A key moment in the case against what authorities call "perhaps the most prolific drug trafficking organization" in Western New York happened a year ago in Los Angeles.
Eleazar Martinez Medina had just flown back from Buffalo and was stopped as he tried to leave the airport. Authorities found him with more than $658,000 in cash.
A search warrant for Martinez Medina's Uber account led investigators to his Gmail account and they gained the ability to track his movements in Buffalo. Investigators learned that on the morning of Feb. 15, 2019, Martinez Medina arrived by vehicle to the back of 69 Bennett Village Terrace. His arrival was captured by a surveillance camera in the alley behind the townhouse, the same house where a team of federal agents and local police arrested David Washington almost a year later.
Washington had just spent the night in the brick townhouse in the Central Park neighborhood. Inside, investigators reported finding a trap in the floorboards with $77,000 in cash. They found 12 cellphones, two expensive rings and an empty floor safe.
Another development came on Feb. 19 of this year, when investigators with the Sheriff's Office, who had obtained a slew of search warrants for cars and residences, pulled over a vehicle, according to court documents. Inside the vehicle, they found small quantities of cocaine and crack. Searches of two residences turned up six firearms, ammunition, 1.5 kilos of cocaine and $50,000 in cash.
The unnamed target of the search warrant cooperated with investigators and told them, according to court papers, that David Burgin had supplied the cocaine about a week earlier.
Information gleaned from court documents, a prosecutor's press conference and arguments during a detention hearing –at which U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Schroeder Jr. agreed with prosecutors to remand Washington – offered glimpses into the case that federal authorities are building against Washington, Burgin and their two alleged co-conspirators.
Federal prosecutors suspect Washington and Burgin are at the top of the drug distribution chain, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Lynch.
They would bring in and then distribute kilos of cocaine and other drugs down to the street level, mostly in Buffalo but also in Lackawanna and the Town of Tonawanda, he said.
"We've identified David Burgin and David Washington as two of the largest drug traffickers operating in the City of Buffalo for the last several years," Lynch said.
Washington, wearing orange and handcuffed, studied a stapled stack of papers his attorney was showing him last week in federal court in Buffalo.
Family members and supporters, seven women and a man, sat quietly in the courtroom, some trying to catch his eye. It was Washington's 40th birthday.
Washington was in court that day for a detention hearing: Prosecutors argued that he should remain in custody until his trial because he was both a danger to the community and a flight risk.
U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, at a press conference flanked by the local heads of the FBI, DEA, IRS, Homeland Security Investigations, Customs and Border Protection and local law enforcement, said Washington was part of "perhaps the most prolific drug trafficking organization currently operating here in Western New York" and that it stretched across the U.S.
In raids, authorities seized 7.5 kilos of cocaine and crack cocaine, more than 2 kilos of the deadly opioid fentanyl, more than $750,000 in cash and six firearms. Four were arrested.
Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent in Charge Kevin Kelly called those arrested "high-level targets, some of whom acted with impunity and deemed themselves untouchable by law enforcement."
Washington's attorney criticized federal prosecutors for their portrayal of his client.
"I think in the days that follow an arrest of any target of the federal government, there is often a great deal of hyperbole," said defense attorney James Q. Auricchio said. "This is not the first time I have had a client accused of being the biggest dealer in town and I am confident it will not be the last."
Washington's attorney and family say the characterization by prosecutors and the media has been unfair and robbed Washington of his right to be presumed innocent until trial.
"It's highly prejudicial to his ability to have a fair trial," Auricchio said.
"He has a family. He has children. You don't think about how that affects them," said a woman after Washington's hearing. She would not give her name but described herself as "family" to Washington. "You should look at both sides of the story."
'Meet u at 6'
Federal authorities have been investigating the suspected drug ring for more than two years, Lynch said.
The information collected through Martinez Medina's Gmail showed him traveling along the Thruway to the parking lot of the Walmart in Chili, outside Rochester, where prosecutors said Martinez Medina met with someone in a white tractor-trailer who handed him a large black bag. Google records then indicate Martinez Medina drove back to 69 Bennett Village with what Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Higgins said is believed to be "bulk cocaine."
In last month's development, the unnamed "target of the search warrant" told investigators, according to the court papers, that Burgin used his nephew, Rodney Pierce, "to deliver the cocaine."
The "target" cooperated with authorities, according to the court records, and arranged for Pierce to bring him a kilogram of cocaine later that day.
Pierce allegedly texted him: "Unc meet u at 6."
Pierce also was allegedly recorded telling "the target to meet him at the AutoZone on Broadway in the City of Buffalo," court records show.
Law enforcement then set up surveillance around the AutoZone and observed a white Dodge Caravan with Pierce at the wheel back into a parking spot, records show. But when a Buffalo police patrol car not involved in the case drove by, Pierce drove away.
Court records reveal Pierce drove to a commercial building at 56 Grimes St., getting out with a black bag and then texting the target. He went into the building then came back out a short time later and was driving toward the AutoZone when he was pulled over. Authorities say they found about 1.9 kilograms of suspected cocaine in a black bag.
A short time later, an white Toyota Tundra pulled up at the same address. Prosecutors said Burgin was the driver.
Law enforcement asked him where he was coming from.
Burgin replied: "The gym."
When he was asked if he had been anywhere else, he asked for his attorney.
The Sheriff's Office narcotics squad obtained a search warrant for 56 Grimes where they found two handguns, two rifles, about $250,000 in cash, 2.35 kilograms of suspected cocaine, 17.5 pounds of marijuana, 114 grams of fentanyl and material for packaging and distribution.
In all, five locations were searched and law enforcement found hydraulic traps in stairs and floors filled with cash, drugs and weapons.
Former basketball star
Pierce's name is familiar to some in Buffalo. He was considered one of the best basketball players in Western New York during his high school playing days, and he went on to become one of the standouts of the University at Buffalo's recent Division I era.
Pierce was a two-time first-team All-Western New York selection, in 2004 and 2005, by The Buffalo News while he played at Hutch-Tech in the Buffalo Public Schools' Yale Cup. Pierce transferred to Hutch-Tech from Turner-Carroll after the small East Side Catholic school closed in 2003. He finished his career with 1,903 points, which was then the 17th-highest total in Western New York history.
As a 6-foot-2-inch guard at UB, he became just the program's second all-Mid American Conference first-teamer and the first to earn the honor twice (2009 and 2010). Pierce led the Bulls in scoring his junior and senior years and finished as UB's 12th-leading scorer after three seasons with the Bulls after transferring from Rider University. His total of 1,235 now stands 15th on UB's all-time list.
He went on to play professionally in Italy but his career was cut short because of a medical condition – his body doesn't naturally make enough sodium – and he returned to Buffalo.
After his arrest, dozens of family members and supporters packed the courtroom for his detention hearing, with many submitting letters attesting to his character. He was released on $10,000 bond.
Pierce, 32, pleaded not guilty. "We appreciate the support of his many family and friends who came to his hearing," said his attorney, Barry Covert.
Burgin was ordered released on $100,000 cash bail but prosecutors appealed the ruling and he remains in federal custody.
Meanwhile, Auricchio has argued that prosecutors failed to connect his client, Washington, to the arrests of Burgin and Pierce.
Prosecutors in Buffalo are now awaiting the arrival of Martinez Medina, who was being held in Los Angeles pending a hearing.
News Staff Reporter Keith McShea contributed to this report.