The investigation involved wiretaps and electronic surveillance of cellphones — including analysis of 30,000 records on one phone number alone — but a major break in the case came in an old-fashioned, low-tech letter that arrived via U.S. mail.
It turned out to be a critical piece in a local and federal probe that culminated in the arrest of 32 Montgomery County and Philadelphia residents on charges of manufacturing, selling, and using methamphetamines.
"I get a good volume of mail, and some of it you can't make any sense out of," said Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman, who announced the arrests Tuesday.
That, however, was not the case with the anonymous letter that showed up in her office Dec. 14. The information in it, she said, was "spot-on."
Among the key figures named Tuesday were Jeffrey Penna, 41, who allegedly used his Hatfield home as a distribution point; his brother, David, 35, also of Hatfield; and Francesco Messina, 43, a principal in a Lansdale auto body shop where drugs, paraphernalia, and weapons were seized during a February raid.
The shop, Cosmo Motors, was identified in the anonymous letter, according to the affidavit of probable cause. Messina, who described himself as "co-owner" of the shop, often invited customers to use drugs in his office, the affidavit said.
Several of the defendants have prior arrest records. Messina was arrested in March on drug charges, and Jeffrey Penna in August on robbery, assault, and weapons charges.
"What is significant about this particular ring is that you're dealing with a middle-age market," said Ferman. "I'm confident we've taken down a major operation."
She declined to estimate the dollar value of the trafficking operation.
The region hasn't been a hotbed of meth dealing, Ferman said, although that may be changing. "Historically, it was not a drug that was plaguing us," she said, adding that it was far more prevalent in the West. The U.S. Justice Department has identified Los Angeles, Seattle, Phoenix, San Bernardino, Calif., and McAllen, Texas, as major "origination" points.
She said that in recent years, however, "it's infiltrating and infecting the community. I've seen a lot of devastation." Meth is highly addictive, and Ferman said that it appeared in this case that the dealers also were users.
Ferman said she also was concerned that if methamphetamines were being manufactured locally, it would constitute a safety hazard.
According to the Justice Department, the drug can be "cooked" in makeshift laboratories, but the cooks typically aren't trained chemists, and the process can be "highly dangerous and toxic."
"This case became a priority," said Ferman. It involved investigators from not only the county, but also the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Hatfield, Lansdale, Lower Providence, and Souderton Police Departments.
The District Attorney's Office secured permission to wiretap and conduct surveillance on phones used by Messina and another defendant, Troy Dudas of Limerick.
Investigators examined 29,799 "call detail records" on a phone number used by Messina. The wiretapping occurred from Feb. 8 through 29, when 14 search warrants were executed in the two counties, including one at Cosmo Motors. The District Attorney's Office did not say when the arrests occurred.
Messina, the Pennas, Dudas, and 15 others were charged with participating in a corrupt organization; all 32 were charged with violations of the federal Drug Act.
They are scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing Friday.