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Pinellas deputies seize drugs, money and guns in St. Petersburg bust

Authorities said 24 dealers, suppliers and distributors were arrested in connection with a large-scale drug operation based in Pinellas County.
 
Police investigate the scene at a home at 1760 17th St. S. on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Police investigate the scene at a home at 1760 17th St. S. on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 7, 2023|Updated Dec. 7, 2023

Local and state police took down a large-scale drug operation Tuesday that ended with 24 people arrested and hundreds of thousands of dollars in drugs seized.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the investigation, dubbed “Operation Dirty Ink” by the agency, involved wiretaps and detectives working undercover over the past year. The sting finally culminated in Tuesday’s arrests, he announced at a news conference Wednesday.

At multiple locations across Pinellas County over 27 hours, law enforcement officials seized 26.5 pounds of cocaine and 6.5 pounds of fentanyl — valued wholesale at a combined $309,000.

“If you value it the way that it would be sold on the streets of Pinellas County, which is in user doses at street level, the value of it well exceeds $1 million,” Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri said 1 kilogram of fentanyl has the potential to kill 500,000 people, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calculations.

“There’s about a million people that live in Pinellas County. And those 3 kilos yesterday could have killed every man, woman and child in Pinellas County — and a time in a half,” he said.

Investigators also confiscated $237,000 in cash, 20 pounds of marijuana, two handguns and one rifle.

Gualtieri said the investigation began in January, when the agency learned that Jacob Land was selling drugs out of Star Status Ink, his tattoo shop on Gandy Boulevard.

Detectives uncovered Land’s network of distributors and traced the origin of the drugs back to Mexico, Gualtieri said.

“The drugs went from Texas to Pinellas County or other places — like Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina — where couriers from Pinellas County would go to pick up the drugs and then bring them back here,” he said.

At a news conference Wednesday in Largo, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced a drug bust that ended in 24 arrests and thousands of dollars' worth of confiscated drugs.
At a news conference Wednesday in Largo, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced a drug bust that ended in 24 arrests and thousands of dollars' worth of confiscated drugs. [ Jack Prator|Times ]

Gualtieri said the local drug operation started in January and, since then, those involved are believed to have distributed about 880 pounds of cocaine, 110 pounds of fentanyl and more than 20 pounds of methamphetamine across the Tampa Bay area.

Through wiretaps that were in place for the last two months, Gualtieri said law enforcement officers identified Justin Richardson as a cocaine supplier to Land and others.

Richardson was in and out of prison over the past 18 years on federal drug charges involving hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, Gualtieri said. While incarcerated in Sumter County’s state prison, Gualtieri said Richardson developed his network of drug suppliers in Mexico.

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“And when he gets again released to a halfway house in Tampa two months ago, he’s right back at it again, selling people fentanyl and cocaine on the street,” Gualtieri said. “So much for getting the message, and so much for rehabilitation.”

On Tuesday, investigators from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, St. Petersburg Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched a series of arrests and served two warrants utilizing a SWAT team.

Gualtieri said the operation was going off without a hitch until Desmond Hargrove, a cocaine and fentanyl distributor, unexpectedly left his store in Gandy before he could be arrested. He said Hargrove owns a business in the same shopping center as Land and sold several ounces of fentanyl to an undercover detective throughout the investigation.

Deputies attempted to pull his vehicle over in the area of Fourth Street and Eighth Avenue North and Hargrove fled. Gualtieri, who was involved in the chase, said he watched sparks fly as Hargrove’s bumper hit speed bumps while he sped down the avenue.

Driving westbound on 85th Avenue at about 100 mph, Hargrove crashed into a parked car, pushing it 30 yards and through the wall of a nearby house, Gualtieri said.

The collision cracked the front concrete wall of the house and sent the empty car into a 5-year-old child’s bedroom, Gualtieri said.

Hargrove was injured in the crash and was taken to a nearby hospital with a broken leg, the sheriff said.

Gualtieri said he didn’t know why Hargrove decided to flee the scene.

“Sometimes stupid people do stupid stuff,” Gualtieri said. “And he’s a stupid person.”

Hargrove faces six counts of trafficking fentanyl, two counts of possession of fentanyl, two counts of selling fentanyl and one count of fleeing police.

An aerial drone view as police investigate the scene at a home at 1760 17th St. S. on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
An aerial drone view as police investigate the scene at a home at 1760 17th St. S. on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Authorities also served a warrant for Aleem Coley at 1760 17th St. S. in St. Petersburg in connection with the same sting. Gualtieri said deputies found Coley “cooking” crack cocaine at his stove.

Coley faces two counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine, conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine, operating a drug house and being a felon in possession of a firearm, among other charges.

Gualtieri closed Wednesday’s news conference with a reminder about the dangers of illegal drugs and highlighted the potency of fentanyl.

“Fentanyl really has caused the worst drug epidemic in our country,” Gualtieri said.

Law enforcement confiscated a suitcase filled with 1-kilogram bricks of cocaine during Tuesday's drug bust. At a news conference Wednesday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said drug traffickers typically soak each package in gasoline to disguise the smell.
Law enforcement confiscated a suitcase filled with 1-kilogram bricks of cocaine during Tuesday's drug bust. At a news conference Wednesday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said drug traffickers typically soak each package in gasoline to disguise the smell. [ Courtesy of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]

Florida ranks second in the nation in drug overdose deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, opioid overdose rates were down in Florida by 2.6% from 2021, the first decline in four years, according to preliminary data from the federal agency.

But Tampa Bay counties are still seeing death tolls climb. Last year, 1,583 people died of drug-related deaths in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, more than double the fatalities compared to five years ago.

Gualtieri said the fentanyl-related charges will carry 25-year minimum mandatory sentences thanks to a law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 1, which raised the sentences for fentanyl trafficking.

“I hope that the state prison system will do that and get these people in jail and off the streets,” Gualtieri said. “And keep them in place for the next 25 years.”