In big Erie drug case, even lesser defendants face long sentences for coke, meth, fentanyl

The seriousness and sweep of an Erie-based international drug ring is becoming increasingly clear as the first of the 25 defendants in the case plead guilty and head to federal prison for dealing cocaine, methamphetamine or fentanyl.

Even the defendants accused of operating at the mid- or low levels of the massive case — one of the largest of its kind prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Erie — are getting exposed to lengthy prison terms.

The defendants charged in the highest levels of the case are accused of trafficking in as much as 220 pounds, or about 100 kilos, of powder and crack cocaine that originated in Costa Rica and was shipped from Puerto Rico to Erie from January 2020 to May 2022. The conspiracy also stretched into Florida, according to the government.

Cases advances:First guilty plea entered in 25-person Erie-based drug ring; 15,000 fentanyl pills mailed

The U.S. Attorney's Office put the street value of the cocaine at as much as $3.2 million and said gangs distributed the drugs on Erie's streets. The investigation started when postal inspectors intercepted packages of cocaine bound for Erie, according to court records.

The lead defendants — they include Eric Suarez Robles, of Orlando, Florida, and Victor Felix Ogando DeLeon, of San Juan, Puerto Rico — are still being prosecuted as some of the lesser defendants resolve their cases. The lead defendants, if convicted, would face maximum sentences of life because of the amount of the drugs involved.

The latest defendant in the case to get a better idea of his fate is Dante L. Husband, a 31-year-old Erie resident who played a limited role in the drug operations.

The federal courthouse in Erie has been the scene of guilty pleas and sentencings connected to the May 2022 indictment of 25 defendants on drug charges.
The federal courthouse in Erie has been the scene of guilty pleas and sentencings connected to the May 2022 indictment of 25 defendants on drug charges.

He pleaded guilty on Thursday to a felony county of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of about 4 ounces of methamphetamine, about 108.2 grams, in March 2022. It was the only charge that Husband faced in the case.

Husband is listed as the 22nd person on the indictment in the drug case. He is facing a mandatory minimum of five years and a maximum of 40 years in federal prison at his sentencing on May 25 before U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter, who accepted his plea.

If Baxter decides to go beyond the mandatory minimum sentence, she will rely on the recommended federal sentencing guidelines, which take into account a defendant's guilty plea, prior record and other factors, she said in court. Husband has a prior record, and is being held in the Erie County Prison on a parole detainer related to a prior drug case, he told Baxter.

In the federal case, Husband pleaded guilty to selling the meth for $1,200 to an FBI "confidential source" in a sting at a residence in the 1900 block of Prospect Avenue in Erie on March 24, according to information the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Sellers, presented in court.

The government accused Husband of having something of a tangential role in the overall drug case. He was not charged with conspiracy — as were many of the other defendants — but was charged with dealing meth on his own. He nonetheless faces a significant sentence.

15,000 fentanyl pills leads to a sentence of 10 years

Another significant prison term was already given to the first defendant who pleaded guilty in the case. He is Vincent A. Feliciano, 32, an Erie resident. Baxter sentenced him on Wednesday to 10 years in prison and five years of supervised release for dealing in fentanyl, the highly addictive synthetic opioid. The indictment lists Feliciano as the 11th-highest defendant of the 25.

Feliciano pleaded guilty in October to being part of an operation in which he traveled to Arizona and helped mail 15,000 blue fentanyl pills from there to Erie between Feb. 28, 2022, and March 3, 2022. The pills were worth a total of about $75,000 on the street — $5 per pill — and weighed a total of about 4 pounds, or 1.7 kilograms, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The pills, known as "blues" because of their color, were disguised to look like legitimate oxycodone pills, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Feliciano pleaded guilty to the only two charges against him: one felony count each of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute illegal drugs, and use of mail in interstate commerce in aid of a business enterprise involving illegal drugs.

The charges against Feliciano carried a maximum sentence of life due to the amount of drugs involved. Under the plea deal, the U.S. Attorney's Office and and the defense recommended to Baxter that Feliciano get a sentence of 10 years in federal prison and forfeit $8,826 in cash — a recommendation that Baxter followed. The 10-year sentence represented the mandatory minimum sentence in the case and also was a term that fell within the recommended federal sentencing guidelines, according to the plea letter.

At the sentencing, Sellers, the prosecutor, highlighted the recent spike in the trafficking of fentanyl pills in Erie and how the pills have become more lethal for the users but more profitable for the dealers, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Feliciano's court-appointed lawyer, Michael DeRiso, of Pittsburgh, said the 10-year sentence was appropriate given the recommended sentencing guidelines, Feliciano's guilty plea and his difficult childhood, according to a sentencing memorandum. DeRiso in the memo said Feliciano's mother raised him as a single parent in a "low-income environment."

"Mr. Feliciano dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, resulting in his turning to the streets and criminal conduct and subsequently, periods of imprisonment," according to the memo.

Feliciano started using drugs at 13 and was addicted to fentanyl at the time he was charged in the federal case, according to the memo. It also states "it is beyond discussion that the offenses for which Mr. Feliciano stands convicted are serious."

A guilty plea for cocaine and fentanyl in Erie case

The other defendant in the drug case to plead guilty is Peter D. Gambill Jr., a 25-year-old Erie resident listed 16th in the indictment. He pleaded guilty on Dec. 6 to the only charge against him: the felony of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute cocaine and fentanyl in Erie from February to May 2022.

Gambill admitted to trafficking in cocaine totaling 4.4 pounds, or about 2 kilograms, and about 5.7 ounces of fentanyl, or about 160 grams, according to the plea letter in his case. About 1,000 fentanyl pills were involved, according to allegations in court records.

U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter is handling the case of 25 defendants indicted on charges of related to drug trafficking in Erie.
U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter is handling the case of 25 defendants indicted on charges of related to drug trafficking in Erie.

Gambill faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and a maximum sentence of 40 years, the same range as Husband. Gambill's sentencing is scheduled for March 31 before Baxter.

Gambill remains detained at the Erie County Prison. In ordering him detained, in June, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard A. Lanzillo noted in his detention order that Gambill has a prior record for violent behavior and is accused of trafficking in "up to 1,000 synthetic fentanyl pills."

"Fentanyl of the nature allegedly distributed by the Defendant is strongly associated with the death of countless individuals, including numerous members of this community," Lanzillo wrote in his detention order.

Contact Ed Palattella at Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Fentanyl, cocaine, meth: Big Erie drug case yields more guilty pleas