Long Island authorities said a joint law enforcement operation aimed at disrupting gang activity yielded results earlier this month by taking 69 gang targets off the streets. Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

A joint law enforcement operation aimed at disrupting Long Island gang activity took 116 wanted people — 69 gang targets among them — off the streets, including a Suffolk homicide suspect and a Nassau defendant who is accused of being a major drug trafficker, authorities said Thursday.

The U.S. Marshals Service led the Island-wide effort to capture the suspects, teaming with state and local law enforcement agencies to carry out a series of warrant busts during an approximate two-week span.

The sweep was the first of its kind on Long Island in 15 years and was carried out ahead of what authorities said is a typical increase in crime during summer and because of an uptick in gang-related shootings, officials said.

The operation, dubbed “Long Island Wave,” took suspects off the streets who were wanted for crimes that also included attempted murder, robbery and weapon possession, according to law enforcement officials. They said among those arrested were members of the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings and MS-13 gangs.

“It’s a prime example of precision policing,” Edward McMahon, commander of the U.S. Marshals Service’s New York/New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force, said during a Thursday news conference in Central Islip’s federal courthouse.

The task force, which he said has been arresting “the worst of the worst violent offenders” in the region for two decades, created a 200-officer crew for the operation by deputizing 100 area law enforcement officials after partnering with 16 agencies that included Nassau and Suffolk police, prosecutors and Sheriff’s Departments.

Months ago, the task force began assembling a list of violent, recidivist criminals and gang members before carrying out a “surge” effort between May 2 and May 13 to arrest as many of the targets as possible, officials said.

 “The targeting of gang members is very important, because as we know, the criminal element is a small segment of the population. So that same gang member who has an arrest warrant for grand larceny or criminal possession of a weapon has to be taken off the street because maybe the next week he’s going to go shoot up a rival gang member’s family barbecue,” McMahon added.

The operation also was focused on gathering better intelligence on the operations of the gangs, including drug trafficking, the task force commander said. 

Vincent DeMarco, U.S Marshal for New York’s Eastern District, said Thursday that most fugitives were found locally and 90 of the arrests involved felony charges.

The task force nabbed Stephon Whethers in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the last of nine alleged major drug traffickers facing charges in what Nassau prosecutors said was a narcotics ring operating in the Hempstead area during the height of the pandemic.

Law enforcement officials seized more than $2.7 million in drugs in that case, including pure cocaine along with crack, heroin, fentanyl and morphine, during a bust last year that led to a 175-count indictment against about 40 defendants.

Court records show Whethers, 39, pleaded not guilty April 19 to multiple felony charges that include operating as a major drug trafficker, conspiracy and criminal sale of cocaine.

Authorities said Whethers was among 14 high-value targets they arrested in the lead-up to the two-week warrant sweep, nabbing him after deciding to act quickly upon confirming his whereabouts while gathering information on targets.

Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly said Thursday that Whethers made at least a half-million dollars selling cocaine on the streets of Hempstead between May and October of 2020.

 She also alleged Whethers and his co-defendants hiked the drug’s price so they could make more money as demand for cocaine exceeded supply during the pandemic.

"Thank you to this operation, for getting Stephon Whethers back behind bars," Donnelly added. 

Whethers’ attorney, Robert Schalk, said later Thursday: “We’re not going to try this case in the press. We look forward to fighting it in a court of law.”

 Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said Thursday while standing with other law enforcement officials that the warrant sweep already had helped stem the tide of crime.

"Every time you take a bad guy off the street, that's one less victim that we're going to have. We speak for the victims. MS-13, Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips, doesn't matter what gang you're part of. I'm part of this gang and this gang wins every single time hands down ... We don't ever, ever surrender to the violence that's out there on the streets," he added. 

Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney said Thursday the federal-led sweep was "assistance that was sorely needed and greatly appreciated."

Central Islip slaying case defendant Quinton Booker, 30, is among those facing charges in Suffolk that the task force arrested, according to authorities. Court records show the Mastic Beach man pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder and reckless endangerment charges. 

Tierney's office said Booker is accused of fatally shooting 27-year-old Selden resident Rahsaan Pressley on Sept. 19, 2020, after firing an assault rifle from one vehicle into another.

Booker's attorney, Michael Brown, said Thursday his client denies any involvement and hasn't been hiding from authorities.  The Central Islip lawyer said Booker was indicted last month and only found out about his warrant upon his recent arrest.

The shooting happened after Pressley allegedly pulled a knife on Booker's co-defendant, Tarrel Thaw, earlier that night, according to prosecutors. They said Thaw, 32, who allegedly was with Booker during the shooting, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is due to be sentenced next month. 

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