CLEVELAND - Federal prosecutors Tuesday announced what they called the largest-ever heroin bust in Ohio.
The two-year investigation culminated Tuesday morning with the indictment of 24 people, including a Nigerian man nicknamed Shaka Zulu who lived in upscale Shaker Heights and a ringleader who lived in a $1 million home in Solon. Police believe he used drug proceeds to buy the house.
Attorneys for two alleged ringleaders declined to comment.
U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said, "This case is no takedown of street-corner drug dealers. This is a takedown of a sophisticated drug-trafficking organization and network."
The bust gives a glimpse at what police believe is a growing heroin trade in the Cleveland area.
"It's real huge in the suburbs now," said Cleveland police Detective Todd Clark, who along with partner John Dlugolinski ran the investigation.
The distribution ring, which acquired heroin from Nigeria, Mexico, and Colombia, stored the powdery drug in so-called stash houses around Cleveland and two eastern suburbs.
Police seized at least 44 pounds of heroin, which they packaged in plastic evidence bags and displayed yesterday during a news conference at Cleveland police headquarters.
A pound of heroin sells for about $34,000 wholesale, but the street value is much greater.
Police also grabbed $1.8 million in cash and a number of vehicles, including a Mercedes Benz, two BMWs, a Cadillac Escalade, a Lexus, and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
According to police, one of the main suppliers of the drug ring was Christopher Ugochukwu, also known as Shaka Zulu, who lived in an apartment near Shaker Square, where he was arrested earlier this summer.
He allegedly supplied high-level distributors Bryant Johnson and Richard Lanier, also known as Juice.
Johnson, 48, of Solon, and Lanier, 66, of Cleveland, dealt primarily on Cleveland's East Side. They also were arrested earlier this summer.
The charges were laid out in a 138-page indictment that includes transcripts of secretly taped phone calls of conspirators talking about drug deals using various code words. Conversations referred to heroin as playoff tickets and a Cadillac. The transcripts also mention meetings around town, including in the parking lot of the YMCA in downtown Cleveland and Larchmere Tavern, a popular restaurant just north of Shaker Square.
Of the 24 defendants, 16 middle to lower-level distributors in the ring were arrested yesterday. Six already were in custody. The whereabouts of the other two are unknown.
Local police latched on to the ring in the fall of 2008 after learning that heroin smuggled from Colombia to Miami was destined for Cleveland. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tracked a sale to John Sapp, known as Wren on the street, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Baeppler said. The investigation became known as Operation Little Wren because Sapp's younger brother Christopher inherited the drug operation after John went to prison.
A major investigation by the Northern Ohio Law Enforcement Task Force ensued involving the police departments of Cleveland and several suburbs, along with the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, and Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.
Two Chicago-area groups of Colombian heritage supplied the Sapp brothers, Ms. Baeppler said. One of those groups also obtained drugs from a Mexican man in Chicago.
Ugochukwu had his heroin smuggled in from Nigeria, Ms. Baeppler said. Police said they think the Sapp brothers hooked up with Lanier and Johnson and supplied each other when their sources were dry.
Detective Clark said the arrests have put a dent in the heroin business in the Cleveland area, but it won't stop it altogether.
"Somebody always picks up the business," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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