A rare look inside a Del. drug ring

Documents reveal tactics of multimillion-dollar marijuana operation

By SEAN O'SULLIVAN
The News Journal

The 28-year-old leader of a multimillion-dollar Delaware-based drug operation relied on constant motion -- routinely changing cell phones, operatives and "stash" houses -- to avoid law enforcement for years, according to court papers.

Andrew Pollner of Wilmington used a shell company -- East Coast Power Washing -- to hide his profits and launder other drug money by buying into a restaurant chain, the papers say.

The organization -- which smuggled 2,200 to 6,600 pounds of marijuana into the country each year -- was finally tripped up through a low-level informant, said Acting U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss.

"They systematically worked their way up the chain through this organization," Weiss said of investigators. "They exercised a great deal of patience and perseverance. That's why the entire investigation took the better part of two years."

Those same tactics led one of Pollner's operatives -- Henry Cook, 31, of Claymont -- to plead guilty to two drug charges Thursday in federal court.

A "cooperating defendant" led agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to Cook in October 2007 when he had $62,000 in cash and was trying to buy a kilo of cocaine and 10 pounds of marijuana in north Wilmington, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert F. Kravetz.

While in operation, though, authorities say Pollner's ring distributed marijuana in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Eight people have been arrested in Delaware and most -- including Pollner -- have pleaded guilty. Others were arrested in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Before its demise, the ring was "the most substantial marijuana conspiracy, in terms of the sophisticated nature of the operation and the volumes involved," that Weiss could recall.

Bill Glanz, agent in charge of the DEA's Delaware office from 1973 to 1988, said he saw similar organizations in the Philadelphia area over 30 years with the agency but never one like Pollner's in Delaware.

University link disputed

One example of Pollner's sophistication was his use of "stash" houses, authorities said.

While the last was in Glasgow, near Newark, it had been in operation as a hub for drug storage and distribution only for about four months, court papers indicate. Before that, Pollner used up to seven other locations, including homes in Avondale, Pa., and Wilmington's Trolley Square.

Prosecutors believe Pollner got his start in the Newark area in 2000 and that his operation targeted and made millions from University of Delaware students.

Albert "Skip" Homiak, UD's executive director of campus and public safety and a Delaware State Police veteran, expressed doubts that Pollner's operation was UD-centered.

"I'd suggest you have pockets of this kind of activity throughout the state, so you don't know if it was targeting UD students," he said, adding that the school has not seen a drug problem on campus.

He said the involvement of Patrick Marcey, 29, of Rehoboth Beach, a former University of Delaware student, and the location of the stash house near campus were not conclusive. Marcey pleaded guilty to processing marijuana in the stash house and making deliveries, according to court records.

"I do know from previous experience [that] a stash house is usually not where you have a lot of drug activity," Homiak said, adding that dealers prefer a stash house to be low-profile to avoid detection.

A visit Wednesday to the former stash house on Garvey Lane indicated that few in the area knew or suspected that drug activity was going on there.

Neighbors, who did not want to be identified, said they only realized something was amiss in summer 2007 after notices were posted on the home saying it had been seized by the federal government.

While Homiak downplayed any UD connection, he said school officials are "obviously concerned ... because of the location."

"We have 20,000 students here," he said. "We try to maintain a safe and secure community, so any time there are indications of criminal activity, we take that all very seriously."

Vacuum-packed cash

Pollner's drug operation likely went big-time around 2004 when he established a relationship with one or more Canadian providers of high-grade, hydroponically grown marijuana, according to prosecutors and court papers.

This grower or growers apparently could smuggle drugs across the border into upstate New York, where couriers would pick them up and deliver them to Pollner's stash houses. Weiss would not say whether Canadian officials are investigating the operation at their end.

The couriers, according to prosecutors, used pickup trucks or cars, with the drugs stashed in large black duffel bags, similar to the ones hockey players use to carry their equipment.

At the stash houses, marijuana would be broken up and packaged for resale.

The job of making local deliveries fell to Marcey, who lived at the Newark-area stash house and was paid $5,000 a month, according to the court documents.

Marcey would get text messages with instructions from Pollner on a prepaid cell phone that Pollner gave him, complete with pre-programmed phone numbers.

Pollner would constantly change his phone and the phones he gave employees and sometimes customers.

Glanz said this is a typical method used by drug dealers to make it difficult for police to track them and their calls.

Marcey then would make deliveries and collect cash, according to court papers.

At the stash house, the cash would be vacuum-packed in bundles of $50,000 to be delivered to Pollner.

Sometimes, the cash would be sent back to pay for new deliveries of marijuana.

Drug dealers often pack cash in plastic because it covers up the scent of drugs on the cash that could be picked up by drug-sniffing dogs, according to attorneys and experts.

The people who worked for Pollner, or at least their jobs, also seemed to be constantly shifting.

As part of Pollner's operation, authorities say, one unidentified cooperating witness told investigators that he was hired to transport drugs to Florida and made a number of runs from 2003 to 2005.

He told investigators he was provided a rental car that Pollner arranged, was told where to meet someone to get the drugs -- often in the parking lot of a Newark hotel -- and was given money to buy plane tickets to fly himself back to the Delaware area after the deal was completed, according to court records.

In 2005, Lewis Busby, 65, of Wilmington, was added to smuggling runs and stashed drugs in large fuel containers concealed in a boat that he would tow on a trailer to Florida, the papers say.

Busby was paid $4,000 to $6,000 per trip, they say. For a time, Busby also made $800 to $1,000 a month "rent" by allowing Pollner to use the basement of his Avondale, Pa., home to stash marijuana, prosecutors said.

That "lease" agreement ended in late 2005 or early 2006 because Busby was unhappy that Pollner had started to store cocaine there as well, according to court papers.

A shift in the business

Glanz, who retired from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in 1998 and is now a private investigator for Hyden and Associates, said the marijuana trade has changed significantly over the past 10 years.

"The thing I find ironic is that people in Delaware are now supplying people in Florida with marijuana, when at one point marijuana was all coming from [or through] the state of Florida," he said.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the drug generally was grown in outdoor fields, making it less potent, he said.

"Canada wasn't a source," he said, nor were hydroponically grown drugs.

One thing that remains the same, and which seems to be true in this case, is that marijuana dealers are generally the most sophisticated businessmen, Glanz said.

"They would invest money and launder money and those cases would always result in the most seizures of assets," he said, as opposed to other dealers who would spend all the money they made quickly.

He believes this was -- and still is -- because marijuana always has had high profit margins and, compared to other drugs, a lower risk.

In Philadelphia at one point, federal prosecutors wouldn't consider pursuing a marijuana case unless more than 500 pounds was involved, he said.

Pollner's group seemed to be following in that trend.

"As evidence, I'd point to the record-keeping," he said. "It shows a very professional organization."

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