RICHMOND, Va. - Michael Vick's uncle is among 22 people charged with participating in a drug ring that distributed hundreds of grams of heroin in eastern Virginia, federal authorities said yesterday.

Joseph Vick Jr., 57, of Newport News, is accused of being a midlevel distributor, the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a news release. Margaret Jahn, a spokeswoman for the office, confirmed that Joseph Vick is the uncle of the Eagles' quarterback.

Michael Vick was released from federal custody in July after serving 20 months of a 23-month sentence for running a dogfighting ring from his property in rural Surry County. If convicted of conspiracy to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin, Joseph Vick could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.

Joseph Vick and the other 21 defendants, all facing the same charges, made their initial court appearances in Norfolk yesterday afternoon, Jahn said. It was unclear whether Vick had retained a lawyer.

Lawrence Woodward, who served as Michael Vick's local lawyer in the dogfighting conspiracy case, did not immediately return telephone messages.

U.S. Attorney Neil H. MacBride and FBI special agent Alex J. Turner announced the drug arrests after court documents were unsealed. According to court records, members of the drug ring would routinely take a bus to New York or New Jersey, purchase heroin in bulk, and bring it to Newport News to be cut and repackaged for street-level distribution.

Court records also show that at least 15 people have died of heroin overdoses in the Virginia Peninsula region in the last 2 years.