The main defendant in a federal wiretap investigation of a ring distributing meth from the West Coast and selling it in small towns in Jefferson, Clearfield and Allegheny counties has admitted his guilt and will be headed to federal prison in the fall.

Derek Hillebrand, 27, of rural Clearfield County, pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to distribute meth, cocaine and marijuana.

Hillebrand had been one of the key targets of “Operation Return to Sender,” a nine-month DEA-led wiretap investigation of drug trafficking in rural Western Pennsylvania.

Hillebrand was among 47 people indicted in Pittsburgh in 2021.

Agents and police determined that he received at least 220 pounds of meth and more than 200 pounds of pot from California and Nevada and had it shipped to distributors in small towns in Pennsylvania. He then sent currency to Stockton, Calif., to pay for it.

Numerous other members of the ring have pleaded guilty to their roles.

One of them used a private plane to haul cocaine from Houston to Pittsburgh for Hillebrand. Adrian Alvarez, of Houston, and two other men chartered a plane in October 2020 to transport about 6 kilos of coke to Pittsburgh International Airport.

Agents and police learned of the flight and searched it when it arrived in Pittsburgh on Oct. 22. They found 4 kilos in one piece of luggage and 2 in another, as well as a gun.

The ring’s meth came from the West Coast. Wiretaps revealed that one ring member, Terrence Dougherty of Pittsburgh, ordered 60 pounds of meth from George Charlan, an Oregon supplier. Charlan’s underlings shipped the drugs from Nevada to Dougherty through the mail. Federal agents intercepted some 4.5 pounds of it and then searched Dougherty’s house.

He is serving 11 years in federal prison. Charlan is awaiting sentencing.

U.S. District Judge Christy Wiegand said she’d sentence Hillebrand in October. He faces at least 10 years in prison and could get life.

Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at

Torsten Ove

Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at