U.S. attorney, Vittone team up to attack drug, gun problem

New initiative to defend roads from criminals

March 17, 2015
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, announces Jerome A. Moschetta, third from left, was named a special assistant U.S. attorney under an initiative aimed at combatting drugs and illegal weapons at a news conference Tuesday morning. From left are Washington County District attorney Gene Vittone, Hickton, Moschetta and Lou Weiers, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent. Order a Print
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Jerome Moschetta

Just as roads leading to ancient Rome were the paths to a unified empire’s commerce and its military’s swift logistics, the interstate highways of the United States were promoted as a national defense project with a byproduct of efficiently moving goods, commuters and leisure travelers.

In the days of the Romans, the Vandals and assorted tribes of Visigoths subverted the intended purpose of the roads, turning those marvels of engineering into routes by which to attack and invade the dominant power of the ancient world.

The same could be said of today’s modern criminals who take advantage of four-lane roads and interchanges to speedily deliver illegal drugs, weapons and other contraband.

David J. Hickton, U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania, in the first of four similar appearances, stood alongside Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone on Tuesday as he announced a new initiative to defend communities along the border of his 25-county region from criminals.

Hickton said he chose Washington, Lawrence and Erie counties as to deploy this strategy because each has a major interstate or U.S. highway running through it or, in the case of Johnstown, Cambria County, lies near the Turnpike and other major routes through the mountains. Washington County is “critical,” Hickton said, because it is the crossroads of Interstates 70 and 79.

The salary of an assistant district attorney from each of the four counties will be subsidized with $44,000 Hickton’s office has not yet spent from the federal Department of Justice Project Safe Neighborhoods grants of 2010 and 2011, but for which the U.S. attorney’s office was able to obtain an extension.

“We have learned the highways are really the arteries of some of the criminals,” Hickton said. “Nowhere do we have better cooperation than here in Washington County.”

Washington County Assistant District Attorney Jerome Moschetta, nominated by Vittone, was designated a special assistant U.S. attorney to be embedded in that federal office to improve communication and cooperation in deciding which cases should be federally prosecuted. Moschetta, Hickton said, will be working directly with the U.S. attorney’s office Violent Crime Team.

Moschetta and the other special U.S. attorneys will review cases where serious firearms-related charges were involved, paying particular attention to chronic offenders, large-scale drug dealers and gang members, according to a release from Hickton’s office. Working with the violent crime chief, they will select the more serious cases for federal prosecution, and they will also work with local police departments to provide education on federal firearms laws.

“He is welcome to be in our office every day or periodically, as the flow of the cases dictates,” Hickton said of Moschetta, who commented he expects to fulfill roles as both a special assistant U.S. attorney and assistant district attorney in Washington County by prioritizing cases in Washington County Court. Vittone does not envision having to add staff to make up for time Moschetta, who has been a prosecutor for six years, spends in the U.S. Courthouse in Pittsburgh.

The U.S. attorney expects the face time among prosecutors to be valuable in the “sharing of intelligence gathered which will make it much more difficult for criminal enterprises to thrive here.”

Washington County’s share of the federal grant will be $11,000, identical to that of the other counties.

Hickton claimed the tactic as his brainchild.

“I’m not aware of a strategic design like this that’s been done,” he said at the news conference in Vittone’s office. He views the cooperation between state and federal law enforcement as a way to ensure that both are “not proceeding in two independent silos.”

Hickton said illegally obtained weapons are used as a means of enforcing order in drug transactions and among gangs, but said the public would likely be surprised to learn that in many drug transactions, the terms of barter are, in addition to cash, actually illegal weapons.

As a crossroads, “Washington is not unique,” the U.S. attorney said.

The routes Hickton identified in the other targeted counties are I-79 and 90 in Erie; I-80 and 79 in New Castle; and I-99, Route 219 and Route 56 in addition to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“This doesn’t mean we’re neglecting the other 21 counties in my district,” Hickton promised. “We have interstate reach throughout our jurisdiction.” Crimes prosecuted federally often result in longer sentences than defendants would receive in a state court.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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