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Press Release

"Local Fulcrum" Of Cocaine Organization Gets 20 Years

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Western District of Pennsylvania

PITTSBURGH - A former resident of the Duquesne and Pitcairn suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been sentenced in federal court upon his conviction of violating federal narcotics and money laundering laws, United States Attorney David J. Hickton announced today.

United States District Judge David S. Cercone imposed a sentence of 20 years imprisonment followed by five years supervised release on Robert Russell Spence, aka “Little Russ” and “Slick”, 40.

The IRS Criminal Investigations section joined the DEA as major partners in the investigation of the current case with the valuable assistance of multiple other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The investigation revealed a major drug distribution conspiracy which resulted in cocaine being transported to Pittsburgh and other areas from 2000 through 2010. The evidence at trial established that the conspiracy involved over 2000 kilograms of cocaine and millions in laundered drug money. Over time, the conspiracy involved enough cocaine for every man, woman and child current resident of Pennsylvania to have their own $20 rock of crack cocaine and is believed to be one of the largest cocaine prosecutions ever in the Pittsburgh area.

Prior to the summer of 2007, the conspiracy utilized packages of cocaine being shipped by the US mail or various common carriers from California for recipients, such as Spence in Pittsburgh. Documents and evidence revealed the large number of packages of cocaine shipped to the conspirators, as well as the packages of drug money being shipped back. Multiple seizures of both money and cocaine packages occurred. For example, on June 7, 2007 Postal Inspectors intercepted six kilograms of cocaine from the mail that was earmarked for the conspiracy. On Aug. 5, 2007, Postal Inspectors also seized a package containing $99,850.00 intended for a co-defendant.

The conspiracy began using couriers to transport cocaine to Pittsburgh and money back to California. The investigation has revealed that between 2007 and 2010 at least 11 different couriers took approximately 200 airline flights for the conspiracy. These involved the transportation of cocaine to the Pittsburgh end of the conspiracy and the transportation of drug money back to California. Again, multiple packages of both money and cocaine were intercepted. For example, in February of 2008 co-defendant Ruben Mitchell boarded a plane in Oakland bound for Pittsburgh with cocaine in his luggage. Since the flight attendant had trouble getting the carry-on bag into the overhead bin, an airline employee called a “ramper” put a tag on the bag mistakenly causing it to be removed from the plane during a layover in Las Vegas. There, airline employees opened the bag and it was found to contain 19 kilograms of cocaine. Mitchell was observed, along with others, looking for the bag in Pittsburgh. On Aug. 8, 2009, over $335,000 in cash, just one part of approximately $700,000 that was sent on this occasion, was seized from the luggage of a conspirator.

During other times, the conspiracy arranged transportation of cocaine and/or money by means such as chartered private flights and vehicles including tractor trailers. Indicted individuals have performed many different roles within the conspiracy. Some conspirators were suppliers, couriers or recipient drug dealer/distributors. Other conspirators played a variety of tasks such as: shipping or receiving packages; arranging for couriers, flights and flight payments; money launderers; and those who circumvented security procedures at airports. The evidence showed that Spence was the main recipient of the cocaine that came to Pittsburgh and was personally responsible for more than 1500 kilograms of cocaine. Judge Cercone called Spence the “local fulcrum” of this large drug trafficking organization.

Federal agents obtained search warrants and simultaneously executed them in multiple locations in Pittsburgh and California, including a warehouse in a Pittsburgh suburb that Spence had rented under a false name. There, police located a significant stash of drug-processing items and also seized Spence’s vehicles and other assets. Experts testified that a drug dealer can substantially increase their profits by opening the packaged cocaine kilograms, grind the cocaine into a powder and mix in a diluent such as inositol. One of the items located in the warehouse was a hydraulic press which is utilized by drug dealers to forcefully press the now-diluted cocaine back into kilogram size packages in order to maintain the appearance that it is still “pure” and therefore more valuable. This process, sometimes called “re-rocking,” could turn two kilograms into three.

Spence conspired to launder his drug money in multiple ways including obtaining vehicles, prepaid credit cards, hotel reservations, houses, flights, drug processing materials and businesses in the names of other people. Spence also deposited cash in amounts below $10,000 in order to avoid federal laws requiring banks and others to report such transactions. The staggering amounts of money involved were proven by financial documents obtained by federal agents and acknowledged by cooperating witnesses. One witness, for example, testified to being sent to count one million dollars in drug cash for Spence and a separate witness testified to possessing $750,000 in drug cash for Spence on another date.

During his sentencing, Spence stated that he has been known as “a drug dealer all my life” and asked the Court for mercy. Despite his numerous previous convictions, Spence told the Court that “I can change.” Spence alleged that any illegal activities that he had committed were done simply in order to help his children financially, although the trial evidence showed Spence throwing extravagant parties (including those specifically for other drug dealers) and his purchase of expensive vehicles, jewelry and the like for himself. Spence even procured the regular services of a photographer he nicknamed “Paparazzi,” in order to document his lavish lifestyle.

The prosecution countered that Spence had, in person and in writing, threatened multiple prosecution witnesses, including forming the shape of a gun with his fingers while a witness was on the stand, testified falsely under oath and had filed numerous spurious motions in order to obstruct the legal process. The government also noted that Spence has arrests for burglary, drugs, fraud and weapon offenses in addition to more violent offenses like Aggravated Assault and Sexual Assault. The Court was advised that, in addition to a family member being shot to death, Spence’s chosen lifestyle has resulted in him being both shot and stabbed in the past.

Spence was released from prison and was on state parole for a previous conviction at the time he committed the federal charges. As a result, Spence faces the possibility of consecutive prison time from the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, and also has a pending significant heroin dealing charge in the Cleveland, Ohio area.

Assistant United States Attorneys Ross E. Lenhardt, Michael L. Ivory and Gregory J. Nescott prosecuted this case on behalf of the government.

U.S. Attorney Hickton commended the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Pennsylvania Attorney General and many other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies for the investigation leading to the successful prosecution of Spence and the drug trafficking organization.

Updated July 14, 2015