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Inside the Biggest Heroin Bust in Northeast Ohio History

The documentary film crew, the Southern pipeline, and the brazen Cleveland kingpins



It begins with what seems like a routine traffic stop in a Chicago suburb one late summer night.

The driver of a sedan heading east out of town doesn't signal a right toward the turnpike. The trailing Joliet police squad car flashes its lights as darkness sets in.

Officers approach the silver 2009 Hyundai Genesis with Ohio plates headed to I-80 East. The two guys inside the car, who look to be in their 30s, must not be local.

As Officer Bandy approaches the driver's side window, he notices the driver trembling and beginning to sweat. He takes his ID—Lamar Egler, 31, of Cleveland—as the man's shaking hands awkwardly fumble to find an up-to-date insurance card in the glove box of his recently leased car. Can't find one.

Officers ask if he's visiting family or friends.

"Yes," Egler sheepishly mumbles back. He's on vacation, he says.

On the other side of the car, Officer Gruber watches the passenger. He's sketchy too, and sweat is glistening on his forehead. The ID passes through the open window—Lewis Hall, 38, also of Cleveland.

Gruber asks if they are from around here.

Cleveland, Ohio, was the answer, but Egler says he's in town visiting his sick grandfather in the hospital.

Which one?

"I-I have no idea."

"What's his name?"

"He's over a 100 years old."

The officers prod them more. There seem to be a lot of questions for an unused right turn signal stop.

"What's this all about?" asks Hall. "In Ohio, police officers don't talk to passengers in vehicles."

They must have criminal backgrounds, the cops think, asking the two Cleveland men if they have been arrested before. Egler says he's had weapons convictions. Hall says he's on parole for a federal drug conviction.

Officers take the two out of the car and call in the K9 unit. The handler asks Egler if there's any reason Ness, the department's drug-sniffing dog, would signal that there's narcotics in the car.

"No, go ahead and check," Egler says and hands over the keys.

The two have a reason to be nervous. Egler and Hall are not in Joliet, Ill., for vacation or visiting old, ailing relatives: they're in town for business, couriers for drug dealers on the east side of Cleveland, with $330,000 in cash and instructions on what to pick up. Now they're trying to deliver their boss's order back home. The product is sealed closed in six separate packages, wrapped in scented dryer sheets, and stuffed in the legs of two pairs of khakis mixed with other clothes in a red duffle bag deep in the trunk of the car.

Game over. Ness doesn't hesitate clawing at the trunk to get to the heroin. Officers pop it open. Ness goes straight for a red duffle bag.

Police get it all: 5.658 kilograms of heroin—almost 12 and a half pounds—worth more than a half million dollars if sold on the street. Back in Cleveland, somebody's out $330,000 in cash with no heroin to show for it, customers waiting on it, and two of his couriers facing major charges. Publicly, Joliet police took credit for that August 21, 2012 arrest in the local news. It was the largest amount of heroin the department ever seized thanks to officers on patrol suspicious of a "phantom grandpa" during the traffic stop, the newspaper wrote.

But behind the scenes, it was the FBI and an undercover police narcotics unit calling the shots. Chicago-based agents were deep into "Operation Red Barron," an investigation of Mexican drug suppliers selling heroin in Joliet and perhaps beyond.

When the FBI listened in on calls from an unknown 216-phone number to their targeted suppliers two days earlier, they knew the guys in the silver 2009 Hyundai Genesis would be there to pick up exactly what the guy on the other end of the line had ordered. They knew how much money it was for, they knew how much heroin they were bringing back, they knew who gave it to them and they knew it was all in the trunk.

What they didn't know was who was higher up on the heroin food chain operating via Joliet: Who was supplying them to supply the Cleveland guys? So they directed the Joliet police to the Cleveland-bound couriers and orchestrated the stop, to see what would happen next.

