Across Long Island, law enforcement agencies are fighting a homegrown heroin market that is poisoning families, filling jail cells and ending lives. Some of the dead are just boys and girls.
For police, the fight has many fronts, which move like a war of insurgency. Undercover detectives trail suburban teens down the Long Island Expressway to try to identify their New York City suppliers. After a child is found dead from an overdose, detectives knock on the family's door, searching for links to the drug's source.
Patrol officers collar first-time shoplifters and bank robbers - newly minted criminals working to support habits. In police precincts, heavily addicted suspects succumb quickly to crippling withdrawal symptoms and must be rushed to hospitals.
The desperation of many young addicts, their tales of near-death overdoses and reckless intake of dozens of doses a day, has become over the past two years a routine part of the workday for many Long Island police officers.
"In the beginning it kind of shocked us, but now . . . " said Det. Nelson Lopez of the Nassau Police Department's narcotics squad. He shakes his head. "It's almost normal."
Despite dramatically increased arrests, thousands seeking rehab, and some higher-level dealers now in jail, Long Island's drug war veterans say the growing presence of cheap, potent heroin shows no sign of receding. Inevitably, many of today's first-time users will become tomorrow's overdose victims and prisoners.
"It's like stamping ants," said Det. Lt. Andrew Fal, who leads the Nassau narcotics squad. Over the past six months, his team of 31 detectives has focused almost exclusively on heroin. "It's easy to get overwhelmed in this. We're not an army."
While experts agree that arrests themselves cannot solve what is at root a larger social disease, police statistics show in stark terms how wide the problem has become: In Suffolk, heroin-related charges have more than doubled in recent years, from 404 in 2004 to 882 in 2008. In Nassau for those same years, the number of heroin arrests jumped from 109 to 201. And there were 210 heroin arrests in Nassau just for the first three months of this year.
The numbers are a single window into an "epidemic," as one law enforcement official has called it, that is also hitting Long Island schools, hospitals and rehab centers, where more than 10,000 sought help last year alone.
Starting out in medicine cabinet
The heroin problem now unfolding, many experts believe, began in family medicine cabinets, where people became addicted to prescribed opiates such as OxyContin and Vicodin. From that starting point, many graduated to heroin. Potent and highly addictive, the drug is now going for fire-sale prices: A single dose can cost less than a six-pack of beer.
Rather than outside forces changing the suburban landscape, experts say the local trafficking problem is largely within: Those most directly responsible are our neighbors, co-workers and children.
"The face of the heroin addict has changed. It used to be, 20 years ago, a guy, 40 years old - he's been through the system, he comes in here trying to cut a deal for himself," said James Whiston, an investigator with the Nassau County district attorney's Street Narcotics and Gang Bureau. "Now it's just kids from middle-class families and you ask, 'How the hell did you get involved in this?' "
Whiston, who was a Hempstead narcotics detective during the crack cocaine wars of the 1980s and early '90s, fears the worst might be still to come.
"I have a feeling this heroin thing could be as bad as when that crack epidemic hit," he said. "What makes it so different is that, with crack, most people were getting killed in the kind of violence that crack brought. But here people are dying from the drug they are using."
The source of the local heroin supply is well known to cops like Suffolk police Det. Sgt. Colm Magner, who leads one of two of the narcotic squad's Heroin Enforcement Teams. The number of arrests the teams of seven detectives makes is limited only by time and manpower, he says.
"There is no shortage of work out there. I can keep going and going and at some point I have to cut it off and turn it over to the night team," Magner said recently at the squad's office in Yaphank.
Unlike many in the cocaine trade who avoided their own wares, heroin on Long Island is being sold by the users. Typically, these "amateur" dealers gather money from a circle of friends and travel to Bushwick, Brooklyn, South Jamaica, Queens, and other spots in the city.
Setting up buys with midlevel dealers by cell phone and text messaging, they meet runners at corner stores or parking lots to make the handoff. Most buy in handfuls of 10-packs known as bundles; those with the means buy sleeves, which are boxes of 10 bundles each. The use of text messages makes pinning down sales locations particularly difficult for law enforcement - the front in a war that keeps moving.
An envelope of the off-white or brown powder bought for as little as $5 per pack can be resold for two or three times higher once the seller has returned to the suburbs. In wealthier towns along the North Shore, the price can reach $20 or more.
"Some of these kids are going into Brooklyn with like a thousand dollars; I don't know how they're coming back alive," Whiston said. "Some of them are going at night, meeting people on side streets and walking up into buildings. I tell them, 'I'm surprised to see you here alive. You're taking some chance.' But the drug takes over."
Harder for police to find dealers
While overall police strategy to combat low-level dealing is standard - set up buys, develop informants, follow the supply - the spread out, "friend-of-a-friend" nature of the market has forced them to move away from street corners.
"In the old days, you almost had a street fair aspect to the cocaine business," said Det. Lt. Peter Donohue, deputy commanding officer of Nassau police's narcotics squad. "You could physically see a lot of what was going on. Today you have to work harder at it."
