Drug bust’s grand jury probe detailed
With the suspects in last week’s drug sweep due in court today, the grand jury investigation that led to their arrests gives a detailed look into how state prosecutors believe the group worked together to traffick hundreds of pounds of crystal methamphetamine from Philadelphia to the streets of Blair County.
Starting in October 2018 with a tip to narcotics agents with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control, the investigation entailed informants, wiretaps, surveillance, cellphone location tracking, more than four dozen controlled buys, planned traffic stops and the search and seizure of drugs, cash and illegal guns, according to the report of a statewide investigative grand jury.
Now, 17 people face felony corrupt organization and drug charges with Altoona suspects Khalil Graham, Elroy Wise, Shawn Jackson, Carlos Custalow and Darwin Herring Sr. at the top of the list along with suspected Philadelphia sources Adrian Speedwell, Ricardo Cade and Nichole Merkerson-Beale, the report states.
For a year, Altoona police and state drug agents built their case, culminating in two key traffic stops in Cumberland County in October 2019 that allegedly turned up pounds of methamphetamine on its way to Altoona and cash on its way to Philadelphia. At the same time in Altoona, police executed several search warrants that allegedly yielded cash, guns and more drugs.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said last week the group sold an estimated $2.5 million worth of methamphetamine over the span of a year, with up to 10 pounds of the drug arriving in Blair County every seven to 10 days.
At an average of 5 pounds each week, over the course of the year, it was just about enough to have supplied each of Blair County’s 122,480 residents with about a gram of methamphetamine — as 260 pounds contains 116,480 grams.
With the grand jury report indicating street prices ranging from $100 for a gram, about $500 for a one-half ounce, $800 for an ounce and 4 ounces going for $1,600 — with one controlled buy involved 2 ounces for $1,750 — the return on the major players’ investment of $3,000 per pound shows the crystal methamphetamine trade in Blair County was highly lucrative.
Wiretaps captured the group’s suspected ringleaders talking about how much money their illicit operation was making them and the people they supplied and who supplied them, according to the grand jury.
In phone conversations, the 28-year-old Graham allegedly talked about supplying Jackson and Herring with methamphetamine, saying he put thousands of dollars of money into the pockets of Jackson, Herring and others, the report noted.
Graham, who allegedly supplied ounces and up to a pound to others on a daily basis, allegedly bragged in conversations with his girlfriend that “if everyone could sell drugs and do what he does, everyone would,” the grand jury pointed out in the report.
Graham allegedly supplied 36-year-old William “Billy” Snyder II with methamphetamine for resale as well as Kimberly Riggleman, 28; Troy Hicks, 31; and Terry Bookwalter Jr., 29.
Hicks and Graham were heard on a wiretapped conversation talking about Jackson, Wise and Herring, with the two agreeing everyone was making too much money to be fighting among themselves.
The 39-year-old Jackson allegedly received 2 pounds of the drug when the sources, including Graham and Custalow, would bring up to 10 pounds to Altoona every week or 10 days. It was Jackson who allegedly supplied Herring, Gerell Shepard and Wise.
In the summer of 2018, Jackson traveled to Harrisburg to meet Cade to pick up methamphetamine, and on one occasion in July of that year, Jackson wired Cade money via Western Union, the grand jury noted.
Wise, 44, allegedly received 2 to 3 pounds every time a shipment from Philadelphia arrived in Altoona. One witness told the grand jury he supplied Wise with $2,000 every few days while selling methamphetamine for him.
Wiretaps allegedly caught numerous conversations between Wise and people selling methamphetamine for him, including Aleeta-Queen-Dively, 40, and Jenna Raia, 35, where money and drugs were discussed.
During intercepted phone calls in late September 2019, Custalow and Graham were heard talking about “people being jealous of the amount of money that they were making selling drugs and needing to obtain methamphetamine to keep their people happy,” the grand jury report pointed out.
The wiretaps and tracking of suspects’ cellphones ultimately led to police monitoring a trip Speedwell planned to make to Altoona because he had gotten drunk a few days earlier when Custalow was in Philadelphia and had not delivered the methamphetamine after getting money from Custalow.
Police stopped Speedwell as he was driven by Merkerson- Beale in Cumberland County on Oct. 7, allegedly bound for Altoona with 4 pounds of methamphetamine.
Wiretaps revealed that Graham and Custalow, talked the same day as Speedwell’s Oct. 7 trip to Altoona about other potential sources of the drug and the money they were missing out on because of a lack of supply.
On Oct. 8, after learning Speedwell was arrested, Graham and Custalow pressed forward with plans to get more methamphetamine to replace the shipment seized by police.
Two days later, on Oct. 10, Graham and Custalow drove to Harrisburg to meet Cade so they could buy 3 pounds of methamphetamine for $9,000, according to the grand jury.
Graham and Custalow were stopped by police and taken into custody in Cumberland County as they were returning to Altoona. Police seized the drugs. Cade was arrested, and that money was seized.
Those cases in Cumberland County are being withdrawn so the charges from the traffic stop can be joined with the cases in Blair County.
Graham, Custalow and Merkerson-Beale remain on Blair County Prison while Cade and Speedwell, who both posted bail after their arrests in Cumberland County, are not yet arraigned on Blair County on the latest charges.
Today’s court appearances in Blair County Court before Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller are expected to involve getting court-appointed attorneys for the suspects with preliminary hearings to follow at a later date.
Four people charged in connection to the ring are still wanted, Altoona police reported on Facebook. They are: Carlos Custalow, 3012 W. Chestnut Ave.; Aleeta Queen-Dively, 2219 Broad Ave.; Troy Hicks, 1234 18th Ave.; and Terry Bookwalter Jr., Mapleton Depot. Anyone with information on their whereabouts is asked to contact police.
Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-1458.