Lamar Egler and Lewis Hall were not making it back to Cleveland with the heroin, even if they lowered their heart rates, talked calmly and properly rehearsed a backstory about a sick grandfather in a local hospital. If it wasn't an unused right turn signal, it would have been for going 48 mph in a 45 mph zone or for having a view-obstructing pine-tree air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. For anything, really, so long as it was a technically legal traffic stop where probable cause to search the car for drugs seemed to come from the officer's own police work rather than FBI wiretaps and surveillance of the Joliet supplier. The investigation was not nearly complete and the Feds needed folks higher on the heroin chain to continue to operate business as usual.

It worked. The Joliet supplier and the unknown Cleveland distributor continued to use the phone as if Chicago FBI agents weren't listening to every word and reading every text, which is how investigators came to learn that the Cleveland distributor was making his way to Illinois six days after the courier bust to meet with the Joliet target. Agents were perched and ready for his arrival and soon learned his identity: 36-year-old Clevelander Antoine Matthews.

Back in Cleveland, officers of the Northern Ohio Law Enforcement Task Force—a joint unit led by Cleveland FBI agents and Cleveland police investigating local and federal crime—were into a heroin investigation of their own. Matthews' number had popped on the phone records of two Cleveland dealers—Eugene Miller and Frederick Darling, two long-established member in the eastside drug game—under surveillance by the task force, but the Cleveland agents didn't know who the number belonged to until the Chicago officers called them following Matthews' arrival in Illinois.

Now Cleveland agents knew where their targets' supply was coming from: a Mexican heroin ring by way of Joliet.

Over the next year, the drug dominoes fell on the east side of Cleveland, from small-time buyers to local kingpins bankrolling a major distribution operation, as the FBI preyed on their vanity and hubris. Even diligent dealers who consciously switched up burners, swapped out cars, and varied where they slept were taken down.

In all, 92 people were indicted in "Operation Fox Hound," the single largest heroin bust in Northeast Ohio history and a tale made for the silver screen in more ways than one.

The Undercover Agent

"Meech" was a ball-busting, no-nonsense dealer with a Los Angeles area code and a growing customer base somewhere back "out of town." He didn't know many people here, but he came to Cleveland with stacks of cash, ready to do business. He wanted his meetings on time and the drugs to weigh right. In 2011, Meech told his current Cleveland dealers that his heroin need had outgrew their capacity—he wanted to meet their suppliers directly.

Meech, of course, wasn't a mid-level dealer looking to move up; he was an undercover task force officer assigned to infiltrate and pin down heroin suppliers in Cleveland. He'd been paired up with a criminal informant who'd been on the Cleveland police payroll since 2008 for providing information on the city's drug traffickers.

Together, they began recording phone calls with dealers arranging meetings, wearing a wire when meeting in-person, using task force money with recorded serial numbers (so seized money could be traced back) and inquiring about their suppliers up the chain.

75 year-old Vernon Norman, a man with a slew of drug, weapon and theft convictions in the area between 1981 and 1993, was a lower-level rung.

"Wanna do eight for the brown?" Meech said in a call monitored and recorded by the task force, asking to buy a gram of heroin for $80 in a Sept. 2011 phone call.

"It might go for that," Norman replied.

"Okay, you, you got, I ain't got time to be wickey-wickey now. I mean, you know."

"Just give me nine," Norman said, asking for $10 more for the gram of heroin.  "I know that. Just give me nine. Give me nine for the brown."

"Okay, hey check this out," Meech said, "Okay, you got nine on you."

Two days later, he sold them an ounce of heroin— the first controlled buy. Three days later, Meech met him again for another one-ounce deal. But when Vernon Norman asked to be fronted the money so he could get him the heroin the next day, Meech raised fuss, demanding it that day. So the elderly east side dealer called a relative named Brenda, 56, to see if she had any heroin she could sell him. Brenda had more connections: her boyfriend was noted eastside dealer Eugene Miller, 49.

Meech and the CI would purchase an ounce from Miller in Sept. 2011 that the task force would track to a 22-year-old eastside dealer named Leamon Shephard (who would later be targeted as a main ringleader), and again two months later.

For the second deal, the task force knew Miller wouldn't have enough heroin on-hand for the deal and would need to secure the quantity from a distributor. While Meech didn't wear a wire at Miller's house—that was too risky when meeting a seasoned dealer early on, especially one so paranoid about returning to federal prison—he did dial a task force agent on his cell phone, letting the investigators listen in live as Frederick Darling was summoned. Once Darling dropped off the ounce at Miller's, the task force directed a Cleveland police squad car to pull him over.

