Long Island law enforcement officials — spurred by an opioid epidemic that killed more than 500 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties last year — have started to escalate tactics, charging some alleged dealers linked to the deaths of drug users with manslaughter and tracing dealers through their customers’ cellphone calls and text messages.
Investigators now treat every overdose as they would a crime scene: getting to it as soon as possible to start gathering and processing evidence from a cellphone. Prosecutors in Nassau and Suffolk counties are trying to link dealers to overdose victims in order to be able to file stiffer charges that make them directly accountable for all overdoses.
Nassau police have arrested 66 suspected drug dealers connected to overdoses this year, already surpassing last year’s total of 52, authorities said. Suffolk police have arrested 176 people linked to overdoses so far in 2017; 2016 figures for Suffolk were not available.
“These dealers are not chemists. They’re not pharmacists. They’re taking a guess,” said Deputy Insp. Chris Ferro, commanding officer of the narcotics vice squad in Nassau County. “They go out and sell their batch and they kill about 10 or 15 people in the region and they say, ‘Oh, that didn’t work,’ but it’s too late, lives are lost.”
Cellphones are the key as investigators in many cases were able to identify suspects who sold drugs that led to overdoses simply by looking at the victims’ last calls or texts, officials say.
“It is a new phenomenon,” said James Hunt, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York Division. “With this opioid epidemic, we are always looking for new ways to attack the problem.”
Edward Friedenthal, chief of the Nassau District Attorney’s Special Operations, Narcotics and Gangs Bureau, said the new practice is helpful when officials want to catch the big dealers.
“That’s one of the ways that we’re able to start an investigation and work up a chain to ultimately find out who’s responsible,” he said. “Not only for the overdosing, but also, who’s responsible for distributing those narcotics to the person, who’s selling it and going up as far as we can up the food chain to try to get the ultimate source.”
Nassau acting Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder has been urging families of overdose victims to cooperate with investigators by granting access to phones.
“We are there to ask for your help, giving us access to that phone data because that data, the last three or four phone calls, one of them was the drug dealer,” Ryder said at a news conference. “And we’re going to take that data and we’re going to go hunt them down.”
Race for the phones
Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini, the Democratic candidate for Suffolk County district attorney, said: “We can put drug dealers on notice that if people die as a result of the drugs they sell, they will be treated like murderers . . . It sends a message to drug dealers that we are not going to tolerate drug dealing in our communities. It also sends a message to residents that we will aggressively investigate complaints of drug dealing.”
Investigators try to get access to overdose victims’ phones quickly, before witnesses, suspects and cellphones disappear. Dealers often use untraceable “burner” cellphones or change their numbers almost every month to help avoid law enforcement, authorities said. Once dealers learn of a fatal overdose, they ditch their phones and stop selling drugs for a time.
“Once the dealer finds out that person is no longer alive, things change,” said Kevin Larkin, acting special agent in charge of the DEA’s Long Island District office. “They don’t return calls. But the quicker we can act and the quicker we get there, the better it is for us. Time is key.”
In May, Glen Cove police began investigating a fatal overdose and arrested a man who allegedly sold the victim $40 worth of heroin just hours before he died, according to evidence gathered from the dead man’s phone, court records show. Text messages indicated that a man named “Dre” had delivered the drugs to the victim’s home earlier that day, court records show. Police used the phone to set up another buy that evening. Eveen “Dre” Cullum was arrested in the parking lot of a nearby restaurant later that night, records show. Cullum was indicted by a federal grand jury in September that charged him with distribution of fentanyl and attempted distribution of fentanyl, records show. He pleaded not guilty. Cullum’s attorney declined to comment on the case.
“The opioid and heroin epidemic is of deep concern to all residents of Long Island; it has taken far too many lives,” said Bridget Rohde, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Long Island, and whose office is handling the Cullum prosecution. “The office will continue to prosecute those responsible for distributing these drugs to the fullest extent of the law,” she said.
The number of fatal overdoses on Long Island for 2016 now stands at 544, according to records by the medical examiners for Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Suffolk County recorded 349 opioid-related fatalities in 2016, records show. This year, there have been 202 fatal opioid-related overdoses with 168 pending cases that have not yet been determined. Nassau County had 195 overdose fatalities in 2016 and 68 this year through May 29, according to the latest records.
Suffolk County police have executed more than 200 narcotics-related search warrants in 2017, compared with 62 warrants in 2015 and 158 in 2016. Those searches have led to 352 arrests this year, more than double the 144 arrests made in 2015.
