BY ETHAN FORMAN STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — SALEM — The owner of the Bangkok Paradise restaurant had been busy earlier this week answering for late-night troubles at his downtown hot spot, but yesterday Jesus Franco found himself in handcuffs at Salem District Court for allegedly trafficking the opiate painkiller oxycodone.
Franco was among six North Shore men arrested yesterday morning in a multi-agency drug investigation. The investigation netted thousands of pills and $50,000 in cash, the Essex County District Attorney’s office said.
Judge Michael Laurenzano ordered Franco, 42, of 34 Perkins St., Salem, held on $50,000 cash bail on two counts of trafficking with his next court date set for Nov. 14, his attorney said. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Collins had asked for Franco to be held on $100,000 bail, outlining two separate daytime oxycodone sales to a confidential informant in August at the Washington Street eatery.
“As you know, with high level drug sales comes a lot of money and a lot of drug dealers have a lot of cash,” Collins said.
Salem Defense Attorney Mark Barry countered there did not appear to be any overlapping charges with Franco and the five others arrested, though Collins said the investigation was ongoing.
Barry said Franco has lived in Salem since 1989, has deep ties to the community, has a wife and a 4-year-old. He also hinted that Franco’s recent trouble with the city might have contributed to his arrest.
“He has been having a rough time with a restaurant and there may be a reason why they put this together today,” said Barry, who asked bail be lowered to $2,500 to $5,000.
Earlier this week, the city’s Licensing Board ordered a six-month rollback of the restaurant’s entertainment license from 12:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. due to late-night rowdy crowds that police have had trouble clearing. The restaurant was also given a warning on an allegation of serving a minor, and faces a further hearing in a few weeks on a new allegation of serving an underage patron. The restaurant has taken steps to curb the problems.
“For me to comment without me seeing the paperwork and without knowing the facts wouldn’t be wise,” said retired Salem police Chief and Licensing Board Chairman Robert St. Pierre in a brief phone interview. “If it’s brought before the board, which I imagine it would be, we will give it the attention it deserves.”
In its affidavit, state police said Trooper Steven Racki of the Essex County Detective Unit and Special Agent Jack Kelter met with a confidential informant named Kenny on Aug. 1, who then arranged to purchase oxycodone pills allegedly from Franco at Bangkok Paradise. Salem police assisted with surveillance. After police searched him to make sure he was free of drugs and money, Kenny was given $3,150 and placed a call to Franco, who did not answer. Several minutes later, Franco returned Kenny’s call and they arranged to meet in the restaurant around 3:45 p.m. Less than a half hour later, Kenny met with officers at a predetermined location and turned over 150 oxycodone pills he said he bought from Franco.
Less than a week later, Kenny allegedly bought 200 pills worth $4,200 from Franco at the restaurant in the early afternoon. Police witnessed Franco arrive at the restaurant after Kenny, who told police Franco retrieved the plastic bag of pills from a closet in the basement.
Kenny plans to testify, but for now, his identity is being kept secret.
Barry noted that the alleged drug buy was made in a restaurant which was open to the public, and neither sale was witnessed directly by police.
After the court hearing, Barry said that the lack of ties among defendants was troubling and appeared to frame Franco in a negative light.
“It makes it a lot worse if they make it look like an enterprise,” Barry said, adding, “It seems to be there was no reason to bring them together except the state police had a warrant sting on today.”
Three others arrested yesterday pleaded not guilty in Salem District Court. Jason Gentry, 32, of 5 Station Road, Salem, was arraigned on a charge of possession with intent to distribute oxycodone and given a bail warning to stay free of trouble. Prosecutors had asked he be held on $1,000 cash bail, but Gentry’s attorney, Raymond Buso, said he could not understand the request, given Gentry is a father of four and works 90 hours a week managing Giovanni’s Pizza and Roast Beef on Jefferson Avenue. Gentry was released with the promise to appear on Nov. 29.
Joel Gonzalez, 32, of 44 Lawrence Road, Lynn, was arraigned on charges of possession of a firearm with a prior violent crime and sale of a firearm. He was ordered held on $10,000 cash, and bail in a separate case in Superior Court was revoked.
David Soucy, 35, of 7 Garden St., Danvers, was ordered held on a total of $50,000 cash bail on two separate cases: $25,000 on a case that involved trafficking oxycodone, and $25,000 on a case that involved trafficking oxycodone, heroin and ecstasy, and having a loaded .22-caliber firearm under his pillow for which he did not possess a license.
As with Franco, police used a confidential informant to build their cases against Gonzalez and Soucy.
Two additional men were arrested and arraigned yesterday in Peabody District Court under the same sting. Henry Hernandez, 36, of 32 Columbia Ave., Lynn, was arraigned on two counts of trafficking oxycodone. He was ordered held on $100,000 cash bail, and will appear next in court for a status hearing Nov. 15, said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for Essex Country District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
Celton Pelaez, 36, of 84 Aborn St., Peabody, was ordered held on $100,000 cash bail on one count of trafficking oxycodone, a count of possessing ecstasy, a Class B drug, and marijuana, a Class D drug. His next court date is Nov. 15.
Search and arrest warrants were executed yesterday at 10 North Shore locations by the Essex County District Attorney’s Drug Task Force, state police, the Drug Enforcement Agency (Worcester Tactical Diverson Squad), Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and Lynn, Salem, Saugus, Peabody and Danvers police.