Like the Joliet bust, the Feds needed the traffic stop to appear routine under probable cause. Thankfully, there was an issue with Darling's license plate.

Cops searched his car and found $5,117 in cash ($3,280 of it had serial numbers matching what Meech had used to purchase the ounce of heroin from Eugene Miller just minutes before the stop), 2.75 grams of heroin, and a Verizon cell phone. A search warrant executed on Darling's phone showed him talking with Miller right up to the deal. The task force had found Miller's main source.

The Documentary Film Crew

Most people in the Cleveland hip-hop scene and the East 117th neighborhood know 37-year-old Maceo Moore better as "Chase."

Moore's a high-profile rapper and an even more high-profile gangster who ran the streets of East 117th and St. Clair flaunting his wealth with predictable bravado and recklessness, bragging about his disposable income, luxury cars, drug dealing prowess and power in the streets on social media and online.

That intersection shows up prominently in most of his videos and his exploits in lyrics.

The 2008 music video, for example, of "Out Tha Roof" with Chip Tha Ripper and Ray Jr., has all the classic "Chase" elements: holding handfuls of $100 bills, making it rain, driving his Mercedes Benz, wearing expensive jewelry. One shot that accompanies the line, "Money ain't a thing so we throwing stacks out the roof" shows Chase standing through the sunroof of a moving Rolls Royce tossing an amount of cash worth more than many of the vacant homes away on those streets. Growls Ray Jr. in the song: "Fuck what you heard / Nigga I'm the truth / This is a hundred grand / And now it's out the roof." In another cash-tossing scene, he's leaning against his Mercedes parked in front of the local corner store with a clearly visible sign that reads "WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS".

His first verse in the song is, "Point seen / Money Gone / They call me Paper Chase / Because my Money long / We hustle strong / Fuck the feds / If these niggas snitching / Then we busting heads."

Moore, it would seem, was not worried about snitches or the Feds, because his very public persona didn't stop at social media and music videos—he wrote and starred in a feature-length movie, The Game Ain't 4 Everybody, based on his experiences. Real guns, real drugs, real money, all in the backdrop of Moore's self-penned confessional flick of dealing and robbing.

When Moore's name showed up in information from a confidential informant, the Feds had an easy in to Moore's world given his propensity for self promotion and Hollywood aspirations.

"In 2012, taking advantage of Moore's interest in movie production," a federal search warrant details, "agents from the FBI planned an undercover operation in which undercover FBI agents would pose as documentary film journalists interested in filming a documentary about Moore's 'story,' as a person who had grown up in a dangerous neighborhood and achieved a degree of success through criminal activity in part."

As if there were any doubt, it worked. Moore accepted the "documentary crew's" offer on June 12, talking to undercover agents on the phone and in person.

He talked about how often he would rob other drug dealers: "Yeah that was our job, kicking doors. We worked every day, around the clock. If you had it, and we wanted it, was coming to get it." For how long?: "Shit, it ain't never, it don't stop. That's what it was and what it is."

When asked how they chose robbery targets, he explained it was the ones who flaunted their wealth and sometimes used woman to gain the trust of the targets to find out where they lived: "Now we know where he live at, we gonna go pay him a visit."

He explained how he got so much money: "I sold drugs, but I started getting more money when I started taking from other drug dealers. That's how, honestly, that's how I got my money. Whatever they got. Money, jewelry, drugs, whatever they got, we going to get it. Flat out."

He explained his first big robbery: "I went and I followed this dude, and we followed to his house, we did our little surveillance or whatever, went back in there, and he had, matter of fact, he had like two, two hundred and thirty thousand dollars in his house, in a safe." He went on to describe it being his career: "People been robbing people since, juvenile, juvenile, all the way up. When I made up my mind to do it as I was grown, I said 'I'm gonna make a living out of this because, this what I'm gonna do to survive, until I can invest my money elsewhere,' and that's what I did."

