Ex kindergarten teacher pleads guilty to role in cocaine ring
A former Washington County kindergarten teacher has pleaded guilty to a federal narcotics charge for her role in a far-reaching cocaine ring that flooded the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh with drugs and had ties to Mexican cartels, prosecutors said Thursday.
Renee Kinder, 46, of Donora — who spent the past several years working with children at Ringgold South Elementary School in Carroll Township — was convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine, U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady said.
She faces a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine or both.
Kinder was indicted in the federal drug investigation in April, along with 38 more co-conspirators.
Brady described the bust as one of the largest ever of its kind in Western Pennsylvania, at a time when “cocaine is making a comeback in this region.”
Kinder’s indictment rocked the Ringgold South Elementary School community , alarming officials and parents and prompting Ringgold School District officials to order Kinder to stay away from school property.
Kinder was hired by the district in 2006 as a kindergarten teacher at Donora Elementary Center at a salary of $24,800, the Observer-Reporter reports. She later taught art and remedial math and reading classes and assisted young students with using the school library.
District officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
The cross-country drug ring that Kinder was a part of stretched from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and included a federal prison inmate who continued to coordinate and communicate with co-conspirators while detained, Brady said.
Prosecutors said the ring was run by a pair of brothers, Jamie Lightfoot Jr., 25, and Deaubre Lightfoot, 27, and interstate drug trafficker Don Juan Mendoza, formerly of Lawrenceville, Ga. They moved the drugs, which included heroin and marijuana in addition to the cocaine, into Western Pennsylvania via either a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van or a large RV.
From March 2017 to December 2017, Brandon Thomas — whom prosecutors identified as a mid-level distributor in the ring — would receive large quantities of cocaine from Jamie Lightfoot Jr., then pass along the cocaine to Kinder and other co-conspirators, Brady said.
Kinder would travel to Thomas’ home in Donora to buy cocaine, then sell it to others, prosecutors said.
The two-year investigation, called Operation Heavy Hand, included the FBI, state police, and police in Pittsburgh, South Strabane, Elizabeth Borough, Penn Hills and Perryopolis.
Their work came to a head last fall when officials caught one of the ring’s RVs — occupied by Pedro Blanco, Brian Powell and Troy Rowe — attempting to haul more than 50 kilograms of cocaine from Los Angeles to Jamie Lightfoot’s Penn Hills home, the indictment said. Police also seized a kilogram of heroin, 85 pounds of marijuana, an AK-47 rifle and a handgun, Brady said.
Later searches of the homes and vehicles of others involved in the ring turned up more drugs, 11 firearms and more than $1 million in cash.
All told, the amount of cocaine seized had a street value of $2 million.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy M. Lanni is prosecuting the case.
U.S. District Judge Mark Hornak scheduled a sentencing for Kinder, the third to plead guilty in the broader investigation, for Jan. 29.
Last month, Monty Grinage of North Braddock pleaded guilty to conspiracy and firearms charges.
Anthony Davis of Donora pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute in March.
Cases still are pending for the rest of the suspects.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.