Chicken wings may be a symbol for Buffalo's cuisine, but for one local drug ring, the popular snack had another, coded meaning: cocaine.
Caught on surveillance tapes setting up drug drops, and even arguing over prices and quality, a four-county narcotics ring in Western New York has been busted by state investigators.
Twenty-four people, including a Thruway toll collector, have been arrested in connection with the cocaine-distribution network.
The arrests were part of a yearlong joint undercover probe by the state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's organized crime task force and the State Police.
The arrests included Richard Himbury, a Tonawanda resident, who officials described as one of the region's major drug suppliers, and Laurie Kozakowski, a Batavia resident employed the past 10 years as a Thruway toll collector.
Recordings captured dealers using coded language in cellphone conversations, including talk of a delivery of a "single order of wings" -- which one of two indictments in the case said was actually an order for cocaine.
The "Operation Babcock" investigation, centered in the South Buffalo neighborhood, uncovered a distribution network that spread cocaine throughout the region.
Schneiderman's office said the ring was selling about a kilo of cocaine per month -- with street sales of about $400,000 for the year.
The investigation halted a sizable cocaine-trafficking operation, which included cocaine shipments going from a house in Olean to people making drug deals on street corners in downtown Buffalo, a Bailey Avenue pizza shop and a residence in Batavia, prosecutors with the Attorney General's Office said Wednesday.
An Erie County grand jury handed up two separate indictments -- with a total of 112 counts -- against 24 men and women on charges stretching from drug sales to conspiracy. The most serious charges carry potential prison sentences of up to 20 years.
Those arrested include Buffalo residents Rasheem Alston, 36; Michael Banks, 36; Jesse Bonner, 38; Joseph Bonner, 26; Manuel Bracero, 20; Scott Bush, 50; Juliene Byham, 29; Mark Cousins, 21; Kevin Dean, 21; Daniel Driscoll, 26; Patrick Driscoll, 25; Wesley Fish, 25; Sean Ransford, 22; Anthony "Muggs" Sargente, 24; Michael Sylvia, 25; and Joseph Sanna, 43.
Also, Daniel Fino, 26, of Lackawanna; Rob Alessi, 29, and Gregory Gioia, 22, of West Seneca; Himbury, 40, and David Link, 42, of Tonawanda; Richard Isch, 24, of East Aurora; Kozakowski, 41, of Batavia; and Justin Mills, 32, of Depew.
"With our partners in law enforcement, we will continue to crack down on these drug networks to rid our neighborhoods from the infestation of these dangerous narcotics," Schneiderman said in a statement. "I want to thank the New York State Police and the rest of our law enforcement partners for another successful operation that will keep our streets safer."
Operation Babcock included alleged drug sales in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Erie and Genesee counties.
Police seized several kilograms of cocaine and nearly $60,000 in cash. The operation also used undercover state troopers posing as buyers.
"We are sending a strong message that illegal drugs will not be tolerated in our communities," said State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D'Amico.
Buffalo police and the state Division of Parole also participated in the investigation.