By MIKE DONOGHUE

BURLINGTON – A Philadelphia man who officials say set up a drug distribution business in Essex has been sentenced to six years in prison.

Wendell E. Saunders, 41, learned on Friday he will be on federal supervised release for three years after he is discharged from prison. He also is wanted for a possible parole violation in Philadelphia.

Saunders had already pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to knowingly possessing heroin with intent to sell on Sept. 17, 2015, the day he was arrested in Essex Jct.

An Essex Police informant told investigators he started buying heroin, often 60 bags at a time, in August 2015 from Saunders, who used the street name “J,” court records show.

An Essex Police detective assigned to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force got two confidential informants from Essex to obtain drugs four times from Saunders in August and September 2015, court records show. They said the sales ranged from 30 to 100 bags.

A couple of the early drug sales happened near apartments at 39 Prospect St. in Essex Jct., where the informant said he met Saunders, records show.

After one of the buys, Essex Police stopped a vehicle in which Saunders was a passenger. The driver was a Colchester man who was previously arrested for driving under the influence of drugs, records show.

Police noted Saunders had one cell phone in his hand and another under his leg. There were two more in the center console and one in the driver’s side door.

Saunders and the driver claimed they were going to a store and to the beach, but surveillance showed they did neither, the Essex drug detective said in court papers. Instead they drove directly to his girlfriend Allison Paquette’s apartment in Barre City.

After two drug sales, DEA taskforce members followed Saunders to the apartment at 29 South Main St. They arrested Saunders after he left Paquette’s apartment to Big Lots in Essex Jct. to complete a negotiated sale of 100 bags of heroin, court records show.

Police said they found 120 bags of heroin during the arrest, but Saunders denied ownership.

After the arrest, investigators conducted a court-ordered search of the Barre apartment and seized 1,030 bags of heroin, 88 grams of raw heroin, 64 grams of crack cocaine and some powder cocaine all inside a Coach bag in a bedroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Fuller said in court papers.

Officers also found $10,000 in cash and two firearms, including an assault rifle in the living room couch and a .22 caliber revolver in a jewelry box in the bedroom, Fuller wrote. Paquette, whose brother works for the DEA, said the handgun was hers, but not the assault rifle, police said.

Saunders was indicted on four heroin sales and one charge of possession with intent to distribute heroin and crack cocaine.

Last Friday, Fuller asked for Saunders to be sentenced to 12.5 years in prison due to the nature of the crime and guns were found, and because Saunders is considered a career criminal under federal law. Among his felony convictions is an aggravated assault where he shot a person three times, Federal Judge Christina Reiss noted.

Defense attorney Jordana M. Levine said a five-year sentence was more appropriate. She objected to claims her client is a career criminal and the amount of drugs the government linked to him.

The federal sentencing guidelines, which are advisory, proposed a penalty between 12.5 and nearly 16 years. Reiss said she thought a shorter sentence was proper.

Paquette was initially charged in federal court under the so-called “crack house statute” by making her home available for the distribution and use of illegal drugs, Fuller said. That case was later dropped by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

While questioning Paquette, DEA agents attempted to use her brother’s employment to get her to cooperate, but it did not seem to work, documents show. Court records hint the relationship between the siblings might be strained.

“She is not a person on Team U.S.A.,” Fuller told the court. “She is in love with [Saunders]. She wants to protect him.”

The Vermont Drug Task Force also linked Paquette, who lived on Pearl Street in Burlington in 2014, to a heroin distribution case involving two men selling heroin from a residence where she stayed, court records show.

The Saunders case dragged on due to its complexity and because the defendant went through five court-appointed lawyers over the past three years.

“My addiction got out of hand,” said Saunders, who reported he had several medical issues related to pain. “I just want to say I’m not a bad person.

“I let my addiction take the best of me,” he told Judge Reiss.

Reiss said it appeared Saunders had strong family ties with his children, his mother, daughters and with Paquette.

Saunders will get credit for his three years in prison. Reiss told Saunders he could get up to a year taken off his sentence if he is accepted into a 500-hour substance abuse treatment program within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but admission is not automatic.

Saunders also faces a potential parole violation in Pennsylvania when he is released. Fuller urged Reiss not to consider that case and allow authorities there to deal with the violation.