HAZLETON — In addition to potentially losing her freedom, a woman arrested in a drug raid Friday also could lose her home under a new initiative of the Hazleton Police Department.
After police served a search warrant at 134 Pine Tree Road and arrested the three people inside, a city official posted a dark red sign in the front door window with the word “CONDEMNED.”
“The new idea actually has been on the books for quite some time — using the city’s nuisance property ordinance” to clean up neighborhoods, Police Chief Frank DeAndrea said at a press conference at City Hall Friday afternoon. “And since the mayor has put code enforcement and the health department under the supervision of the police department, I thought we would attempt to take a new approach.”
When advised Thursday of the operation planned for Friday by his narcotics unit lieutenant, DeAndrea called Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis and requested her view on the city condemning the Pine Tree Road house “because it’s unsafe for human cohabitation, it’s a danger to the community,” DeAndrea said.
Pointing to cash, heroin, safes, smoking apparatus, baggies and drug scales allegedly seized from the house, and displayed on a table in city council chambers, DeAndrea said the items clearly show “that this house is a drug house and doesn’t belong in our city.”
DeAndrea said Salavantis “is in 100 percent support of this approach based on the city’s ordinance.”
So, with Salavantis’ apparent blessing, the condemned sign was placed on the house after the raid, DeAndrea said. “No one is allowed to go back in that house,” he said. “Monday, we’ll start the paperwork through the nuisance property (ordinance) to see that that house is never returned to the owner. If it is returned to the owner, it will be because we lost in court.”
The homeowner, 28-year-old Tiffany Davis, was among those in the house arrested. The others were her brother, James Davis Jr., 21, of 11 Cafe Court, Hazle Township; and Nelson Rivera, 19, of 401 E. Diamond Ave., Hazleton.
As police were preparing to serve the warrant, they witnessed a controlled drug buy occur outside the house, DeAndrea said. Nelson Rivera Rincon, 20, of 401 E. Diamond Ave., and William Guevara, 47, who gave an address of 134 S. Pine Tree Road at his arraignment, were arrested after that alleged incident.
Holding up two pieces of paper, DeAndrea said it’s important to note that “Crime watches work.” The sheets contained license plate numbers from vehicles that frequented the home on Pine Tree Road — along with times, dates, vehicle descriptions and whether a porch light was on or off, apparently signaling whether the house was “open for business.”
“It’s sad that we’d be able to get two sheet’s worth of (information) in a period of four days,” said DeAndrea. “It just shows the magnitude of some of these drug houses.”
In conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office, police and the Luzerne County Drug Task Force used the lists from crime watch and other information to obtain a search warrant, he said.
DeAndrea noted that participation from task force members of the Wright Township and West Hazleton police departments on duty Friday, and District Judge Joseph Zola conducting the arraignments on a day his office was closed so the suspects would not have to be transported to a duty magistrate’s office, saved the city overtime expenses.
“And my thanks the mayor for allowing me to be this unique and out-of-the-box with a new way to combat an old problem and hopefully condemn these houses and start to send a message,” DeAndrea said.
Another message DeAndrea wants to get across: “To all of these people, we know who you are,” he said, again holding up the list of vehicle information from crime watch.
“And to all of these houses that you’re frequenting, Pine Tree Road is not the … last house we’re going to condemn. … This is our new modus operandi. This is how we’re going to do business in the city to try and take it back,” DeAndrea said.
Mayor Joe Yannuzzi said he’s pleased with the police department’s work and that “these crime watch personnel and citizens of Hazleton have been on the watch and accumulated all these … vehicle numbers. It’s a great thing for the crime watch and it’s time more people step forward and give our police the information they need to make arrests.”
Officials agreed it was ironic that a neighborhood watch sign was posted on a sign less than 50 feet from the house raided on Friday.
“I think they ignored the sign because they didn’t see the participation of crime watch, they didn’t hear much about it,” Yannuzzi said. “Now that this is out there, I think they’ll pay attention to those signs.”