16 nabbed in L-A cocaine sweep

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LEWISTON – Police swept through the Lewiston-Auburn area early Thursday, tracking down suspects and arresting 16 people on charges of distributing cocaine.

Teams made up of local, state and federal officers began raiding homes before 8 a.m. and by early afternoon, they had arrested 16 of the 17 suspects for whom they had been searching.

Police said the drug sweep, involving dozens of officers and federal agents, was part of an ongoing investigation into what was described as a drug network responsible for circulating cocaine throughout Androscoggin County.

“We were certainly involved in the operation because a lot of the targets were right here in Lewiston and Auburn,” said Lewiston police Chief William Welch.

More than a dozen Lewiston officers joined agents from the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Taskforce and other city and county departments.

Each of the suspects was arrested without struggle or injury, police said.

The 16 people arrested Thursday were accused in a federal complaint of conspiring with each other and with others in a plot to possess and sell more than 500 grams of crack. Two of the men were also accused of distributing marijuana and Vicodin, a painkiller. Another was charged with distributing heroin as well as crack.

In all, 14 men and three women were indicted on charges that they distributed crack between March 2005 and November 2006. Some of the suspects were believed to have formed the ring and others are suspected of joining later.

One of the suspects was not found during the raid, and police said others are being sought as well.

“There are still a few more targets out there we’ll be looking for,” Welch said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is handling the prosecution of the case, refused to release details about the investigation or the suspects Thursday night. A spokeswoman in Portland said they were unable to issue a statement by the early evening television news cycle and so decided to wait until today to make the information public.

Court documents obtained at the U.S. District Courthouse in Portland identify all 17 people named as suspects, but those documents do not provide the suspects’ ages or addresses. Police said each of the suspects lived in and around the Twin Cities. Some were people local police departments had dealt with in the past.

The suspects were rounded up at homes in Lewiston, Auburn and surrounding towns, taken to the Lewiston Police Department and later to the U.S. District Attorney’s Office in Portland. There, the suspects were brought in handcuffed and in small groups. They were still being arraigned late Thursday night.

The suspects ranged in age from a woman in her early 20s who recently gave birth, to a Mechanic Falls woman believed to be in her late 50s. Others described themselves as self-employed or unemployed when they were brought before the judge.

Issues of bail were discussed at the arraignment and most, if not all of the suspects were expected to be booked into the Cumberland County Jail by early this morning.

Police did not say if any drugs were seized in the raids. As part of the federal indictment, prosecutors were seeking money, property and jewelry said to be directly linked to the drug distribution network.

A tentative trial date in the case was set by U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cohen. The suspects are expected to be back in court for bail hearings before then.

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