For months, Ronald Delaet rented a P.O. box at the post office on Safety Harbor's quaint, lamp-lit Main Street, just blocks away from the public library.
He was picking up a package of 99.7 grams of heroin Sept. 19 when detectives arrested him after receiving a tip from federal authorities. When they searched the Clearwater home where he lived, investigators discovered that Delaet was running his own drug empire that produced thousands of dollars and spanned nearly a dozen states.
Many drug traffickers are now conducting business online, on rogue websites that prove difficult for authorities to trace, as well as on smartphone apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, said Pinellas Sheriff's Office Capt. Mark Baughman, the agency's narcotics division commander. The drugs are purchased with prepaid debit cards or bitcoin, a form of e-currency used to make online purchases.
On the Internet, dealers can peddle their drugs without revealing their identities, lowering their chances of getting caught.
"It gives you that security, that anonymity," Baughman said. "And it's harder for law enforcement to pursue."
In Delaet's case, detectives searched his house at 101 Maplewood Ave., and found packaging supplies and a plethora of other drugs: marijuana, oxycodone and diazepam tablets.
Baughman said investigators believe Delaet had been purchasing the drugs on two websites, picking them up at the post office and then distributing the narcotics to people in several states, including New York, Massachusetts, California, Montana, Illinois, Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio.
Delaet, 43, is also accused of selling the drugs in Pinellas County.
In all, hundreds of mail receipts dated within the past year were recovered.
Detectives also intercepted five packages that Delaet had recently mailed. Among the recipients was a 17-year-old, who paid Delaet $95 for a nasal spray containing fentanyl, a strong pain-killer used in surgical procedures.
The package had just arrived at his house in Lowell, Mass., when his mother opened it and discovered the drug. She called police. Her son later admitted he had planned on overdosing on his birthday the following day, Baughman said.
Delaet, who faces charges of drug trafficking, remains at the Pinellas County Jail in lieu of $76,000 bail.