Nassau police made 7,525 drug-related arrests in 2016, and Suffolk police made 8,004. Suffolk police have made 7,663 drug arrests this year through Oct. 7. Nassau police have made 4,744 through Oct. 3.
“The more [drug dealers] we put away, the less of them are selling those bad batches of heroin,” Ferro said.
Prosecutors in Suffolk are pursuing manslaughter charges against two people that authorities allege are drug dealers linked to overdose deaths. Nassau County prosecutors have explored levying the same charges in various cases but have not yet done so. The evidence in those cases has not been strong enough to warrant a stiffer charge, a law enforcement official said.
Prosecutors have only managed to pursue these charges in these two cases in Suffolk County. But prosecuting these cases and trying to pursue a manslaughter charge is much harder and requires a specific criteria, the official said.
In order to win a conviction on manslaughter charges, prosecutors will have to prove dealers recklessly caused the victim’s death. Police and prosecutors say that evidence can often be found on overdose victims’ cellphones and social media accounts.
For a conviction of manslaughter in the second degree, prosecutors must prove someone recklessly caused a death, which can result in as much as 15 years in prison. For a first-degree manslaughter conviction, prosecutors must prove that there was an intent to cause serious injury that led to a death, according to the New York State criminal code. A first-degree manslaughter conviction can result in a sentence of as much as 25 years, according to another official.
Charged with manslaughter
In August 2016, Roxy Headley Jr. of Mastic Beach became the first alleged trafficker charged with second-degree manslaughter in New York State, a few months after prosecutors say he sold a lethal dose of heroin and fentanyl to a North Babylon man. Headley, described by outgoing Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office as a member of the Bloods street gang and one of the metropolitan area’s major suppliers of heroin and fentanyl, was also charged with assault, trafficking and weapons charges. Headley pleaded not guilty at his arraignment. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
James Fava of Ronkonkoma — the second defendant facing a count of second-degree manslaughter in Suffolk County — was arrested in December for allegedly selling heroin and fentanyl to a man who suffered a fatal overdose. Spota said Fava had sent the victim text messages that said he wouldn’t be able to handle the potency of the drugs. But Fava sold them to the victim anyway, Spota said. Fava pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
“There were many text messages which indicated that Mr. Fava was well aware that the heroin, the fentanyl he was selling was very, very dangerous,” Spota said at a news conference. “He was cautioning his end users to be careful because this stuff is really, really powerful and could be harmful. Well, indeed it was powerful.” Fava’s case is pending.
Law enforcement officials who advocate for criminal charges — such as manslaughter — say they hope the stronger penalties that accompany such charges would deter dealers.
A Ridge man, Richard Jacobellis, accused of selling heroin that caused the death of a former Kings Park High School wrestling champion, was arrested in February after a joint investigation by the DEA and Suffolk police detectives. A federal indictment charged Jacobellis — who allegedly sold $100 worth of heroin to the victim — with conspiracy, distribution of heroin and distribution of the controlled substance that caused the wrestler’s death. Jacobellis pleaded not guilty. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Fed sentencing ‘a hammer’
Having the U.S. Justice Department prosecute overdose cases makes sense, Sini said, because of stiff federal sentencing guidelines. If convicted, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life. “The federal mandatory minimum,” Sini said, “is like a hammer.”
That hammer is often used to persuade defendants to cooperate, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Florida who also headed the Miami state attorney’s narcotic section. “It is typical for prosecutors to pressure low-level guys to get to bigger dealers,” said Weinstein, now in private practice. “The prosecutors also want to send a message — ‘If you sell drugs that kill people, we are going to come after you.’ ”
Drug law reformers say the strategy is unfair because it targets the lowest-level drug suppliers — users who sell drugs to fuel their own addictions — rather than big-time traffickers.
“Cases that get prosecuted tend to involve the last person who touched the drugs,” said Lindsay LaSalle, a senior staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance. “It’s often a friend or a relative. They don’t get the big fish. It’s an incredibly sad scenario.”
Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican who represents western New York State, is sponsoring a bill aimed at dealers who were caught selling over 100 grams of fentanyl that would give federal prosecutors the power to punish them with life in prison or death.
So far, 20 states, including New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, have drug-induced homicide laws on the books.
“We need to send a message that loss of life needs to be treated at the highest level. It’s pure murder,” said Reed (R-Corning). “If you kill our kids, we’re going to hold you fully accountable.”
With Robert E. Kessler
Drug overdose arrests for 2017 so far:
Overall drug arrests for 2017:
Overall drug arrests for 2016:
Source: Nassau and Suffolk police departments