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Jul. 22—Five locations allegedly used by the man accused of running a Johnstown-area drug ring were searched by federal investigators the day of his arrest, uncovering more than $25,000 in cash, identification cards in co-conspirators' names and nine ounces of crack cocaine, a federal prosecutor said on Wednesday.
Assistant United States Attorney Maureen Sheehan-Balchon said that FBI agents tracked Mikal Davis' movements through steady surveillance, including GPS locators on his car.
The agents obtained search warrants to dismantle Davis' operation after he was monitored bringing drugs from Philadelphia to a house on Beatrice Avenue in Johnstown's West End with James Dotson III, an accused "lieutenant" in his organization, she added during a detention hearing.
Davis' counsel, federal public defender Chris Brown, argued that the FBI built its case through confidential informants with crime and drug histories.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Pesto declined Brown's request during Wednesday's hearing to allow Davis to be released to relatives in Philadelphia.
"There is evidence to (indicate) Mr. Davis is deep into an organized distribution network, and that makes him a danger to the community," Pesto said.
Wednesday's proceedings, held virtually through Zoom, also included preliminary hearings in which counts against four men were held for court, including Davis, Dotson and two more alleged members of Davis' organization — Azheem Ellis and Dwight Logan.
During the hearing, FBI Special Agent Aaron Pryor fielded questions about how investigators tracked the organization for nearly two years. He discussed some of the 60 controlled buys that investigators say were completed either through Davis, on his behalf or by dealers operating under him.
The FBI alleges they purchased nearly 300 grams of cocaine, well over a half-pound of the drug, between June 2019 and March 31, 2021. That includes one alleged buy in September 2020 from Davis and Timothy Mollett, who had his hearing continued Wednesday, that prosecutors said involved 35 grams of crack cocaine.
Under federal law, crack cocaine sales above 280 grams are classified as a Class A felony that could carry a sentence of life in prison — and a minimum of 10 years behind bars.
But Brown said the case didn't involve a few sales, but nearly two years of buys to build investigators' case into something more serious. And they used "informants" with criminal histories and drug problems to do it, he argued, noting that one informant admittedly tried to keep some of his purchase on one occasion before notifying investigators of his mistake.
Brown noted no confirmed narcotics were found on Davis when he was arrested inside a hotel room at a Holiday Inn in Johnstown last week. They were instead found in locations "purported" to be his residences, he said. In those searches, crack cocaine, cocaine, meth and seven grams of heroin allegedly were seized, as well as cash, packing materials and cell phones inside the apartments, which included one in Philadelphia.
"The presumption of innocence remains with Mr. Davis," Brown said, "and if he was such a danger to the community, why wasn't he arrested much sooner?"
Ellis' attorney, Bill McCabe, noted that his client faces charges related to just eight of the 60 buys, in quantities of less than 3.2 grams of the drug.
He cited texts the government allegedly intercepted from Ellis' phone and asked if there was any proof that Ellis was the person doing the typing. Pryor indicated he wasn't aware, but said surveillance placed Ellis with Davis in both Johnstown and Philadelphia "multiple" times and indicated there was more information in an FBI report he has not yet finished reviewing.
Pryor said that cases involving drug organizations are complex ones that take time and supporting evidence to show the level of trafficking in the Johnstown area for which Davis' ring is responsible.
"He's had no employment for seven years," he said. "Eleven arrests. He's had seven bench warrants for failures to appear (in court). His level of dangerousness is proven."
Logan's and Dotson's attorneys, Kelvin Morris and Damien Schorr, also asked questions about the buys, questioning Pryor about how each exchange was conducted and whether anyone in law enforcement witnessed them.
Pryor said efforts were made during every buy to keep eyes on informants while they swapped cash for drugs, but acknowledged investigators may not have been able to observe every moment.
Pesto said that there's plenty of specifics within the case to "dig for," but at the preliminary hearing level, those answers weren't needed to establish that the federal government has probable cause to charge the group. A grand jury is likely to hear the matter "at some point," meaning an indictment could follow, he said moments after holding the defendants' drug charges for court.
Another alleged dealer, Hector Concepcion, will also stand trial on crack delivery charges stemming from eight alleged drug sales to confidential informants between August 2019 and December 23, 2020. Concepcion is not listed as a defendant within Davis' alleged drug ring, and his charges are listed under a separate case.
A hearing date was not immediately set for Mollett, who is represented by Pittsburgh defense attorney Komron Maknoon.