By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
The federal government appears ready to take over the prosecution of Travis W. Black, a Farrell man whose past federal drug conviction could mean extra time in prison if he is convicted of the new case.
A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted Black, 27, who is in Mercer County Jail, of one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine and three counts of possession of crack.
The dates of the alleged crimes, Aug. through Nov. 4, 2010, for the conspiracy, Sept. 1, Oct. 29 and Oct. 31, all in 2010, for the possession charges, coincide with charges of possession of crack, criminal use of a cellular telephone and conspiracy to commit possession of crack filed last summer by state police and the state Attorney General’s Office.
The indictment does not charge Black with a drug deal on Nov. 4, 2010, which the state charges do, but a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Pittsburgh, said she could not comment on that apparent omission.
Although Black’s charges were still listed as active Thursday in Mercer County Common Pleas Court, Mercer County District Attorney’s Office typically allows federal charges to proceed over local charges because the federal government has stiffer sentences, more flexible search and seizure rules and greater investigative resources.
Black is a peripheral figure in the probe of a Farrell-based crack cocaine distribution ring in which nine men have pleaded guilty to racketeering and drug charges.
Black was a source of cocaine for Howard T. Owens, 46, of Sharon, whose sentence on racketeering and drug charges is pending in Mercer County Common Pleas Court, police said. The two men talked on the telephone at least twice a day for the 47 days Owens’ phone was wiretapped, police said.
The sales to an undercover state trooper were made by Owens or his “runner,” Ronald L. McLean, 62, of Farrell, who also is facing state charges.
Police said they observed Black meeting with Owens either in Black’s home or outside Owens’ home to supply Owens with cocaine.
In state court, Black is charged with possessing 8 ounces of cocaine. The federal indictment does not list an amount.
If convicted of all counts, Black could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison on each charge. However, it appears prosecutors could invoke his 2008 conviction on a drug conspiracy charge to boost the possible sentence to up to 30 years on each count.
Black was sentenced in January 2009 to 20 months in prison followed by 4 years’ supervised release. He qualified for the “safety valve” - a sentence under the 5-year mandatory minimum - because he had little criminal history and did not use a gun.
After state police and the attorney general’s office filed their charges, the U.S. Probation Office obtained an arrest warrant for a potential probation violation hearing, but have not arrested him.