View attachment 15829 NEWARK — Essex County authorities closed down a jailhouse contraband pipeline into one of the state’s largest correctional facilities, arresting 13 people on conspiracy and drug offenses in a series of early morning raids, according to acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino.
"Today is a very sad day," said Laurino during an afternoon press conference at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office in Newark. "Men who took their oath to uphold the law, violated that oath."
Dubbed "Operation Jail Breach," the Prosecutor’s Office takedown at the Essex County jail resulted in 13 arrests in three different counties, Laurino said. The members of the alleged smuggling ring included two Essex Corrections officers, a Union County Probation Officer, a murder suspect, three people connected to county street gangs and a special education teacher.
A visibly aggravated Laurino clutched three silver badges belonging to alleged ringleader Essex Corrections Officer Joseph Mastriani, Essex Corrections officer William Rupp and Union County Probation Officer John C. Smith today, as he unleashed a torrent of scathing remarks aimed at the people captured in what he called one of the largest corrections crackdowns in the county’s history.
"Today, I took these badges," he said. "The individuals involved in this smuggling ring endangered other officers, inmates and witnesses. This cannot and will not be tolerated."
Mastriani was the first of 11 New Jersey residents snatched up in a series of sunrise raids spearheaded by the Prosecutor’s Office with aid from the FBI’s Newark field office. The 30-year-old Nutley resident was placed in handcuffs at the Essex County Correctional Facility — the base of the alleged smuggling ring where he worked.
Referring to the operation as an "intricate criminal smuggling scheme," Laurino said Mastriani used two inmates — Wilbert Best, a 21-year-old murder suspect from Newark, and Ricardo Ortiz, a 32-year-old reputed member of the Latin Kings & Queens — as point men to distribute heroin, marijuana, cell phones and prescription pills to the jail’s population.
After Best and Ortiz compiled a list of prisoner’s requests, Mastriani would employ the other 10 suspects in the ring as "go-betweens" and have them obtain drugs and other goods from "street sources," Laurino said.
The men apparently had no problem involving their lovers in the operation. Also arrested today were Mastriani’s 31-year-old girlfriend Jillian Watral, a special education teacher at Washington Academy in Cedar Grove, Madeline Rodriguez, a 39-year-old Newark woman who was dating Ortiz and had ties to the Latin Kings and Best’s girlfriend Rose Guinyard, 29, of Newark, who was linked to an Essex County Bloods set.
Rupp and Smith were allegedly narcotics users who also purchased drugs from Mastriani. Four other Bloomfield residents were accused of acting as go-betweens in the drug ring.
News of the arrests, which were first reported at 9 a.m. on NJ.com, The Star-Ledger's continuous news website, shocked members of Essex County’s law enforcement community.
"This is a sad day, especially because it happened under our noses," said Joe Amato, president of the Essex County corrections officers union, Local 382. "As far as we’re concerned, the jail is a little safer today. The PBA has zero tolerance for this kind of stuff."
He said the arrested officers are not qualified for legal representation. "We represent officers for infractions that come under duty of their job. We do not represent people who violate the law, who violate the trust given to them."
Laurino said the involvement of Best, a murder suspect, and gang members in the smuggling ring raise concerns about witness intimidation in Essex County, where a "no snitching" policy in city streets has derailed homicide investigations in the past.
"Cell phones can be used to threaten and intimidate witnesses, and undermine the work of the criminal justice system," he said.
Laurino suggested that the spread of cell phones in the jail could also have affected drug distribution in Essex, a county where law enforcement officials believe open-air drug trafficking normally drives homicide activity.
In the end, Laurino said he was saddened to see greed overtake the officer’s responsibilities.
"They essentially sold out their badges for a couple of dollars," Laurino said. "They gambled. They lost."
James Queally/The Star-Ledger
July 29, 2010
List of the 13 arrested:
• Joseph Mastriani, 30, of Nutley: A Corrections Officer of nine years who prosecutors identified as the accused ringleader. He is charged with conspiracy to violate narcotics laws and official misconduct.
• William Rupp, 30, of Bloomfield: A seven-year veteran of Essex County corrections department who allegedly bought drugs from Mastriani. He is charged with conspiracy.
• John C. Smith, 33, of Sparta: A Union County Probation officer for five years, he is also charged with conspiracy and suspected of buying drugs from Mastriani.
• Jill Watral, 31, of Nutley: A special education teacher at Washington Academy in Nutley and Mastriani’s girlfriend. She faces conspiracy charges.
• Wilbert Best, 21, of Newark: A jailhouse inmate awaiting trial in the 2009 shooting death of 34-year-old Kenneth Kelly. He was one of Mastriani’s alleged point men inside the facility.
• Ricardo Ortiz, 32, of Newark: A reputed Latin Kings & Queens gang member who is waiting sentencing on a burglary conviction. He was also one of Mastriani’s alleged distributors.
• Madeline Rodriguez, 39, of Newark: Ortiz’s girlfriend. She has ties to the Latin Kings & Queens organization, but is not a recognized gang member.
• Shannon Arguello-Falke, 25, of South Amboy: Married to a retired corrections officer, was also charged withi conspiracy to violate the narcotics laws.
• Rose Guinyard, 29, of Newark: Best’s girlfriend, she has been linked to a Bloods organization that operates in Essex County.
• Chang Park, 25, Anthony Rotonda, 39, Joseph Lehman, 25, and Robert Koval Jr., 31, all of Bloomfield: All are charged with conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. Authorities believe they worked to buy and sell drugs for Mastriani.