Since the crackdown on prescription drugs dwindled the number of operating pill mills and overdose deaths in Pinellas County, authorities are now seeing a resurgence in an older, familiar drug: heroin.
The number of heroin cases processed at the Pinellas County forensics lab doubled during the first six months of this year. The medical examiner's office has also reported three overdose deaths caused by heroin, compared with four reported all of last year.
"There's been a real upsurge," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during a news conference Monday. "The reason we're seeing a lot more heroin is this problem is an addiction problem. And as long as there is an addiction, people are going to seek the drugs."
Gualtieri announced Monday the results of a three-month investigation that dismantled a drug trafficking ring investigators believe pumped heroin and cocaine onto the streets of Pinellas County.
In all, 14 people, including some living in Puerto Rico and Arizona, were arrested. Detectives also seized 46 ounces of heroin, 23 ounces of cocaine, 14 guns and nearly $90,000 in cash.
The investigation began in April, Gualtieri said, when undercover detectives purchased cocaine and heroin from Ebenezer Jimenez, 32, of Seminole.
Their investigation of Jimenez led them to Pedro Maisonet-Gonzalez, 40, of Pinellas Park, accused of selling about 2 to 3 ounces of heroin and 5 to 7 pounds of cocaine a month.
With help from his girlfriend, Isabel Jasso, Maisonet-Gonzalez traveled to Puerto Rico every month to purchase narcotics and then shipped them back to Pinellas County through the postal service, Gualtieri said.
He also bought guns and would then ship them to Puerto Rico to be sold illegally.
Maisonet-Gonzalez distributed drugs to about seven people who sold the cocaine and heroin in Pinellas County, including in strip clubs such as Baby Dolls on U.S. 19 and Treasure Chest on Park Boulevard, officials said.
Investigators identified three higher-level drug distributors, including Jorge Perez-Diaz of Puerto Rico, accused of shipping drugs to his mother, Maribel Diaz-Ortiz, 54, of Tampa, who distributed them locally, including to Maisonet-Gonzalez.
By wiretapping four telephone numbers, detectives linked 17 people to the operation. Three remain at large.
Those arrested face drug charges, including conspiracy to traffic in cocaine and heroin.
The investigation involved several agencies, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the Drug Enforcement Administration.