Heroin addicts are fueling an increase in robberies across Suffolk County this year, with some committing multiple stickups for cash to get a fix, authorities say.
Suffolk police recorded 360 robberies in the first seven months of this year -- up from 300 for the same period last year -- putting the county on track to exceed last year's total of 560, statistics show.
"The vast majority of the robberies are being committed by heroin addicts," Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said. "The gas station robberies, the Dunkin' Donuts, all the convenience stores -- those are all heroin addicts. We have had occasions, they tell us the very first thing they do, they hit a Dunkin' Donuts for $150 and within minutes, they're buying heroin."
The increase in robberies is "on a huge, huge scale," he said. "And why are we seeing robberies increase? The reason is obvious. They're to fuel the habits of those poor people -- those addicts. They need that money to fuel their habit."
In Suffolk County, robberies are down from five years ago, when there were 471 in the first seven months of 2010. There were a total of 819 robberies that year, statistics show. And all crime in Suffolk police's patrol area is down 6.8 percent this year over the same period last year, department officials said.
Heroin is a scourge on Long Island, with record amounts shipped through Mexico's Sinaloa cartel and eventually offered for sale here. Plunging prices due to a flooded marketplace, coupled with easy access, have fueled its use, officials say.
Last year, at least 137 people on Long Island died of heroin overdoses -- 86 in Suffolk and 51 in Nassau, records show. That was a slight decrease from 2013, when 145 people in Suffolk and Nassau counties died of such overdoses.
Hundreds survived only because they received Narcan, a lifesaving intranasal antidote for overdoses.
Suffolk Chief of Detectives William Madigan said heroin addicts often commit multiple robberies. Heroin, he said, "is the major driver."
"A heroin-addicted or a heroin-fueled addict will do seven or eight robberies," he said. "We've had 10 patterns this year involving [multiple] robberies with handguns, as opposed to four last year. Just about all of them are drug addicts."
String of stickups
One example authorities pointed to is Andrew Berger, 28, of Williston Park, who was charged with second-degree robbery in 12 robberies in Suffolk -- beginning with the Christmas Day stickup of a Gulf gas station in Huntington.
Authorities allege that Berger, armed with a gun, robbed a Sunoco station in Deer Park, a Citgo station in Bohemia and a Dunkin' Donuts in Medford before he was arrested Jan. 14 -- about an hour and 40 minutes after holding up a Dunkin' Donuts in Blue Point.
A Suffolk detective followed him into the doughnut shop, and Berger pointed his weapon -- apparently a BB gun -- at a cashier and the officer, police have said.
According to court documents, police said Berger told them after his arrest: "I robbed the gas stations so I could buy heroin."
Berger's attorney, Michael J. Brown of Central Islip, said his client had pleaded guilty and "accepted responsibility" for the spate of robberies. The reason behind the robberies, Brown said, was Berger's drug addiction.
"He's somebody who developed an addiction to heroin several years back. And typical of heroin addicts, they'll do anything to get their fill, and that's exactly what's behind each of these robberies," Brown said. "His criminal activity is exclusively caused by his drug addiction."
Berger is being held at the Suffolk County jail awaiting sentencing.
Heroin targeted across LI
Nassau County acting Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said heroin enforcement is a top focus of his department.
Nassau police statistics show the county's robberies have remained stable over the previous year. By the end of July, there were 292 robberies in Nassau, compared with 296 for the same period last year, those statistics show.
Krumpter said that although Suffolk is "seeing a spike in robberies as a result of heroin, I'm not seeing that."
Madigan said Suffolk police are conducting an initiative focused on addressing the robbery spike.
It's similar to an effort last year, when police started a task force on burglaries and larcenies -- also linked to drug addiction. That group, which concentrated on the Patchogue, Coram and Shirley areas, homed in on "people that were continually committing crimes," mostly shoplifting at stores such as Home Depot and Lowes, he said.
Drug addicts steal a high-priced item and "either pawn it or either straight-up trade it," Madigan said.
The task force on burglaries and larcenies resulted in a 6.6 percent decrease in property crimes as of June 30, compared with the same period the previous year, he said.
"Almost all our property crime, whether it be burglaries, or larcenies, drug addiction plays a major part in that," he said. "A suspect in these crimes that's motivated by a heroin addiction can commit a large number of crimes in a short period of time."
Call to keep funding
Spota and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), at a recent news conference, criticized a pending $154 million cut to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Marshals Service. Schumer said the funding loss would result in fewer takedowns of drug-dealing rings.
Spota referred to a June drug bust in which his office worked with the DEA to arrest 14 people in connection with a heroin-trafficking ring that stretched from Deer Park to the Bronx.
"If this money is cut, I'm telling you, this is a free pass for them to bring more to our county and continue to ruin the lives of young people," the district attorney said.
Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children's Association, said "the turn to crime" by addicts "is incredible."
"The first thing you do is finance your own habit through dealing and sales with your friends, then you take your family stuff, and as your habit increases the daily cost increases," Reynolds said. "It's usually stealing change out of cars that happen to be unlocked. And then it's off to bigger and better things as addiction takes hold -- and so we see the progression all the time."