ST. LOUIS – Maurice H. Lee II blew kisses to his two young children in court Thursday, right before being sentenced to prison for his role in a drug trafficking operation that ordered hits against rival gang members.

The massive case includes 17 defendants, all of whom have pleaded guilty.

Federal investigators say the elaborate drug network, at its peak, sold more than 20,000 doses of meth and fentanyl every week.

That drug dealing, investigators say, resulted in murders in our streets, like a summer 2017 killing in north St. Louis. FOX 2 reported at the time that the violence extended for blocks, starting with a car crash on Arlington and MLK, then the drivers getting out and running through the streets firing weapons until it ended at Belt and Wabada, with a man shot in the head.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul D’Agrosa has been putting together the pieces for prosecution. After the sentencing, he told us, “These homicides, which were investigated by the local police, were unsolved for many years. It wasn’t until the drug trafficking was looked into more deeply that we learned that these murders were attached to the drugs.”

Court records indicate the drugs came from a supplier in Arizona and that defendant Lee would dilute the drugs and supply them to St. Louis runners. The court record says those runners were used as ‘muscle’ and offered bounties up to $15,000 for the murder of any rival.

That’s why the D.E.A. was also instrumental in the takedown. Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the St. Louis Field Office of the DEA, Colin Dickey added, “When you combine drug related violence and weapons in drug cases, which go hand-in-hand, it creates a two-pronged approach and issue that we deal with on the majority of our investigations.”

Defendant Lee, now 35 years old, received a 20-year prison sentence following an earlier plea deal. He told the judge Thursday, “I apologize to the victims’ families. I know they don’t want to hear it. I wouldn’t want to hear it, but I still feel I need to apologize.”

A victim’s relative then addressed the court and defendant, saying, “20 years for two lives, and I’m watching you blow kisses to your kids. It bothers my spirit and my soul. That apology, bro, you keep that.”

D’Agrosa added, “They’ve been coming to every court appearance. They’re invested in this case, and they’re invested in seeking justice for their loved ones who are no longer with us.”

The mother of a murder victim, who did not want to talk on camera, also spoke out in court, saying, “Rest well, my son. Your killers are receiving judgment, and you are getting justice.”