Sunday, February 17, 2008

The "Drug Wars" (6)- Pittsburgh, 1988

"Reporting live from the scene here in Aspinwall....."

Recently, I have been looking through old newspaper clippings from my DEA years on cases that I was involved in. These include articles from Los Angeles, Bangkok, Milan, and Pittsburgh. One of the more memorable was from a case in Pittsburgh in 1988. As I previously stated, I am trying to choose stories that are funny. Most of this story is not funny since it involves many overdose deaths. The funny part comes at the end.

* Please be aware that anyone named here was convicted and sentenced to a long prison sentence. It is public record.

During 1988, the Pittsburgh area was swept by a series of 13 drug overdose deaths attributed to fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic that was being used as a heroin substitute by addicts. Due to its extreme potency, it was being marketed as "China White", a pure form of white heroin that originated in SE Asia. It was clear that it was being manufactured by someone with a chemist background, but we had no idea who.

It goes without saying that this case was frontpage news in Pittsburgh for months.

After a long investigation by the DEA office in Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh PD, federal search warrants were obtained on a series of homes in the Pittsburgh area to be executed early in the morning.

I happened to be leading a team at one of the sights to be hit with a search warrant. It was our plan to hit the houses simultaneously at a certain hour. However, about 30 minutes prior, we saw that the local news media was arriving in our area. We had to hit the house immediately. It appeared that our politically-minded US Attorney in Pittsburgh had alerted the news media, an action that put the operation and the safety of the agents in danger.

One of the main persons arrested was a guy named Donald Sunkin, 39, who, as I recall was the operator (sole operator I suppose), of an enterprise dedicated to retrieving golf balls from water hazards on local golf courses. The name of the business was "Sunkin Treasures", if I recall correctly. But I digress.

Anyway, later that day, we determined where the lab was and the name of the chemist. Search warrants were obtained and our regional lab group was summoned from Philadelphia to supervise the raid. (Drug labs are, by their very nature, hazardous sites, subject to contamination and explosions. After the raid, there is a costly hazmat clean-up necessary). It was determined that our suspect was a laid off chemist named Thomas Schaefers, 48, who lived with his elderly parents in their home in Aspinwall, outside Pittsburgh. (I'm not making this up, folks.)

It was pretty late at night (December 1, 1988) when we set up surveillance outside the house. We had decided that rather than just hit the door, for safety reasons, we would wait until the next morning when the suspect left the house to make an arrest and search. However, our guy came out of the house that night and was placed in custody in the driveway, whereupon, we secured the house and found the lab in the cellar. The elderly parents were moved to a nearby hotel. The search and clean-up, as I recall, took about two days. Of course, the breaking of the case was huge news in Pittsburgh.

Now comes the good part. The following evening, some of us (DEA/Pittsburgh PD)were still occupying the house to keep it secure until the clean-up could be resumed the following day. During the evening, a local Pittsburgh TV news crew showed up in front of the house to film a live broadcast from the front yard. As they prepared to do their broadcast, one of the PD guys turned on the TV in the living room. As the live broadcast began, he then moved to the front window, put his hand between the drapes and flipped a long, continuous bird to the camera, which no one in the news crew noticed. The rest of us watched the whole scene live on TV. All throughout the live 2 minute blurb, there was a middle finger protruding through the window.

Professional? No, but a precious memory of sticking it to the news media.

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