A case that started with four undercover drug buys in Great Neck and Manhasset spiraled into an investigation that dismantled a drug pipeline from Mexico to New York, with authorities seizing between $1.5 million and $3 million in heroin, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said Thursday.
A Bronx man was at the heart of the criminal enterprise, according to authorities, who said the network funneled heroin to New York City and Long Island by hiding drugs inside vehicles that couriers drove from Mexico or inside drug mules who flew from California.
Authorities said the ring trafficked several million dollars' worth of heroin into the state -- along with selling cocaine, MDMA and anabolic steroids on Craigslist. Nine people from Mexico, California and New York City face criminal charges after recent arrests, including two Astoria men being prosecuted in Nassau County.
Rice said her office started a probe that then was carried out with Nassau police, New York City's special narcotics prosecutor, and a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force -- which includes NYPD and State Police, along with federal agents.
"This case proves that the battle lines in our fight to save lives in the midst of a devastating heroin epidemic don't stop at the Long Island border," she said.
Rice said undercover investigators bought a pound of heroin from the Astoria men in four deals in Great Neck and Manhasset in the summer of 2013. Authorities said they learned one of the men, Miguel Tormo, 42, met with people connected to the Bronx network leader -- Cesar Romero-Astudillo, 24 -- to buy narcotics.
Investigators then discovered heroin was coming directly to Romero-Astudillo from Mexico, officials said.
Authorities said Tormo and his alleged drug partner, Ajay Carter, 38, face felony charges of criminal sale of a controlled substance and potentially decades in prison if convicted. Each is being held in jail in lieu of $5 million bond or $2.5 million cash bail after Nov. 26 arraignments, when both pleaded not guilty.
"He categorically denies any involvement with the sale of any drugs," said Tormo's attorney, Dana Grossblatt of Jericho, calling her client a husband with two daughters.
Carter's attorney, Steven Barnwell of Mineola, said his client has a daughter, no felony convictions, and worked in a restaurant until recently.
"He maintains that he wasn't involved in this and certainly not any drug pipeline," Barnwell said.
Authorities are prosecuting Romero-Astudillo in Manhattan on charges including operating as a major trafficker. His attorney, Taylor Koss of Manhattan, said his client wasn't caught with drugs despite prosecutors' claims that Romero-Astudillo is the ringleader and a wiretap caught him planning to import drugs. "In terms of a major drug conspiracy, there's very little to support it," he said.
Romero-Astudillo entered the country illegally several years ago, the attorney said, and had been working in a furniture store and a mechanic's garage.
Authorities said they believe couriers drove a Dodge Durango with fake license plates, along with a kayak and bicycles mounted on it, to an Astoria body shop in August before heroin was removed from an engine compartment and sold.
They said that in September investigators found out the Durango was heading to the ringleader and alerted New Jersey State Police, who stopped it Sept. 23 in Warren County; authorities found five kilos of heroin hidden inside.
Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said 44 people died of heroin overdoses in 2013 in the county. "There have been far too many funerals, far too many families broken up, and today we make a dent in that pipeline," he added.
With Ellen Yan