Joey’s check is? Tell him I’ll see him in two hours,” wrote Simmons with Picone responding, “Gross was 380 so take home has to be like 300.”

Officials say another exchange demonstrates Picone’s role as a dealer and collector of narcotics debts.

The group’s second “line of operation” is allegedly run by Bill Hutchins, 216 Clover Place, Cheektowaga. His main associate is alleged to be Wes Albert, 1143 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston. Various phone and text conversations show that Hutchins has power over Albert and he frequently instructs Albert how to handle situations.

At one point, Hutchins is upset with extending lines of credit to narcotics customers who fail to pay. “I’m done fronting people, dude,” he tells Albert in an obscenity-laden June 14 phone conversation.

The Hutchins line allegedly worked primarily along Niagara Falls Boulevard. Transactions were often performed in parking lots of chain restaurants and stores, law enforcement officials say. Authorities on June 18 observed 10 customers depart a popular Town of Tonawanda bar to complete transactions with Albert, who was parked along the side of the building.

Although authorities would not say what was confiscated from individual addresses, the criminal complaint indicates that the home of Gary Licht, 4125 North Ridge Road, Cambria, was used to grow marijuana. Utility checks indicate “an extremely high electricity usage” of 2,758 kilowatt hours in June 2009, whereas the utility company indicates the average electricity usage should be 700-1,000 kilowatt hours per month. Officials attribute the high electricity usage to lamps and other equipment used to grow plants.

During Thursday’s round-ups, City of Tonawanda police made two unrelated arrests while serving the warrants. Jennifer L. Russo, 27, 89 Wheeler St., was charged with unlawful possession of marijuana when police reportedly found a small about of marijuana in a jewelry box. She was released on an appearance ticket.

Edward M. Karbowski, 30, 7010 Ralph Court, Niagara Falls, was inside one of the raided houses and told by police to get down on the ground. After telling him to get down three times to no avail, police took him to the ground, according to reports. He was handcuffed after he reportedly refused to show his hands while laying beside an AK-47 assault rife that had been pulled partially from its case. Karbowski was charged with obstruction of governmental administration and held for a judge.