His movie, he told them, was all real: "In the movie, all that money, it was real money, it was my money." (A source close to the film also told Scene the guns were real too, and sometimes loaded).

The undercover agent suggested Moore put his money in the bank to avoid being robbed: "I don't even have a bank account, I can't put my money in the bank." Why not? "Because of where I get it from. They're going to ask me 'Where'd you get this from?'"

The FBI tapped his phones, tracked his cars via GPS, and followed Moore as he led drug deals and robbed more drug dealers during the investigation as more of his East 117th associates, including Keith Ricks, fell into the Feds' crosshairs. (Moore and Ricks are also currently being investigated by Cleveland police for several unsolved homicides.)

The Wiretaps

Once the couriers were arrested in Joliet, NEO distributors like Eugene Miller and Frederick Darling had two options: wait for the Mexican pipeline to reestablish itself or shop locally with other distributors to keep impatient customers happy.

They chose to keep customers happy, a choice made even more convenient after Antoine Matthews was picked up in Illinois during his in-person meeting. The decision to expand the distribution options in Northeast Ohio coincided with more arrests and wiretaps as the investigation widened, suspects turning snitches and phone records latched onto by the Feds to beef up the case.

Darling's heroin was so good, sources told investigators, they could double the quantity of it for resale with a cutting agent. With multiple stash houses in the East 66th St. area, Darling dealt to Maceo Moore along with Eugene Miller, and continued to even after being picked up for possession after the license plate traffic stop..

And the Darling lead gave investigators the evidence they needed to get a month-long wiretap on Eugene Miller's phone, a fruitful bit of surveillance that gave them access to every call, text and number in his cell. It was only a few days after a judge granted the tap when Meech reestablished connection with Miller. He was coming back to Cleveland and arranged to buy two ounces for $6,400. Miller, using his tapped phone and driving a car that FBI had just planted a GPS device on—again went to Darling for the product. Darling still didn't realize his traffic stop the previous fall had anything to do with the Feds.

Each time Meech called, Miller was forced to reach out to more distributors, what with six kilograms out of the mix after being seized in Joliet and his habit of never keeping excess product on hand. Leamon Shephard, Luther Johnson, Thomas McCully, and others landed as targets of the task force as Miller dialed them up.

Soon after the Joliet bust, Miller was taped telling Luther Johnson how hard it was finding heroin around town.

"Listen, it's very hard," Miller said during the call. "finding it, putting it together."

"No it ain't," Johnson said. "No it ain't."

Miller brings up his customer, Meech: "You know what I was talking yesterday?"

"Talking about, yeah, your dude. Yeah, I told you, it ain't hard to find, bro. No, it ain't hard to find...." Miller then said he should hook up with Johnson to resupply.

Johnson: "You gotta find some figures out and then, and then I'll tell you exactly cuz, uh, well, like man, there ain't no talkin' on the phone, but anyway..."  

But there was talking on the phone, and too much of it. Though the wiretap on Miller's phone expired in September, the Feds would spend the following weeks turning their attention to the major targets Miller had led them to in his search for Meech's heroin.

The Widening Net

Like Maceo "Chase" Moore, Leamon Shephard was a ringleader of a group of guys from the Glenville neighborhood who ran a large chunk of the eastside heroin trade—and the other activities that comes with it—loosely based around the East 117th and St. Clair intersection. Moore, Shephard, and the four other major players yet to enter the investigation were bonded together by that neighborhood.

When one of Meech's buys led Miller to call Leamon Shephard, he had them meet him at Red Line Towing, an auto shop owned by his father near the corner of Euclid Avenue and Lakeview Road. They waited in a car for 30 minutes or so until Shephard's red Chevy Tahoe arrived. They watched as Shephard got out and walked into Redline's garage. Customers who were previously waiting followed him in, stayed for a few minutes, and then got in their cars and left. This was Shephard's office.

Following Meech's surveillance and stakeouts of Redline Towing by federal agents, a judge signed off on a wiretap of Shephard's phone and gave investigators access to his previous texts.

