A monthslong investigation that struck at the "heart" of Montauk's drug scene resulted in 16 arrests, authorities said on Thursday, as well as the seizure of cash and drugs after working cooks and barbacks sold cocaine, oxycodone and other opioids out of restaurant and bar kitchens.
The drug ring "took advantage of the tourism and commercial activity" during the Montauk summer season and jacked up drug prices by more than double the street value, Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said at news conference.
"There's an indication that several of the defendants were coming to work in Montauk specifically to sell drugs," Sini said, "using their jobs in the service industry as a cover for their narcotics organization."
The investigation — led by the DA's newly-created Special Narcotics Unit with help from East End police departments, Suffolk and state police, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration — began in March after area police departments received community complaints. The probe included a wiretap.
Authorities said the five Montauk restaurants are: Swallow East, 668 The Gig Shack, Shagwong Tavern, Liar’s Saloon and O’Murphy’s Restaurant and Pub. Officials said the defendants also received housing from their employers and sold drugs from their residences as well as the back doors of their jobs.
Fifteen of the defendants arrested Wednesday and a 16th apprehended at Shagwong Tavern on Thursday after the news conference face either felony or misdemeanor drug charges, officials said.
On Wednesday, authorities seized roughly $100,000 in cash from five locations as well as about 650 grams of cocaine, marijuana, various pills and drug paraphernalia. Authorities believe the drugs were brought into Suffolk County from in and outside the continental United States.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service had previously seized a package of about 100 pills and another one containing more than $17,460.
The ringleaders are Geraldo Vargas-Munoz, 37, known as "Chelo," and Elvin Silva-Ruiz, 40, called "Pito," officials said.
Vargas-Munoz, the top leader, was taken into custody in Queens carrying $10,000 in cash, Sini said. He was charged with felony first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and is accused of arranging the transportation of the drugs and cash, as well as conducting sales himself, for years. Vargas-Munoz, a Swallow East chef, will probably face additional charges, Sini said.
Silva-Ruiz was apprehended Wednesday at Kennedy Airport trying to board an international flight carrying $10,000 in cash with another $7,000 in his luggage. He is charged with felony second-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance and authorities said he worked at O'Murphy's. The defendants, along with a third man, William Crespo-Duran, 35, also known as "Flaco," and charged with felony second-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, were arraigned Thursday and held without bail, authorities said.
Ten more defendants were arraigned on either felony or misdemeanor drug charges and offered bail or bond, officials said. Information on the remaining three defendants was not available.
Sini said that while none of the restaurants’ owners have been charged, the investigation is ongoing.
"We are seriously concerned that the businesses knew, or at least some of the businesses knew, exactly what was going on," he said. "There may be a business incentive to have allowed this to go on. If you can get a steak dinner and a glass of wine and a bag of coke, maybe you can attract more people than if you're handing out hot dogs and hamburgers."
Jason Behan, co-owner of Shagwong Tavern, said before the news conference that none of his employees were arrested.
“We are not involved in any kind of conspiracy; we’re involved in selling food, that’s what we do,” Behan said. "There is no drug conspiracy.”
After an employee at the Shagwong Tavern was arrested Thursday afternoon, Larry Kelly, the restaurant's attorney, said that the tavern would work with law enforcement.
Janice Kordasz, co-owner of O’Murphy’s Restaurant and Pub, said she was “mortified” that her business of 16 years was associated with the bust. She said it involved two of her seasonal employees from out of town who were staying at a nearby apartment building.
Employees don’t typically receive packages at the restaurant, Kordasz said.
“There’s absolutely no connection with my restaurant with any sort of drugs,” she said. “I’m shocked right now, to see that my name was mentioned.”
A man who identified himself as a manager at Swallow East said a lawyer instructed the owner not to speak to the news media.
“Everybody tarnished our name now,” he said of the bust. “We all work really hard and it’s unfortunate.”
The Swallow East attorney declined to comment and no one was available to comment at 668 The Gig Shack and Liar’s Saloon.
Sini said his office was not aware that any of the ring's narcotics had been linked to overdoses, but added that the drug ring had "hundreds" of buyers, both tourist partygoers and addicts.
"There are going to be a lot of people very upset this weekend," he said.