Federal agents have raided a garage in West Babylon that houses the first known “pill mill” in the New York or Long Island area turning out oxycodone-looking pills made from the much more powerful narcotic fentanyl, in what has become the most dangerous new trend in the deadly opioid epidemic, according to officials.
Fentanyl is easier to illegally obtain from chemical producers in countries such as China than oxycodone whose availability in pill form has declined because of the crackdown on medical prescriptions, James Hunt, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York, said Thursday.
The operators are driven by “greed, pure greed,” Hunt said. The phony oxycodone tablets can sell for as much as $25 to $50.
Two men, wearing hazmat suits and respirators, were arrested in the Babylon garage Wednesday night in the act of using a pill-making machine to press powdered fentanyl into what looked like standard 30 milligram oxycodone tablets, officials said.
Daniel O’Neil, 31, of North Babylon, and Frankie Morano, 44, of Deer Park, were charged Thursday with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl.
Officials noted that fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than other narcotics, such as heroin and oxycodone, and mere skin contact may cause overdoses.
The pill-pressing machine had been so active that it was red hot when agents of the DEA’s Long island Tactical Diversion Squad entered the garage at 675 Little East Neck Rd. — near West Babylon Junior High School, sources said. The squad consists of federal agents and local police.
The agents were so concerned about the hazards of contact with the chemicals that they called in Suffolk County Emergency Service police, who donned hazmat suits and respirators to clear the chemicals and other potentially dangerous material from the garage, officials said. The police took the pills and chemicals to a DEA storage facility.
With Long Island being one of the national focuses of the opioid crisis, the prevalence of a much more powerful drug masquerading as a less powerful one could escalate an already deadly situation, according to Hunt. The faux oxycodone pills are becoming popular around the country.
Almost 500 people have died on Long Island from opioid overdoses in 2016, with fentanyl being the leading cause of such deaths, according to Nassau and Suffolk medical examiners. As of April, the medical examiners had recorded 493 such deaths.
But sources stressed that the investigation into the West Babylon factory, including how long it has been operating, has just begun, and there is no evidence that its pills have caused any harm. It is not unclear who owns the West Babylon home.
O’Neil and Morano were arraigned in federal court in Central Islip on Thursday. They were not required to plead to the charge.
If convicted, they both face up to 20 years in prison.
Eastern District prosecutor Charles Rose asked that the two be held without bail as a danger to the community, citing the “hundreds if not thousands of pills,” the agents had confiscated.
According to court papers, an unidentified confidential informant told federal agents about the operation and went to the garage on Wednesday, recording conversations about the operation.
Members of the DEA squad then entered the premises.
When Morano was arrested he confessed that “he conspired with defendant O’Neil to manufacture the pills,” court papers said.
O’Neil was released on $800,000 bond secured by his mother’s home by U.S. Magistrate Steven Locke at the federal court in Central Islip. The judge said he released him because O’Neil had three young children to care for.
Locke set a bail hearing for Morano, who could not immediately come up with a bail package, for Monday.
O’Neil’s attorney, Nancy Bartling of Mineola, said afterward that the judge obviously did not believe her client was a danger to the community.
Morano’s attorney, federal public defender LaKeytria Felder, declined to comment, as did Eastern District federal prosecutor Rose.
A man who lived near the garage, but who did not want to give his name to a reporter Thursday, said he heard three loud booms at the door Wednesday evening.
The man said he thought it was his kids playing, but soon saw the lights of law enforcement vehicles a little past 9 p.m. A short time later, he noticed the men wearing gloves and hazmat suits being led out by police.
“The pill machine was still going. It was like boom, boom, boom, ” he said. “I saw them bring out evidence bag after evidence bag and they still weren’t done. It was a decent amount of stuff.”
With Mark Morales