Shephard was a busy man, arranging everything from $140 buys in the backseat of his Tahoe to pooling money for major deals down south.

Calls with men like Marcus Blue, the third of the eventual six ringleaders associated with the East 117th circle, brought more people into the investigation.

Blue didn't do small-time, hand-to-hand deals. He was a big money guy involved in large heroin purchases and owner of no small amount of debt owed to other dealers. On one recorded call, Shephard tells Blue to either resupply him with product or hand over cash to pay his debt. (In many cases, numbers used were done so interchangeably, either as the amount of money itself or the amount of money a quantity of heroin could be sold for.)

Jacob Derrickson, 25, and Beneditto Belfiore, 23, both users and dealers, bought from Shepard at Red Line Towing. One Nov. 9 call between Shepard and Derrickson illustrates how careful the suspects were even when talking about simply using heroin. The question was whether Derrickson injects his heroin with a needle or snorts it, but that question is never explicitly stated.

Shephard: "Hey, which way to you, which way to you, uh, which way do you take care of your business?"

Derrickson: "What do you mean?"

Shephard: "When you come to see me (to buy heroin), which way do you take care of your business (use heroin)?"

Derrickson: "Like South Euclid."

Shephard: "Oh my God, man, come on man. You can't really be serious, listen to what I'm tellin' you."

Derrickson: "I don't, I don't understand."

Shephard: "Listen to me. When you come see me, when you come holler at me, after you get what you get from me, how do you do what you do?"

Derrickson: "With a rig" (injection)

Shephard: "Alright. I need you to come holler at me right now. I need you to try something else."

In a December text, Leamon Shephard told Belfiore he had some strong heroin for sale—"I got fire". A few days later, Belfiore called to arrange a meeting at the shop. A few days after that, on Dec. 19, Derrickson sent text messages to Shephard that Belfiore just overdosed on heroin and nearly died.

Derrickson: "I slowed alottt if you couldn't tell after that shit went down with dummyditto"

Shephard: "Wat went down."

Derrickson: "U don't remember... he told u... he almost overdose."

Shephard: "Oh yea"

Derrickson: "Well he did overdose. I saved that niggas life gave him cpr."

Shephard: "That's crazy."

Derrickson: "And i shot him up with a suboxone."

Shephard: "That's crazy"

Derrickson: "He had no pulse his face paper white lips blue and shit was fucked up."

Shephard: "That's crazy"

Derrickson: "Insane"

Shephard: "I kno"

Derrickson: "Wears the thing is i shot more tha. 2x what did and barely got a rush at the same time."

Shephard: "He better chill."

Derrickson: "He don't know how. and he's broke and got no hustle game skills."

Shephard: "That's all bad."

Derrickson: "Lol. Shit between my work and my herb hustle i can make 2500$ a wk and he don't make that in 2 months."

Shephard: "He a be ok."

Heroin potency was a major issue for the buyers, suppliers and distributors that were tapped in the investigation (mostly because it was a major issue for their users who would call to complain they weren't getting high enough). When heroin supply was low in the city, the amount of cutting agents in the existing heroin increased. So much so, sometimes, that it was almost all fake heroin landing in users' bodies.

In one conversation taped by investigators, Thomas McCully and Frederick Ferrell, two distributors drawn into the Feds' web through Miller's phone tap,l go in-depth about the proper way to cut (dilute) heroin. When McCully talked about a customer upset with his cutting, Ferrell jokingly chided him: "All you had to do was have the right color, nigga. Put some dirt in it, goddamn, All that shit. All you had to do was be a little brown, that's all" (McCully's retort: "I know how to play this game. He will be back this way").

On January 3, 2013, Eugene Miller again went to Shephard's auto shop to get heroin for Meech. But Leamon Shephard, and Shephard's supplier Marcus Blue were out. But they wanted Miller's money any way, so they sold him a 24.19 gram package (a few grams short of an ounce) of fake heroin for $3,400. Miller sold that to Meech. They did it again a month later when a heroin shipment Blue was expecting was late coming in. When Blue wanted somebody to "burn"—grabbing some cash without exchanging real product— Shephard suggested running the scam on Miller.

