Westmoreland inmate accused in jail drug smuggling scheme
An anonymous tip from an inmate at the Westmoreland County Prison enabled authorities to shut down an elaborate Suboxone smuggling operation at the Hempfield lockup this year, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing Friday.
District Judge Mark Mansour found sufficient evidence for the inmate behind the alleged operation, Joseph R. Netzel, 36, of Eighty Four, to stand trial. Netzel is charged by county Detective John W. Clark with possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and criminal conspiracy.
Netzel was able to smuggle Suboxone in with the help of his girlfriend, Blair Goode, 45, of Coraopolis, and other inmates who assisted with prison maintenance, according to testimony by county prison guard Lt. Brad Tomasello and Clark.
“(Goode) told me in an interview she did it on behalf of her boyfriend, Mr. Netzel. She would come into the prison lobby, use the ladies’ bathroom there and tape the Suboxone strips in between the bathroom stalls,” Clark testified.
Clark testified that inmates assisting with maintenance would then retrieve the strips of Suboxone and take them back to the cell block.
Suboxone is a drug used in treating an opioid addiction and Goode had a prescription for it, according to Clark.
Netzel, who pleaded not guilty, has been held in the county prison since late August when he was arrested for burglarizing a home in Allegheny Township. He is awaiting trial in that case, too.
Goode is also charged with possession, delivery and criminal conspiracy in connection with the scheme. She recently waived her right to a preliminary hearing and will stand trial at an undetermined date. Authorities indicated that she may testify at trial against Netzel.
Tomasello testified that the investigation began in January when prison officials received an anonymous tip about drug use within Netzel’s cellblock.
“We tested a number of inmates and six came up hot,” Tomasello said, meaning they tested positive.
Tomasello testified under questioning from assistant district attorney Allen Powanda that prison officials retrieved audio recordings of eight telephone calls between Netzel, who was incarcerated, and Goode. They made plans for Goode to bring drugs into the prison.
He also said security video at the prison corroborated alleged users testimony when Goode delivered the drugs.
Netzel’s attorney, Valerie Veltri of Natrona Heights, argued to Mansour that the complaints against her client should be dismissed because they had no evidence that Netzel ever possessed the drugs. She also noted that Netzel did not test positive for Suboxone use, either.
However, Powanda disagreed.
“Although there was no testimony that Mr. Netzel was ever in possession of the Suboxone, testimony has clearly established that he was the person behind the whole plan to bring drugs into the prison,” Powanda countered.
Mansour agreed with Powanda and ordered Netzel to stand trial on all the charges.
Netzel is among a number of inmates recently accused of smuggling drugs into the county prison. This month, Akeem Abdul Jabar Vance, 34, of Greensburg was arraigned on charges filed by county detectives of contraband and possession of cocaine after prison officials discovered a small baggie of cocaine in his cell in 2017.
Cole Wano, 20, of Derry Township, who pleaded guilty this week to charges of stealing a high-powered assault rifle in Salem Township, is also accused of smuggling prescription medication into the jail last year.
Warden John Walton could not be reached for comment Friday, but the prison has recently installed new equipment and adopted policies aimed at curbing illicit drug use at the facility.
This month, the prison began giving inmates photocopies of items mailed to them due to concerns the original items may contain synthetic marijuana. Walton also said the prison will destroy the original cards, letters and envelopes.
Late last year, the prison also installed a full body scanner to process every incoming prisoner in an attempt to curb smuggling.