Suffolk County authorities have busted a multimillion dollar drug trafficking ring and money laundering operation linked to several overdoses, arresting 15 people allegedly selling heroin, fentanyl and crack cocaine and price gouging their drug customers during the coronavirus pandemic, officials said Thursday.
“This organization was on our radar because we linked several overdoses to their operation,” Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said in a phone interview Thursday. “This organization is particularly disturbing. It was our priority to put them out of business, one, because they were selling fentanyl, and in fact when we executed search warrants, we seized pure fentanyl.”
The alleged dealers, seven of whom are charged with the A-1 felony of operating as a major trafficker which carries a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison, allegedly marked up their prices on cocaine due to a decreased supply attributed to the coronavirus, Sini said. They charged up to $49,000 for a kilo of cocaine — a significant markup from the usual $36,000 price. They also sold straight fentanyl that they marketed as heroin, Sini said.
“We know that those who deal these deadly drugs do not care who they hurt; their goal is to increase demand by increasing the number of those who are addicted,” Suffolk Police Commissioner Hart said in a statement. “The fact that we are in the midst of a global pandemic did not deter these criminals; rather, they saw it as an opportunity to increase their bottom line. I would like to thank the District Attorney and his team for their continued partnership.”
Sini said investigators from the Suffolk police department and the district attorney’s office in the nine-month probe executed 16 search warrants on Wednesday, including at alleged drug stash houses in Ronkonkoma, Central Islip and Holtsville and seized four kilograms of fentanyl, two and one-half kilograms of cocaine, half a kilogram of crack cocaine, 10 pounds of marijuana, 11 loaded firearms, two assault weapons, one shotgun, three high-capacity ammunition feeding devices, and more than $244,000 in cash. One of the firearms recovered was determined to have been stolen from a police chief in North Carolina.
Fentanyl, an especially potent and deadly synthetic opioid that is often mixed with heroin, has played a central role in the opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of people on Long Island since 2010. While the number of opioid overdoses in Suffolk had been declining for the past two years, Sini said authorities have seen a spike during the coronavirus.
In the areas of the county patrolled by the Suffolk County Police Department, there were 578 overdoses so far this year, compared to the 497 recorded during the same time in 2019 — a 16 percent increase, according to preliminary statistics provided by Sini spokeswoman Sheila Kelly.
Sini said the joint investigation into the alleged drug dealing operation between the District Attorney’s Office’s Special Narcotics Bureau and the Suffolk County Police Department’s Narcotics Section and Telephone Records and Surveillance Section (TRASE) began last August.
The probe resulted in video evidence showing exchanges of money and drugs and conversations about the drug dealing on court-authorized wiretaps, despite the defendant’s efforts to evade law enforcement surveillance by trying to avoid phones and throwing drugs out of their cars during sales, Sini said.
The drugs were purchased wholesale from traffickers operating in New York City and Connecticut, Sini said. Once the drugs arrived in Suffolk County, they were repackaged and cut with fentanyl and bundled and resold to drug users as well as lower level dealers, Sini said.
The ill-gotten gains were laundered, Sini said, with purchases of gold bars and jewelry, including a $100,000 diamond-encrusted Rolex watch, which were also seized by authorities. One defendant, Sini said, took out a $500,000 life insurance policy on his elderly grandmother, paying the monthly premium with the alleged drug money.
Sini said various drug paraphernalia was also seized, including a hydraulic kilogram press, packaging materials consistent with drug sales, scales, vacuum sealers, cutting agent, and money counting machines.
“This was a good win for Suffolk County, taking this drug operation out certainly made Suffolk safer,” said Sini. “The message we want to deliver to the people is despite the pandemic, law enforcement is remaining vigilant and we’re going to continue to do what we need to do to keep Suffolk County safe.”
Seven of the defendants are charged with operating as a major trafficker as well as other charges, including Keston Braithwaite, 37, of Brooklyn; Cordea D. Buckhannan, 35, of Selden; Rashad Calhoun, 40, of Central Islip; Naquan Gray, 34, of Pennsylvania; Joel Hope, 41, of Brooklyn; Justin C. Lastique, 43, of Brooklyn; and Anthony F. Loor, 34, of Holtsville.
Braithwaite’s attorney Scott Zerner of Manhattan said his client pleaded not guilty and has a fashion business that has turned to making coronavirus face masks.
“Aside from maintaining his innocence, my client also believes the prosecution’s charges are vastly inflated,” said Zerner.
Buckhannan’s attorney Michael J. Brown, of Central Islip, said his client pleaded not guilty at his arraignment and has no prior criminal convictions.
“He’s engaged and has six children who he supports and he’s gainfully employed,” said Brown. “The location of the charges is in an area he’s not even familiar with. …He’s a hard working man who is very involved with his family and he’s adamant about his innocence in this matter.”
Calhoun’s attorney Anthony LaPinta, of Hauppauge, said in a text message that the major trafficker statute is “a complicated law that requires prosecutors to prove many particular facts.”
He added: “We will carefully review the evidence and hold the prosecutors to their very high burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lastique’s attorney John Halverson of Patchogue said: “We pleaded not guilty and we plan to start our own investigation and we look forward to defending these charges.”
Attorneys for other defendants could not be reached for comment.