Jeffrey Alba's Bronx heroin mills had air circulators because the odor was so strong and there was a white dust fog. The windows were sealed up and lists of orders to be filled were taped to the walls.
The workers used tiny spoons to allot a half a grain of heroin for each glassine envelope - that's nearly 30,000 times for every kilo - working in shifts around the clock.
When authorities raided a fancy Riverdale building over the Fourth of July weekend, they expected to make a good-sized bust.
What they found stunned them - a half-million glassine envelopes of heroin and a drug mill the size of which no one has seen since the days of Leroy (Nicky) Barnes in the 1970s.
The find was a blunt testament to local and federal drug cops' growing concern: Heroin is back, with a vengeance.
The heroin is pure - as much as 90% when imported, and 50% to 60% at street level - and cheap. Snorting a $10 glassine envelope gives the same euphoria as an $80 OxyContin pill.
That has widened its appeal to younger, working-class and middle-class adults with no memory of the drug's havoc on a generation that injected it by needle in the late 1960s and early '70s.
"Everyone starts with the pills in the beginning," said a 22-year-old Suffolk County man in treatment at Phoenix House for a $600-a-day habit.
He started out as a high school dealer, pushing prescription painkillers and then heroin because "all the little rich kids were doing it." He started snorting it when he was 19 because he thought he could easily quit.
Heroin has gained cachet from trendy young users in the city. Downtown artist Dash Snow, whose Polaroids captured sex-and-drug scenes, died last week, apparently of a heroin overdose. He was just 27.
The demand has led to huge amounts of the white powder blanketing the city. Most of it is packaged here for sale in the suburbs, as far away as Boston and even cities near the Canadian border.
Thirty pounds - about 15 kilos - were seized in the Bronx mill, said the city's special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget Brennan. Her office grabbed 270 pounds of heroin in 2008, more than twice the 116 pounds confiscated in 2007.
"Everybody's alarmed," said Brennan.
"There is more heroin throughout New York State, from New York City all the way up to Buffalo," said Chauncey Parker, director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program for New York and New Jersey.
"It is a growing threat ... the purity level is alarmingly high, so people are sniffing it," Parker said.
"There's an increased demand in suburbia, because this is not your heroin of old," said Joseph Evans, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office. "It's intertwined with prescription drugs. People turn to heroin after using OxyContin."
"Prescription narcotics like Vicodin and Percocet are the gateway drugs to heroin," said Dr. Joseph Cannavo, unit chief and medical director of the chemical dependency unit at Flushing Hospital Medical Center.
Over the past 10 years, he said, the numbers of heroin addicts at his unit have quadrupled.
"They're decidedly younger, 18 to 22, middle-class, computer-savvy kids," Cannavo said.
Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, founder of Phoenix House, said there's been a 10% rise in admissions for heroin addicts - to 33% of admissions - in the last few weeks.
"It certainly got our attention, but we have to look at it for a couple of months," he said.
He said snorting heroin does not lessen the devastation.
"Half the people go from snorting it to the needle," Rosenthal said.
The Suffolk County addict said he began shooting up a year into his habit. He was 6-feet-1 and weighed barely 130 pounds when he landed in an ICU.
In the heroin epidemic of the 1970s, 85% of Phoenix House admissions were for smack.
That was when the notorious Barnes formed a murderous syndicate of the seven largest drug rings who controlled heroin and other drug sales in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
They employed hundreds of mill workers, distributors and street dealers, and "inflicted incalculable damage on this city," prosecutors said at the time.
"Even in the Barnes era, they just cut out territories in the city," said a senior narcotics investigator in Brennan's office.
"But this [Riverdale] group was like a corporation, supplying the whole metropolitan area, Long Island, New Jersey."
The three Bronx mills in Riverdale and Pelham Parkway allegedly run by Jeffrey Alba were supplying dealers as far away as Boston, Evans said.
"The Northeast corridor has the most predominant heroin use, and 14% of all heroin seized in the U.S. is seized in New York City," Evans added.
The smack that turns up here is South American, exclusively, when as recently as 14 years ago, Asia supplied two-thirds of it. Authorities say the intricate, well-oiled Colombian cocaine networks handle heroin smuggled in via Mexico.
Investigators say a kilo costs $50,000 to $60,000 wholesale, a steep drop from when high-quality heroin would sell for $150,000 to $200,000.
Alba's mills had air circulators because the odor was so strong and there was a white dust fog. The windows were sealed up. Lists of orders to be filled were taped to the walls.
The workers used tiny spoons to measure out a half a grain of heroin for each glassine envelope. They did this nearly 30,000 times for every kilo, working in shifts around the clock.
"I think I became addicted the first time I took a bump, because it made me feel so good," the Suffolk addict said. "By the time I went into detox, I was up to 60 bags [glassines] a day."
BY Patrice O'Shaughnessy
July 19, 2009
NY Daily News