About eight months ago Pittston Township police confirmed for me that they had confiscated about 50 pounds of marijuana from a nationally branded warehouse in a local industrial park.
An alert news source of mine who was listening to a police scanner heard the call and let me know about the dope.
A nice township police officer even stopped by WILK News radio to confirm the find and tell me that the investigation was continuing.
The war on drugs continued and I slept soundly that night knowing that township police were on the job.
I also figured that this was as good a time as any to do something I’ve wanted to do for decades – track the confiscation and disposal of drugs by police who are frontline public servants with great responsibility to uphold the public trust.
And fifty pounds of weed is a great test of the public trust.
So I waited. And about a month ago I called the new Pittston Twp. police chief and asked about the marijuana. Yes, he said, he remembered hearing about the case and the confiscated “52 pounds” of marijuana even though he was not on the job when the bust went down. And, yes, the chief said, he would have the investigating officer call me to bring me up to date on the case and the marijuana.
The officer never called.
So I called the chief and left a message.
The chief never returned my call.
We originally had a nice conversation. He said he was a retired trooper with the state police and we talked about raising standards in police work and other niceties about an often grueling and deadly job.
I thought it very odd that he didn’t return my call – or the three subsequent calls and messages I left for him with a dispatcher and on his voicemail.
In my last message I informed the chief that I would have to take my inquiry to a higher level.
Still, no response.
What was going on?
Did police still possess an intact “52” pounds of marijuana? Why was it so difficult to tell me that they had the drugs and that I could stop by and see the bale? Why create questions in an already mysterious situation? Was something awry?
Maybe somebody in the Pittston Twp. government told the chief not to speak with me, I thought. I have not had the best relationship with former township police chief and current supervisor Steve Rinaldi, who once told me he had acted as a personal concealed weapons permit reference for a reputed Mafia don because “he’s my friend.”
But the new chief came highly recommended. A longtime law enforcement source told me he was a good cop and a one-time solid boxer..
OK, so why cut off my good faith inquiries? Satisfactorily answering my questions would only make the department look good - assuming everything was on the up and up with the weed, that is./
I’ve heard in the past week or so that the chief requested a Luzerne County court order that is required to destroy the marijuana. But when I called the county courthouse recently nobody could find the order.
An attorney with whom I spoke said township officers could hold onto the “evidence” as long as the case is an open case, which I understand the case to be. To the best of my knowledge nobody has been charged in the case and nobody knows who sent the dope or who was supposed to pick it up.
But if the case is open and township police have held on to the marijuana for eight months, why request a court order to destroy it about the same time I started asking questions?
No newspaper story appeared about the big haul, either. Local cops love to spread illegal drugs across a table and pose in their best paramilitary gear with the evidence like they’re international drug agents whose lives should be portrayed on the big screen rather than local cops stuck in a musty police station in hard coal country.
What’s going on here?
I thought about calling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA keeps an office in Scranton. But I don’t trust the DEA. A Wilkes-Barre local cop assigned to the local DEA office wrote a letter trying to influence a federal judge to go easy on an admitted criminal former cop buddy who pleaded guilty to public corruption charges.
DEA “standards” leave a lot to be desired.
So I plan to call Luzerne County District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis. I’ll also email her this column and ask if I need to file a complaint in order to find out where 52 pounds of marijuana worth almost $100,000 happens to be.
I want proof, too. I’m sorry to say that it’s no longer good enough to take police at any level at their word. The public trust in Northeastern Pennsylvania has all but destroyed and restoration efforts are not going well.
Show me the marijuana.
Let me photograph it, weigh it and get confirmation that it is in fact marijuana and not oregano.
Then please explain why I had to jump through hoops in order to simply tell good, law-abiding citizens in our community that they can trust the Pittston Twp. cops.
The photograph on the front page of the Sunday Times People page immediately caught my eye.
Standing and smiling, West Scranton High School’s teenage “Miss Invader” posed in the uniform she wears for school spirit activities during her school’s football games. The concept of Miss Invader is a time-honored “tradition” in West Side that is meant to instill school spirit and encourage support for the home team.
The child in the picture clutched a gun.
The rifle was a mock gun, of course, sculpted the way wooden rifles have been shaped for generations of high school band front twirlers who show off their hand-eye-coordination skills to stands full of cheering fans.
The band front girls in their white boots held wooden rifles at my high school when I played football in 1968.
But that was then.
This is now.
In the meantime, dozens of children have died at schools across the nation as a result of real guns fired by real invaders who assaulted everything that’s holy in America.
The age of innocence has left the high school field.
As carnage and gunfire once again erupted yesterday at an American military installation on American soil, we faced the grim spectrum of what to do in the aftermath. That means fighting the glorification of guns in all aspects of our culture. That also means prying little fingers from toy guns as a way to try to spread the appeal of non-violence over weapons.
As the impact of yesterday’s slaughter spread, I tried my best to hold a reasonable discussion about the impact Most people had little to say about the attack at the Navy Yard that killed 12 and gravely wounded others. But when I brought up Miss Invader, you’d have thought I had launched an assault against West Side all by myself.
“How dare you!” read a text message. “The bodies aren’t even cold in DC and you’re attacking our children. How dare you!”
I wasn’t attacking anybody.