Increasingly, detectives are focused on information gathering to infiltrate loose drug networks. Computer databases and phone records link nicknames and cell numbers to names and addresses. Interviews with suspects involved in drug-fueled thefts and break-ins adds pieces to the puzzle.
While South Shore communities such as Massapequa, Seaford, Copiague, and Levittown are being hardest hit, police say heroin has a foothold in communities across both counties.
"The more people look, the more they find," said Joseph Evans, an agent in the Long Island office of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
Those being collared for heroin possession and sale are most often in their 20s and 30s. But the problem is reaching teens and even some in middle schools, police say. As many as half are female.
"You look at their [driver's] license when you arrest them, and you look at the girl in front of you, you're like 'This is not her,' " Magner said. "They're deteriorating, they've aged. These 17-year-old girls are looking 30 real quick."
At the converted garage that serves as squad headquarters, Nassau narcotics detectives says interviews with dope-sick teenagers has become routine. Scared and naive to the legal process, most are desperate to trade on whatever information they can in exchange for help.
"They'll give up their mother," Det. Joseph Hill says.
Users hold multiple doses
While a person found with pockets stuffed with heroin packets was once assumed to be a dealer, police say, that rule of thumb no longer strictly applies with those whose habits have spun out of control. "You ask him, 'Why do you stop at 25 [bags]?' They say 'I ran out of money. If I'd had more money, I would have done 35,' " Donohue says.
While focused on the local supply, county departments are making an effort to see the bigger picture. In February, Suffolk and Nassau narcotics lieutenants joined a DEA trip to Panama to learn about an active investigation with Long Island ties. After that, they went on to Colombia to learn more about international trafficking.
Police believe the craving for heroin is behind an increasing number of property crimes like shoplifting and car break-ins. Many thefts committed in homes by addicted family members - stolen jewelry and cash, missing pill bottles - are never reported. Nassau police say at least 28 of 85 bank robberies in the county last year were directly motivated by opiate addictions.
"The vast majority of our clients, if I can call them that, are addicted to alcohol, gambling, or narcotics," said Det. Sgt. John Giambrone of Nassau police's robbery squad. "Of those three, most are addicted to drugs. Right now the drug of choice is heroin."
The powerful nature of heroin's addiction is never far from law enforcement's view. Last winter, Magner arrested a young dealer who indicated he had information to provide and quickly posted bail.
"The first day he got out, he picked up heroin somewhere and shot up a little too much," Magner said. "We were supposed to hook up with him . . . but we got a call from the mother. He was already dead, an OD."
While it is impossible to know how much heroin is reaching Long Island, officials point to a few high-profile arrests they say put a noticeable dent in the supply.
Alleged big-time dealers
Last summer, Nassau police and DA investigators arrested Edward and Alexander Fontanet, brothers from Queens who ran a sophisticated heroin network using dozens of runners who traveled back and forth between Queens and Long Island. In March, Gilberto Rivera, 25, of Oakdale, and his alleged Brooklyn partner were charged with running what authorities called a major heroin network in Suffolk with employees from a cross section of Long Island, including Nesconset, Central Islip and Centerport. Dozens of weapons, $200,000 in cash, and 25,000 doses of heroin were also seized.
The Fontanet brothers pleaded guilty earlier this year to felony possession and conspiracy charges and received sentences of 7 and 8 years. Rivera has pleaded not guilty; the case is pending.
Most in law enforcement expect larger-scale dealers will remain in the city despite the profit potential of Long Island, both for access to city drug networks and the perception that they are more vulnerable in the suburbs.
"I really don't see that happening in Suffolk," says Det. Lt. William Burke, commanding officer of Suffolk police's narcotics squad. "We'd get wind of it pretty quick . . . and then they would become the priority."
DEA agent Evans, however, said as the market continues to grow, bigger dealers could be tempted to move east, bringing with them a threat of violence.
"I do think we could see more guys like Rivera coming out this way," he said. Evans said he is currently working with local agencies in multiple investigations involving mid-level heroin dealers with Long Island connections.
Even if law enforcement can slow the flow of heroin and prescription pills, their full impact is years away. Against long odds, some addicts will go clean and stay out of legal trouble. Beyond the devastation to their health and families, many others will enter cycles of rehabs and arrests, impacting courts, jails, hospitals and social services for years to come.
Brian, 31, who asked that his last name not be used, said he hopes he's made his last turn through the system. After at least 20 arrests between 1998 and 2006, and repeated stays behind bars for drug and alcohol-related crimes, Brian is on probation and 22 months clean.
"It's really bad right now," he said recently at the family home in Bellmore he once pillaged for drug money. Heroin "is so prevalent it's ridiculous, and it's acceptable. It's a lot more open, it's accepted by a lot more people who never would have accepted it back in the day, which just leads to more people doing it."
BY ANDREW STRICKLER
June 27, 2009