Two dozen people have been arrested on charges they sold fentanyl-laced heroin -- linked to at least five fatal overdoses -- and other drugs as part of a trafficking network out of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton, authorities announced Thursday.
Members of the drug ring sold cocaine, marijuana and opioids, including oxycodone pills, and more than $1 million a year in heroin laced with fentanyl -- responsible for the fatal overdoses -- on and around the reservation last year, authorities said.
Opioids, particularly those containing fentanyl, have killed 600 people on Long Island since 2017. While the number of opioid overdoses is now on the decline, Nassau officials have said 147 people died as the result of them in 2018.
Earlier this week, Suffolk Medical Examiner Michael Caplan said projections from his office indicate 235 people in Suffolk died from opioid overdoses this year through Sept. 30.
The ongoing investigation began in December 2018 following the fatal overdoses and a spate of violence on the reservation, including shootings, and culminated Thursday with the arrests, Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said at a news conference at his office in Hauppauge.
"For far too long, criminals have attempted to evade law enforcement and hide on the Shinnecock Reservation, terrorizing the law-abiding members of the Shinnecock nation, selling drugs and committing various acts of violence," Sini said. "That ends today."
The Council of Trustees for the Shinnecock Community released a statement saying that while the group "did not have prior knowledge of the operation, the Shinnecock Community at large has suffered greatly due to the opioid and fentanyl epidemic and Tribal members have consistently requested the assistance of outside law enforcement agencies to help combat the issue."
Sini said nine of the 24 arrested live on the reservation and are members of the tribe. Authorities executed five search warrants Thursday and seized 120 grams of heroin and fentanyl, 90 grams of cocaine, more than 10 pounds of marijuana, an assault weapon and several shotguns, as well as drug-packing materials, Sini said.
Among the 24, three defendants -- Justin Eleazer, 29, of Southampton; Ryan Kellis, 32, of Southampton; and Benjamin Diaz, 47, of the Bronx -- were charged with operating as a major trafficker, an A1 felony known as the "kingpin statute," and face 25 years to life in prison if convicted.
Sini said prosecutors would seek to charge several others already arrested in the alleged network with the kingpin statute.
Eleazer and Kellis distributed cocaine and heroin on the reservation and in the nearby area, Sini said. The duo, according to Sini, used other members of the alleged conspiracy to "test the heroin they were selling to ensure its potency and therefore its value."
Diaz and Kenneth Rivero, 34, of Flanders, supplied the drugs to Eleazer and Kellis, Sini said.
Rivero and several other defendants are facing conspiracy and other charges that could result in prison sentences of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.
William I. Bess III, 35, of Southampton, purchased "large quantities" of cocaine and heroin and resold the drugs on the reservation, Sini said.
Johnnie Booker, 45, of Bellport, was a supplier to Bess, Sini said.
Both Booker and Bess are charged with felony conspiracy and drug possession and drug sale charges. They each face up to 12 years in prison if convicted on the top counts.
Jason Bassett, a Central Islip attorney respresenting Eleazer, said in an email: "Mr. Eleazer maintains his innocence and is completely bewildered by the charges against him. I am going to vigorously defend Mr. Eleazer and see that he is exonerated."
Anthony Scheller, of Central Islip, said his client, Kellis, was remanded without bail at his arraignment Thursday. Scheller declined to comment on the allegations because he hasn’t seen the prosecution's evidence. “I have a lot of investigating to do,” he said.
Defense attorneys for the others charged could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
The investigation involved more than 200 members of law enforcement, including local and federal authorities. State Police, which have jurisdiction on the reservation, represented the bulk of the investigators, but also included the Suffolk district attorney's East End Drug Task Force, the FBI and police from Suffolk County, Southhampton Town and Village, East Hampton Town, Southold Town and Riverhead.
With Mark Harrington