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AG Shapiro: Sanders, six others part of ‘major drug trafficking operation’
A local business owner who is challenging McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko in this year’s election has been arrested by state drug enforcement agents and accused of being part of a cocaine trafficking ring allegedly led by his campaign manager.
Corry J. Sanders, 52, who obtained a pardon for a previous drug offense through the efforts of now-U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and other elected officials, is charged by the state attorney general’s office with two counts each of drug possession, possession with intent to deliver and delivery.
The arrest — originally reported by Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV on New Year’s Eve — was confirmed Thursday afternoon by the attorney general’s office.
Investigators allege that Sanders sold cocaine to a confidential informant on two separate occasions, including at his Locust Street barbershop, Kool Kutz, in November 2022.
Candidate says he will be vindicated
Sanders told Tube City Almanac on Thursday night that he was unable to comment on the charges on the advice of his attorney, but that he would be issuing a statement as soon as possible.
In posts on Facebook, Sanders has maintained his innocence.
“My lawyer will prove all you haters and liars wrong, soon enough, with facts,” Sanders wrote. “Vindication is around the corner. Trust and believe! Still running for mayor.”
A message left for Sanders’ attorney, David Chontos of Wilkins Twp., was not immediately returned on Thursday night.
AG: ‘Major drug trafficking operation’
In a prepared statement, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Thursday afternoon that Sanders and six other Mon-Yough area men were part of a “major drug trafficking operation” that investigators allege was headed by Curtis M. Harper Jr., 52, of McKeesport.
Shapiro is scheduled to be sworn in as governor on Jan. 17.
Shapiro’s running mate, Lt. Gov.-Elect Austin Davis, was one of many prominent community leaders, including now-Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who supported Sanders’ efforts to be pardoned for a previous drug arrest that prevented him from taking a seat on McKeesport City Council in 2016.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office stressed the charges are accusations only and that “the defendants are innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
Shapiro’s office said the investigation was conducted over the span of 11 months by state agents in cooperation with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Narcotic Enforcement Team and police officers from McKeesport, White Oak and North Huntingdon Twp.
“The defendants profited from selling dangerous drugs that have devastated lives across Western Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said Thursday. “These arrests are a reminder that our office will pursue drug trafficking organizations no matter which community they prey upon in our Commonwealth.”
Wiretaps, intercepted text messages led to charges
According to affidavits of probable cause filed in Allegheny County Night Court, the investigation included the use of confidential informants, wiretaps, intercepted text messages, covert video surveillance and computer analysis of websites that were allegedly used to take and pay off bets.
The websites were hosted in Costa Rica, investigators allege, in an attempt to avoid U.S. law enforcement.
Harper has been best known locally as the leader of an anti-violence mentoring group called Concerned Fathers that organized fishing trips and other activities for local youth. He also has volunteered with the McKeesport Little Tigers youth football program.
Numerous sources told Tube City Almanac that Harper was serving as manager of Sanders’ mayoral election campaign. According to records at the Allegheny County Division of Elections, Sanders has already submitted his first campaign expense report to run in the Democratic primary against Cherepko.
Illegal sports gambling also alleged
In the criminal complaint against Harper, investigators accused him of being the leader of a “large-scale cocaine trafficking network in conjunction with an illegal sports bookmaking operation in and around Western Pennsylvania” and allege that Harper took in “tens of thousands of dollars” in illegal bets each week.
The attorney general’s office claims that during the investigation, agents and police recovered more than 1,470 grams of cocaine with a street value of more than $147,000; 16 grams of crack cocaine with a street value of $1,600; 8.5 grams of heroin with a street value of $1,700; and three firearms.
Harper is charged with 15 counts each of possession of controlled substances and delivery of controlled substances; as well as dealing in the proceeds of illegal activities, running a corrupt organization, criminal use of communications facilities, possession with intent to deliver, and illegal gambling and bookmaking.
He was arraigned Dec. 31 and is currently free on $30,000 cash bond. He faces a preliminary hearing Jan. 9 before Magisterial District Judge Eugene F. Riazzi Jr.
Pardon was championed by many local leaders
Sanders was elected to McKeesport city council in 2015 but was prevented from taking his seat in January 2016 after Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. filed a motion in Common Pleas Court arguing that Sanders was ineligible to serve due to a 1993 felony drug conviction.
Common Pleas Senior Judge Joseph James upheld the motion, ruling that the Pennsylvania constitution prevented Sanders from taking office.
Sanders has argued that his political opponents, including Cherepko, were behind the effort to keep him off of council.
Sanders’ campaign for a pardon also was supported by Zappala himself, who said “everyone deserves a second chance.”
Sanders was featured in Fetterman’s campaign videos and has volunteered his time to speak to youth groups about avoiding criminal activity, and has worked with Zappala and other leaders on non-violence programs.
“When you have done exemplary public service like [Mr. Sanders] has with the children in McKeesport and the Mon Valley, I think the pardon was an easy decision,” Zappala said in 2020, when the pardon was granted.
Among the outlets that have carried Sanders’ story are the New Pittsburgh Courier and Tube City Online Radio, which for several months featured a “McKeesport Voices” interview with Sanders that was recorded in 2013.
Sanders also wrote a book about his experiences, Lessons From the Chair, in 2021, which is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
According to court records, Sanders was arraigned Dec. 30 and is currently free on his own recognizance pending a preliminary hearing Jan. 23 before Riazzi.
Also charged by the attorney general’s office are:
Kaleb Howard, 33, of Wilmerding, charged with possession of controlled substances, possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver, delivery of controlled substances.
Earl McClinton, 30, of McKeesport, possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver, participating in a corrupt organization, criminal use of communications facilities and criminal conspiracy.
Robert McLean, 59, of McKeesport, unlawful possession of a firearm, participating in a corrupt organization, criminal use of communications facilities, criminal conspiracy, possession of controlled substances, possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver.
Isaiah “Ike” Warren, 53, of Hazelwood, possession of controlled substances, possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver, participating in a corrupt organization, criminal use of communications facilities and criminal conspiracy.
Ramone Williams, 38, of East Pittsburgh, possession of controlled substances, possession of controlled substances with intent to deliver, participating in a corrupt organization, criminal use of communications facilities and criminal conspiracy.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc.
Originally published January 05, 2023.