The Kingpin Is Found and Everyone Loves Social Media

At the end of January, two calls placed on Shephard's tapped phone implicated three other major players in the East 117th circle: Maurice Golston, 33, Dionte Thompson, 25, and Keith Ricks, 31. Those three would join Maceo Moore, Shephard, and Blue as the main six targeted by the FBi, but it was.Ricks, they learned, who was the guy. The Federal indictment would be named United States of America vs. Ricks et. al., after all.

"Have you seen big bro?" Shephard said in a January 30 call to an East 117th associate, Maurice Golston, "You seen Keith?"

Golston didn't know where Keith Ricks was and Shephard needed to talk to him about something important. So he called Keith's little brother, Dionte Thompson.

Shephard: "You talked to your brother?

Thompson: "No, I think that nigga left."

Shephard was urgently trying to talk to Ricks about a courier who'd be bringing heroin from down south. Keith Ricks was in the Atlanta area, working on major deals to bring multi-kilogram loads of heroin back to Cleveland for distribution by any of the arms of the East 117th circle. He'd been doing that for awhile, apparently, sending product through the mail, having people drive it back and forth, or ferrying it on couriers on the bus.

By the time his name landed on a wiretap, he'd been flying regularly (first-class, according to his Twitter account), between Marietta, Georgia, and his mother's house on East 118th, where he would take care of business locally.

He was the big mind of the group with ideas that went beyond parochial beefs or boundaries. Ricks would organize other east Cleveland dealers to pool their money together for unified, large-scale purchases at wholesale prices down South and then distribute the product back home, dealers free to rake in bigger profits on the street level.

When Shephard (in Cleveland) connected with Ricks (in Atlanta) on the phone on Feb. 9, he needed to talk to him about an unreliable potential courier who wasn't calling him back about a trip to Atlanta he was supposed to take later that day. Shephard had another guy in mind who would be up for a job.

"Man, that nigga... man, you gotta holler at Soldier," Ricks told him. When Shephard agreed, Ricks told him to go get him. "Just call me and say 'yeah' and then I'll tell you what to do then."

Just 40 minutes later, Maurice Golston called Shephard. Golston had just picked up "Soldier" and put him on the phone with Shephard. After Soldier said "hello," Shephard got to the point: "Hey, you wanna take a trip?"

A few hours later, intercepted calls between Dionte Thompson and Shephard confirmed Soldier was on a Greyhound bus to Atlanta to pick up a package from Keith Ricks. Ricks then called Shephard to tell Soldier to call him from the bus station, and the two talked again when Ricks was late picking up Soldier in Atlanta (on Feb. 9, Ricks tweeted: "Fresh cut now time 2 link up wit my NY homies n these ATL streets..").

The task force later identified "Soldier" as Carl Willis by checking the passenger list for that Greyhound bus. Willis' Twitter location reads: "117th MoNey Team," and his bio is "i Ain't Have No Choice I Refuse to NOt GEt Dis MONey!!! iWas Forced."

On February 21, Willis used his Instagram account to post a selfie with a caption saying, "Back in the ghetto from the A on the morning side." The feds used that as further evidence against Ricks, Shephard, Golston and Thompson in their heroin ring conspiracy. Willis was not charged in the federal indictment.

Golston regularly issued all-caps posts on his Twitter account, StreetRees117, referencing his drug dealing ("TWO 8 BALLS NO DAYS OFF", "STARTED OFF WITH A BLOCK AND ENDED WITH THE NEIGHBORHOOD") while talking about how careful he is to not operate with informants or undercover cops ("I DON'T FUCK WITH NEW NIGGAS. AINT BOUT TO SLIDE UNDER ME AND BE MY CO-DEFENDANT.")

In February, less than a month before Tweeting about not letting a new person slide under him, Golston detailed to a criminal informant wearing a wire the specifics of his crew's heroin coming from Atlanta.

Keith Ricks' Twitter and Instagram accounts were apparently monitored by agents who used his posts to corroborate his whereabouts. In an FBI affidavit, an agent cites a Feb. 28 Instagram picture taken through the window of an airplane with the caption, "Even in the sky the sun stays shinning on me," and two Twitter posts from later that day: "Left the ghetto with a medal of honor & a fat bank roll," and then a couple hours later, "Home sweet home ATL drunk A.F."

