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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Two men have been indicted and another four have pleaded guilty so far in the aftermath of arrests targeting a drug and gun sales network that involved the city's Chief Housing Inspector.
Both Paul Cano, a New Brunswick landlord who owns four rental properties, and Chief Housing Inspector Michael Mahony, have taken deals with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to criminal charges. But only Cano is expected to go to jail.
Mahony's deal with prosecutors enabled him to avoid jail time, despite his allegedly possessing 11 ounces of cocaine when State Police pulled over his city vehicle in Milltown a few days before Christmas 2013.
After ten men were arrested in the busts, including three public employees, Cano was accused of playing a lead role in an organization that sold large amounts of cocaine, and some illegal weapons.
State Police dubbed the investigation "Operation: Smokescreen" and announced they seized a total of 22 illegal weapons, 14 legal weapons, 1.5 kilos of cocaine, 12 ounces of MDMA, two pounds of marijuana, several other illegal drugs, and Cano's pick-up truck.
Cano pled guilty to first-degree distribution of cocaine and possession of an assault rifle on March 23, according to a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office.
"We will recommend that he be sentenced to 10 years in state prison, including 3 ½ years of parole ineligibility," said the spokesperson, Peter Aseltine.
But the only problem is that Cano's sentencing keeps getting delayed. Originally set for August, it was quietly pushed back to September 21, then to November 16.
Now it has been scheduled for February 1, 2016, nearly a year after Cano pleaded guilty and more than two years after his arrest. Aseltine has not said who the judge is for the case, or where the sentencing will take place.
According to an inside source, Cano regularly sold cocaine to Chief Housing Inspector Michael Mahony and many other customers at his two neighboring properties on George Street, #151 and #153.
Cano also owns rental homes at 370 Delavan Street, and and 397 Sanford Street, according to property records.
The scandalous relationship between the landlord and Mahony, the man who supervised the staff that inspected his properties, was just one of several reasons that the bust was unusual.
“Crimes involving drug distribution and illegal firearms are always a priority, but this case is more significant for two reasons: public employees were involved and the illegal activity may have been going on for many years,” said Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police.
Mahony finally resigned his position in October 2014.
Just a few weeks after Cano's plea deal, the defendant facing the most serious consequences was indicted in what officials are calling a "separate case."
Gaetano Barone ran a restaurant in Cranbury Township, about a half-hour south of the epicenter of the drug and gun network, which was based in New Brunswick, Milltown, North Brunswick, and Franklin.
"Barone has been indicted as an entirely separate case," explained Aseltine. "While he was picked up at the same time as the Smokescreen defendants and was included in the State Police press release, he was not charged as part of the criminal network targeted in Operation Smokescreen."
After police arrested him, they said that they found the "majority" of the drugs and weapons inside the store, Cranberry's Gourmet Cafe.
Allegedly, detectives seized cocaine, marijuana, MDMA, prescription legend drugs (PLD’s), steroids, a handgun, and counterfeit clothing from the cafe.
Three days later, Barone was bailed out of jail, where he was held on $250,000 bail.
The April 6 indictment against him includes charges of two first-degree offenses: distribution of cocaine, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. It also includes second-degree charges of conspiracy, unlawful possession of a handgun, possessing a weapon during the commission of a crime, and having a weapon that he was not allowed to have.
Sources told New Brunswick Today that the drug network's clients included police officers and other public officials, some of whom avoided jail or were never charged at all.
Mahony was the first to take a plea deal. He avoided jail and was sentenced to probation, but barred from public employment after he pleaded guilty to a third-degree drug offense in February.
Since then, Michael Vitanza, a public works department employee in North Brunswick, took a plea deal from prosecutors and he kept his job after being sentenced to probation on a fourth-degree charge.
Another man charged with much more serious offenses, but no public employment at risk, has taken a plea deal as well, according to authorities.
Frank Kinelski, a Milltown native who lives in Franklin Township, pled guilty on February 9–six weeks before Cano's guilty plea–to third-degree distribution of cocaine.
The Attorney General's Office did not say what sentence they would be recommending for Kinelski.
His sentencing has also been pushed back multiple times, and it is currently scheduled for December 6.
John Meerbaugh of North Brunswick has not taken a deal, so prosecutors secured a state grand jury indictment against him on June 25.
Meerbaugh faces charges of first-degree drug distribution, second-degree conspiracy, and third-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance.
Meanwhile, state and county law enforcement agencies have given conflicting information about who is prosecuting four other defendants, including a Middlesex County Sheriff's Office dispatcher.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.