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Drug probe tied to L.A. leads to ‘significant’ arrest in St. Pete, $1.15 million in pot

Tribune staff

ST. PETERSBURG — An investigation that stretched from Florida to Los Angeles resulted in the arrest of a “significant drug distributor” in St. Petersburg and the seizure of more than 200 pounds of marijuana worth $1.15 million, authorities said Friday.

Vice and narcotics detectives had been aware of 24-year-old Vaughn “Nino Breeze” Matthews’ involvement in illegal drugs since February 2015, said Barney Morris, an assistant inspector in charge at the United States Postal Inspection Service. The information came from postal inspectors in Los Angeles, Morris said.

A search warrant was obtained after investigators received a tip Matthews was storing large quantities of marijuana at his apartment at 871 Ibis Walk Place N., St. Petersburg police said.

When officers entered the apartment on March 23, they found 23 pounds of high-grade hydroponic marijuana in the kitchen cabinets, packaged to sell; three guns and $87,000 in cash.

“This is a guy that was very low key, just stayed off the radar,” Chief Anthony Holloway said at a Friday news conference. “Not somebody that you’re going to see out in the street every day.”

Matthews was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to sell and being a felon in possession of a firearm, jail records show. He was released the next day on $15,000 bail.

Holloway called Matthews a significant marijuana distributor in the community, and said the bust will help the department remove large amounts of the drug from the streets.

Police have been aware of Matthews for some time, Holloway said, but this investigation was the first time investigators were able to link him with drugs, which he was receiving in large quantities, along with cash, through the mail from Los Angeles.

Co-conspirators in Los Angeles and in the Tampa Bay area are likely to face arrest, the chief said.

Prior to his arrest last month, Matthews served nine months in prison on grand theft and burglary charges in 2012, according to the state Department of Corrections.

“We don’t want this person in our community,” Holloway said.

Detectives continued their investigation in recent weeks as shipments of cash and marijuana continued to arrive at Matthews’ apartment, the last arriving earlier this week. Police were able to identify a total of about 230 pounds of marijuana and $168,800 in cash associated with Matthews’ operation, police said.

The total amount of marijuana that police have recovered has a street value of about $1.15 million, investigators said. Police also seized a watch from Matthews valued at $55,000.

Cracking down on distributors, rather than local sellers, is one of the most effective ways police can keep drugs off the streets and out of St. Petersburg’s neighborhoods.

“When you take out that street level person, they’re going to be replaced the next day by three or four other people,” Holloway said. “We’re trying to go after the people that are bringing these drugs into our community. We don’t want that low-hanging fruit.”

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said the bust was an example of what happens when police and members of the community work together toward a common goal.

“Your tips make a difference,” she said. “It helps us reclaim our community.”

Twitter: @Kristenreports

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