Conspiracy Theories: How a heroin trafficking ring in Trenton, New Jersey was brought down

Last week, Dennis Cheston Jr., 39, from Raleigh, North Carolina, pleaded guilty in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey to charges of heroin trafficking and unlawful possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

The charges against Dennis Cheston Jr. were included in a ten-count indictment issued on February 27 by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Seven defendants were named in that indictment, which described a conspiracy to traffic in heroin, in and around Trenton, New Jersey.

How the term “conspiracy” is used in courts of law

The term “conspiracy” is used in courts of law to refer to an agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, so long as there exists an intent to achieve the goal of the agreement. Most jurisdictions in the United States also require the commitment of an overt act toward fulfilling the agreement.

The practical implication is that a conspiracy can carry a penalty on its own. In addition, even when not every member of the conspiracy committed illegal acts to further the conspiracy's goals, every member of the conspiracy can be held accountable for those acts.

Punishment can be meted out even in cases where no criminal act was committed in deed. Some jurisdictions assign the same punishment for the conspiracy alone as for the planned offense, while others impose lesser penalties.

A drug trafficking conspiracy in Trenton, New Jersey

The first count of the February 27 indictment was the most comprehensive, describing the key features of the conspiracy. All seven defendants were named in the first count, plus two “co-conspirators” who went unnamed and were not charged.

The defendants were charged with conspiring to distribute heroin and to possess with intent to distribute heroin (which is a separate offense) in the city of Trenton and elsewhere in Mercer County, for at least ten months in 2018.

The manner in which the defendants and their co-conspirators sought to accomplish their goal included the following:

  • The defendant named David Antonio maintained a residence in Trenton at which he stored heroin and packaged large quantities of the narcotic for distribution.
  • David Antonio supplied defendant Jerome Roberts and others with large quantities of heroin for distribution to associates at lower levels of the supply chain.
  • Jerome Roberts and others resold that heroin to drug dealers and end users in and around Trenton.
  • Antonio often “fronted” the supplies, meaning that he did not require payment up-front.
  • Antonio, Roberts and one unnamed co-conspirator discussed “cutting” the heroin supplies with fentanyl, to make the heroin more potent. Defendant Antonio did in fact add fentanyl to the heroin before it was distributed to other members of the conspiracy for sales to street-level drug dealers.
  • To identify and differentiate various supplies, conspiracy members distributed heroin in packages bearing ink stamps. The packages bore names including “Empire”, “Gucci”, “Obsession”, “Capital One”, “Top Secret”, “Remy Martin”, “Iron Man 2”, “Scarface”, “Golden State”, and “Kawasaki”.
  • After the heroin was sold to end-users, Antonio collected the money owed to him for the supplies he had “fronted”.
  • Members of the conspiracy used mobile phones to coordinate transactions and conduct other communications in furtherance of the group's objectives. [U.S. law makes use of a “communication facility” to commit a felony a separably-punishable offense.]
  • In mid-August 2018, Antonio agreed to supply Roberts and an unnamed co-conspirator with between 1,000 and 1,400 “bricks” of heroin. Roberts called this anticipated delivery the “big load” and the “motherload”. Recall that intent alone is in itself a federal crime.
  • On numerous occasions in the latter half of 2018, David Antonio did in fact supply Jerome Roberts and two unnamed co-conspirators with large quantities of heroin, so they could distribute it down the supply chain for sale on the streets.

David Antonio, 32, pleaded guilty on March 18 in the federal court in Trenton to the first count in the indictment.

Gathering evidence to prove the existence of the conspiracy required the involvement of a wide array of federal, state, county and township-level law enforcement agencies. Those agencies were the FBI, Newark Division, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Newark Division, the Trenton Police Department, the Princeton Police Department, the Ewing Police Department, the Burlington Township Police Department, and the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office. Assistance was provided by officers of the New Jersey State Police, detectives of the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, officers of the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office, and members of the New Jersey State Board of Parole.

Getting back to the new development in this case, which is the guilty plea of Dennis Cheston Jr., the drug distribution count to which he pleaded guilty carries a statutory term of imprisonment of 20 years, and a maximum fine of $1 million. For being a felon in possession of a firearm, Cheston faces a potential maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years and a maximum fine of $250,000. His sentencing is scheduled for October 21, 2020.