Ricks used the username KeithvsMax for both accounts and doesn't use his real name in the profile, but there's no mistaking that it's him. He's interacted with with a since-deleted twitter account for Leamon Shephard (@juiceman117) dating back to when he signed up in Jan. 2011, and continued to interact with Maurice Golston (@StreetRees117) and Maceo Moore (@117chase), as well as posting when and where he travels, the things he buys, and his status:

• 3/5/2011: "Niggas wanna play that boss role on the streets, but play the snitch role when the white folks come."

• 10/30/2011: "Everytime the police picked me up, I never told them shit!" (a few days later: "Always live wit morals, principals & a purpose").

• 11/14/2011: "Feel so good 2 b bck home n Tha ATL, about 2 go jump n my bed!"

• 11/19/2011: "Tired of driving rentals, I think I'll treat my self 2 a Benz next week."

• 11/22/2011: "Louie spread wit $1,000 sheets, how u sleeping" (instagram picture of his new bedroom).

• 2/9/2013: "Fresh cut now time 2 link up wit my NY homies n these ATL streets" (the same day intercepted calls have him arranging with Leamon Shephard to bring Soldier down as a courier).

• 3/8/2013: "Nigga talk ish until I send them boyz they way.. Do niggaz really want that Halo?"

• 3/9/ 2013: "My houses & companies speak 4 them selves, did it from the ground up... No regrets jus lessions!"

• 4/21/2013: "He got the police on his team so they watching me!!!"

• 4/24/2013: "Started n the ghetto now we worldwide"

Other than his public Twitter and Instagram accounts, perhaps there was a reason why it took so long to for Ricks to finally show up in the investigation. The phone numbers he used were never registered in his name and often he made calls using other people's phones. He often got rides from other people and the ever-changing list of cars he did drive were never under his name.

When investigators learned more about Ricks this spring, they put him under nearly constant surveillance. The court approved a wiretap of his phone on April 3; agents could listen in to every conversation and read every text. When Ricks was in Cleveland, he did business out of his mother's home on East 118th Street, so the FBI installed a camera facing the house that agents could monitor in real time.

That month, Ricks called Maceo Moore, asking for ideas of people he could rob. A few weeks earlier Moore burglarized the home of a big-money drug dealer named Dammarkro Nolan (in other court documents, his name is spelled Dammarko, Dammarkero, Demmarko, and other variations) in Painesville. Ricks wanted to know some wealthy dealers to rob.

Ricks: "For real man, I don't ask for much, Maceo. Man, I just need one favor from you man."

Moore: "What's that?"

Ricks: "Man, turn me on to something, man."

Moore: "A hoe?"

Ricks: "Nuh, nigga! Fuck a hoe. I got hoes."

The two agreed to meet later to talk. The task force later interviewed a criminal informant (referred to as "Source 9" in a search warrant affidavit) who knew about robberies and homicides involving Moore and Ricks going back to 2002, and some of which the source participated in resulted in homicides. In one robbery, they stole around $100,000.

The day before Ricks called Moore about finding a new target, RIcks called Marcus Blue to discuss a robbery target: "It ain't mission impossible, but it gonna be hard, bro." Blue suggested another guy that hung out at their barbershop named "Washington." Two days later, Ricks complained to Blue about a failed robbery attempt. A day later, Maurice Golston called Ricks, and Ricks told him that Maceo Moore missed a lot of valuables when he broke into Nolan's house a few weeks back: $60,000 and a mink coat, and a door behind a suit rack that had $730,000 inside.

In an intercepted phone call on April 23, Ricks talked with a woman about how he tried to be a legitimate business man instead of a drug supplier when he purchased a bar (he regularly Tweeted about running NuWay Lounge on East 170, a since-closed club); "Listen Lakia, when I bought that bar I stopped doing everything. I stopped doing everything illegal, man. I put my blood and sweat in that fucking bar. I wasted all my money, wasted all the money in that shit, man. I had to get myself back together" in the drug trade.

