NEW CITY – A series of morning raids swept up 17 individuals who now stand accused of operating a drug ring that stockpiled prescription painkillers and heroin before unloading them on Rockland and surrounding counties.
Indictments were handed down Wednesday in White Plains federal court, where 16 defendants were charged with felony narcotics conspiracy for Oxycodone and eight were charged with felony narcotics conspiracy for heroin. The Oxycodone charges carry a maximum of 20 years in prison, while the heroin charges carry a mandatory minimum of 10 years with a maximum of life.
In total, 17 federal indictments and 12 state criminal complaints were levied. In addition, Rockland County will also pursue charges in 12 of the cases.
Zugibe (podium): “…. gang members and repeat violent offenders were responsible …”
View list of suspects
“The probe revealed that street-level dealers and mid-level dealers, several purported gang members and repeat violent offenders were responsible for distributing prescription drugs throughout Rockland, Orange, Ulster, and Putnam counties with the supply coming from Manhattan and the Bronx,” Rockland District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said.
Facing a large group that spanned over many jurisdictions, the District Attorney’s Office worked extensively with U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara. Calling the heroin situation a “full-blown crisis,” Bharara argued the bust was just one facet of a growing drug trade which exploded in recent years with the recent upsurge in prescription drug abuse.
“We have, in joining with the district attorney, a message to dealers of prescription painkillers that should be loud and clear – we will bring the collective resources of the federal government and the State of New York to bear on this incredibly serious problem,” he said. “We will not permit prescription painkillers and other illegal drugs to decimate our community. It has to stop and we will do everything we can to stop it.”
Bharara said since 2009, there has been an increase of 110 percent in heroin seizures in the New York area, he said. That is the highest of any year since 1991, and that is why a joint effort is so important, he said.
Since early 2014, members of the organization, which referred to itself as Too Much Cash or “TMC” on social media, allegedly conspired to distribute Oxycodone purchased with fraudulent prescriptions and heroin purchased from a distributor in the Bronx.
Bharara elaborated that the organization used a number of different techniques to pass fraudulent scripts and avoid detection. Members of the group allegedly forged scripts, used home computers to doctor blank slips and even impersonated doctors, then sent low-level “runners” to pick up the drugs from pharmacies across the state.
Meanwhile, suspect Victor Esteban, whom investigators described as the ringleader of the organization, pooled money with other defendants to strike a deal with Bronx resident Juan Agramonte for wholesale heroin purchases. As a result, about 50,000 Oxycodone pills with a street value of over $1 million were seized in the raid along with an unspecified amount of heroin.
Ultimately, the drugs were sold at locations across the county, including highly-public spots such as the Palisades Center Mall in West Nyack, the Mt. Ivy Trailer Park in Pomona and at least four motels along the Route 59 corridor which were rented for the purpose of making deals.
According to Zugibe, sales in locations such as the mall and motels were a signal of the gang’s audacity and the need to clamp down on their operations.
“This network utilized some of Rockland’s most popular destinations as rendezvous points for drug suppliers and for customers,” Zugibe said. “These drug dealers really hit an all-time low by selling their wares in locations where parents bring their children to be with their friends, to go to the movies, to go to birthday parties or to skate with their friends.”
To put a stop to operations, Rockland worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Tactical Diversion Squad, which encompassed law enforcement with the DEA, NYPD, Town of Orangetown Police and Westchester County Police, on an 11-month undercover project called “Operation True Blue.” During that time, investigators reportedly used undercover buys, wiretaps, search warrants and electronic surveillance to infiltrate and expose the group.
With 24 deaths in 2014 alone, Rockland has made efforts to push against growing opiate abuse. Last September, Zugibe unveiled a three-pronged approach to the issue which connects educators, medical and substance abuse professionals, prosecutors and police to form a comprehensive answer to both medical and criminal difficulties arising from the trade in prescription drugs and heroin.
Nationally, opiate use has also seen steady growth. According to the Centers for Disease Control, overdose deaths related to opioid painkillers rose from 4,263 in 1999 to 17,000 in 2011.