I was challenging adults – school board members, principals, teachers, parents and other concerned citizens who are responsible for supervising and guiding our children in the face of a continuing madness fueled by arms and ammunition. I was asking grown men and women in charge of our schools to reflect on the terrible times in which we live and do their best to wisely shape young, impressionable minds. I was holding up a broken mirror to a hard community that needs to think a little deeper about the message we provide to children about what is right and what is wrong
And putting a fake rifle in the hands of a young girl is wrong.
But she never points the gun at anybody, said a caller in defense of Miss Invader.
That’s reassuring, I said.
She just dances with it, the caller said.
She just dances with it, I thought.
In this day and age, how could school administrators approve the appearance of an impressionable child on the 50-yard line to dance with a blue stars and sequin-covered rifle as a show of “patriotism” and school spirit?
Another caller said he simply hadn’t thought about the matter before.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
I’m thinking about it and want you to think about it
Reconsider the “good old days” (that weren’t all that good for countless people) when you played in the band or strutted or cheered or played high school football and America somehow seemed innocent – even though innocence has never blessed America.
How dare you not rethink your position?
I asked a caller yesterday if he thought the children at Columbine would appreciate gun-dancing school spirits at their next home football game.
“They’re all dead, aren’t they?” the caller responded with senseless bitter arrogance in his voice.
Put down the gun, West Scranton.
Arm yourself and your children with an abundance of peace and love and real education – the kid of learning that leads to thinking and feeling and living – the kind that stops abruptly in a flesh and blood spatter as soon as a shooter puts a bullet in the head of the next vulnerable school child.
Except for Northeastern Pennsylvania’s – for that matter the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s - pathological pattern, our history of heart-stopping, political and public corruption, I have no evidence to support my worrisome theory.
Nonetheless I worry that admitted federal felon and degenerate criminal Rob Mericle will never see a day behind bars, wire or any other kind of protective barrier intended to teach him and us a lesson.
I worry that somebody up there is protecting him.
And I don’t mean God.
If a supreme being exists, that mighty force would strike somebody down, refusing to stand for the delay in sentencing Mericle, a mult-millionaire industrial real estate baron and politically philanthropic/philanderer who seems to get richer each day.
More than ever before, Mericle’s cache of credibility grows among our supposedly best and brightest business and “public service” leaders.
They all know he’s a gangster.
But their own greed deludes their thinking, poisons their integrity and challenges the rest of us to say and do something about it. Most people are powerless in the face of such an attack. I wield some power to influence thinking and inspire action but not enough to translate into much of anything that will put Mericle in prison.
I’m also concerned that former state Sen. Ray Musto will also escape justice because of his political and business connections. Federal prosecutors reassure us that they need Mericle to testify as a star witness against Musto, a one-time powerful political warlords and benefactor to many.
I worry that somebody up there, and I don’t mean God, is looking out for his – not our - best interest.
Musto, ever since a grand jury indicted the eighty-six-year-old Depression-style hustler on political corruption charges, has maintained his innocence. He howled that he wanted his day in court. He told me in a hallway at the federal courthouse in Scranton that he would love to sit with me and talk about what led him to this terrible place and that one day we could do just that.
When our paths crossed years ago, Musto would always tell me to give him a call or just stop by his Pittston office and maybe “we could have a sandwich.”
The last time we talked, though, I called his house and asked why he was spotted smiling, shaking hands and offering hugs all around at a local gambling casino when his lawyers were filing briefs claiming that a courtroom appearance would kill him because he’s too sick and feeble to withstand such an emotional ordeal.
We haven’t spoken since then. I believe he’s changed his telephone number,.
I know of no other way to say this but I worry that somebody in the highest reaches of government and business – which, in hard coal country is the same – is protecting Mericle and Musto.
Somebody doesn’t seem to want either man to go to prison – assuming Musto is convicted, of course.
And I have to ask why?
What do they know that could hurt others? What skeletons are they preparing to bring into the open? Who can they sink?
I am not alone in worrying that the deck is purposely stacked in their favor. But the odds do not seem to favor law-abiding citizens who are fast losing faith in the system and in the supposedly sacred public trust.
Mericle, far more than the still beloved Musto, has achieved a kind of acclaim in the face of disgrace that I have never seen.
The once-prestigious Wyoming Seminary in Kingston – just blocks from where the late Mafia boss Russell Buffalno lived, by the way – recently accepted Mericle’s help in building a new athletic field and were so grateful that they named the field after him. A grand ceremony is planned for later this month to honor his good character and community service.
So while Wyoming Seminary’s elite supposedly shapes young minds to help shape a better future, they choose to overlook Mericle’s central role in the “Kids For Cash:” horror where two Mericle fiends/ friends, sold children into slavery for money – two million dollars of which came from Mericle.
A “finder’s fee,” Mericle and his lawyers call his contribution. Yeah, it was a finder’s fee all right – Luzerne County gangster judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan found children crying and afraid and sold them into a lifetime of despair – at least one of which ended in suicide.
Ciavarella and Conahan went away - 28 and 17 ½ years respectively.
Mericle walked away.
Now, at the annual Wilkes-Barre family YMCA dinner, where sitting Luzerne County judge Bill Amesbury – elected to help us heal in the aftermath of the terror that went before – shares a seat with Mericle on the board of directors, more dangerous fools prepare to present a “leadership” award in Mericle’s name.
Four years after pleading guilty in federal court, in the eyes of too many people who should know better, Mericle is more of a model citizen than ever.
Is some judge or prosecutor or elected official protecting him? Is somebody protecting Musto? Is somebody protecting them both?