Weeks earlier, Ricks talked to a man named Keith Jones, a major figure in a separate heroin ring, complaining about how poorly things were going in Cleveland: "You don't understand I hate it up here (in Cleveland), man. I'm trying to hurry up and get everything together so I can come down there (to Atlanta), before I have to fuck anybody up."

At the end of April, Ricks was back down in Atlanta setting up deals. When Golston called, Ricks told him, "I'll see you, I'll see you real, real soon, and you gonna love me." Upon his return to Cleveland in May, and with a fresh supply of heroin couriered in a car that narrowly avoided detection by Medina cops, he sent out texts to his East 117th circle: Marcus Blue ("Yo come c me"), Shephard, Golston, and Moore ("Come through real quick," "Come holla at me, I got something I wanna show you," "Hurry up, they be jumpin!"). One by one, the task force watched them arrive at Ricks's mom's house on East 118th with the camera the FBI installed watching over it.

The Sweep

By this summer, the task force had spent two years on the investigation—two years signing up criminal informants, infiltrating the lives of drug distributors with undercover cops, spending tens of thousands of dollars in controlled drug buys, setting up surveillance bases, listening in on wiretapped cell phones, installing GPS trackers in cars, monitoring cameras, and the occasional tip off for the local authorities to make a traffic stop. They sat back and watched as money and heroin flowed in and out of eastside neighborhoods, observing the robberies and violence that comes with it.

In June, they began preparing to take down their main targets in the East 117th circle—Keith Ricks, Leamon Shephard, Maceo Moore, Maurice Golston, Marcus Blue and Dionte Thompson—by using their cellphone's location data gps monitoring of their cars (which could shut off their engines if needed) to figure out where they were for the best time to corral them up. The group of six went down on June 19, charged by a federal complaint to distribute heroin.

A search warrant of Keith Ricks' mom's house that morning found a loaded handgun (with a bullet in the chamber), scales with heroin residue, and more.  That house, at 499 East 118th, has since been torn down.

The FBI hit the house Maceo Moore was living in Euclid at the same time. They took handguns, a whole bunch of jewelry (including a "silver color necklace with jesus head"—a pendant of Jesus's head made out of diamonds—seen in several of his music videos and twitter posts), an automatic money counter, nearly $10,000 in cash, suspected heroin, Visa cards, pictures, titles to his dirtbikes. and "two DVDs of Moore's movies." A gold Cadillac and his Mercedes Benz CLS550, which he often took pictures of, were seized by feds as well.

Three months later, the investigation officially came to a close when arrest warrants went out for the remaining 86 people, including the 32 with state charges, in the middle of September. The US Marshals, FBI, and local police agencies made their sweep on on the morning of September 18.

That afternoon in the federal building, the figureheads of agencies involved—the Cleveland FBI, district attorney's office, mayors, police chiefs—announced the largest heroin bust in the history of Northeast Ohio.

Whether or not the bust and 92 indicted dealers, distributors and users makes a difference is yet to be seen. None of them have clean records; many have done time for drug trafficking in the past only to get right back into the game once out of prison.

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty and others used sharp words to describe the violence committed by those involved, underscoring the seriousness of a heroin epidemic reaching unparalleled levels in this region. Heroin-related deaths are currently on pace to hit 200 by year's end and outnumber homicides in the county. "The heroin epidemic is Cuyahoga County is real," he said.

Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell, whose ward includes the East 117th St. intersection, lauded the efforts, but mentioned concerns about the vacuum left in his ward and other neighborhoods across the region. Following a 2010 bust, he noted, violent crimes took off at increased levels as young men and women vied for visibility. Those would be the folks detailed above.

"It's going to happen, because it happened three years ago," he said.

U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach replied by drawing in the need for cooperation from all fronts of the region—from local and state government to the community organizations that may boast more facetime with residents. "This is your problem; this is our problem," he said. "These are incremental steps that we take in this epidemic."

Three years from now, we'll see whether we're talking about a new largest heroin bust in Northeast Ohio history, or whether this one made an actual difference.

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