By Kathryn G. Menu
When the East End Drug Task Force last week busted a ring of heroin dealers in Riverhead officials say was trafficking in a particularly potent brand of the drug, it cast a light on the growing problem of opiate addiction across Suffolk County, including the East End.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota on February 19 announced the arrest of nine men, who officials say were involved in the sale of “Hollywood” heroin, a brand he said commanded a premium price on the street because of its strength and brought buyers to Riverhead from Sag Harbor to Ronkonkoma and the North Fork.
The defendants, who all face multiple felony charges, were arrested between October and February.
“This heroin distribution network is based in New York City, where the alleged local East End dealers would travel to buy the heroin from three Harlem men and return to the East End with sleeves of heroin, each containing 100 individual doses packaged for immediate sale to users,” said Mr. Spota.
Mr. Spota said the three defendants from Manhattan have “lengthy criminal histories” and a cumulative total of 28 felony and misdemeanor convictions—almost all of them for drug-related crimes.
The “Hollywood” heroin ring included six men Mr. Spota referred to as the “Riverhead crew.” Robert Baker, 46, of Riverhead; Leon Langhorne, 38, of Riverhead; Leroy Langhorne, 41, of Riverside; Joseph Thomas, 41, of Mastic; Jerome Trent, 58, of Riverhead; and Farrow Sims, 42, of Calverton allegedly sold what Mr. Spota said was a particularly potent brand of heroin, marked with a red lettered stamp “Hollywood” on each dose.
Heroin with the red “Hollywood” stamp, said Mr. Spota, was a premium brand of the drug police learned during the course of the investigation that local users would pay a premium price for. According to Mr. Spota’s office, the price of “Hollywood” branded heroin is up to 50 to 100 percent more expensive than other street heroin.
“On average, street heroin in Suffolk can cost as much as $10 per bag, but the heroin stamped with the word “Hollywood” cost $15 to $20 a dose—because of its potency,” said Mr. Spota.
According to Mr. Spota, drug task force detectives made purchases and witnessed others buying the heroin in parking lots of retail businesses along Route 58 in Riverhead. He said enough evidence was gathered by the team to arrest and indict the defendants using confidential informants, undercover officers and, eventually, wiretaps.
The East End Drug Task Force is a multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement unit that includes detectives and officers from the New York State Police, Suffolk County Police Department, Suffolk County Sheriff, as well as town and village police departments including East Hampton Town and Village, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton Town and Village and Southold.
Drug sales took place along Route 58, in parking lots of the Tanger Outlet Mall, Walmart, gas stations, Home Depot and the Department of Motor Vehicles, as well as in the McDonalds parking lot on Route 24. Addicts using the “Hollywood” heroin, said Mr. Spota, were primarily from Sag Harbor, Greenport, Miller Place, Rocky Point, Ronkonkoma and Southampton.
The heroin was purchased by the “Riverhead crew,” according to Mr. Spota, from three men from East Harlem. Jose Calvente, 65, Jose Morales, 75, and Carlos Ramos, 52.
Mr. Calvente, Mr. Morales and Mr. Ramos all face various counts of felony charges including criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree, criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree and conspiracy. Mr. Calvente and Mr. Ramos were held in Suffolk County Jail in Riverside in lieu of $250,000 bail and Mr. Morales was remanded to the Suffolk County Jail in Yaphank, also in lieu of $250,000 bail.
The six men in the “Riverhead crew” also face multiple felony charges, including various counts and degrees of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree. Mr. Baker, Leroy Langhorne, Leon Langhorne, and Mr. Sims face counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the second degree, a felony. Mr. Baker, both Langhornes and Mr. Sims also face felony conspiracy charges; Mr. Trent has been charged with misdemeanor counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree, criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree, and criminal use of drug paraphernalia in the second degree; and Mr. Sims faces a misdemeanor count of criminal possession in the fourth degree.
Mr. Baker was remanded to Suffolk County Jail in lieu of $250,000 bail; Both Leroy and Leon Langhorne were released on their own recognizance, as was Mr. Trent. Mr. Thomas was remanded to Suffolk County Jail in lieu of $75,000 bail and Mr. Sims was remanded in lieu of $200,000 bail.
During the investigation, over 2,000 bags of heroin were confiscated, as was thousands of dollars in cash.
According to Mr. Spota, heroin with the “Hollywood” stamp was first noticed by local law enforcement on the East End when overdoses, none fatal, occurred in 2011. Heroin use is not a new problem in Suffolk County, said Mr. Spota—a sentiment echoed by Dr. Jeffrey Reynolds, the executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD) and Southampton Town Justice Deborah Kooperstein, who also serves as a justice for the East End Regional Intervention Court.
The low cost of heroin is cited by all three as having an impact on the increase in abuse. They also cite an increase in the abuse of opioids—narcotic painkillers that can be legally prescribed by a doctor that share similar qualities to drugs like heroin, an opiate derivative.
In 2012 a special grand jury was empanelled by Mr. Spota and issued a 99-page report on the plague of opioid abuse in Suffolk County and recommendations on how to combat that problem in the wake of a 2011 pharmacy robbery that left four dead in Medford. According to the District Attorney’s office, in that case David Laffer, 33 at the time, admitted he was in search of prescription painkillers for himself and his wife when he gunned down two store employees and two customers at the pharmacy. Laffer pled guilty to five counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
According to a 2012 report, between 1996 and 2011, heroin use “rose steadily accounting for a 425 percent increase in the number of participants in the Suffolk County Drug Court Program. During this same period, opioid pill use accounted for a startling 1,136 percent increase.”
“To compare, cocaine use resulted in a 29-percent increase during the same period, but declined 13 percent between 1996 and 2001,” reads the report.
“Between 2006 and 2010, heroin arrests rose from 486 to 1315, an increase of approximately 170 percent,” the report continues. “Opiate abusers in Suffolk County fell into a vicious cycle of alternating between expensive opioid analgesic pills and the cheaper heroin creating a large overall class of opiate abusers and addicts.”
According to Dr. Reynolds, LICADD has seen the increase in abuse firsthand. In the last five years the council went from serving 100 families dealing with opiate abuse monthly to 850 in January of 2014.
“It has been a steady climb,” said Dr. Reynolds.
Making the jump from prescription pills to heroin, said Dr. Reynolds, can often be tied to economics and availability. With prescription opiates now more expensive and difficult to obtain, those who are hooked can sometimes look for the less expensive street heroin for their fix.
Dr. Reynolds noted heroin use is not limited to one demographic, but is a drug abused across the board.
“In a lot of ways, today it is a solidly middle class phenomena,” he said, “whereas back in the day it was mostly an issue in poorer minority communities that were decimated by drugs like heroin.”
Teenagers to those leading seemingly successful adult lives—and everyone in-between—are susceptible to becoming addicted to a drug like heroin, said Judge Kooperstein.
“Right now in the drug court, the youngest person we are working with is 18 and we had a graduate yesterday who is 58,” she said, noting most people in the East End Regional Intervention Court system are heroin addicts.
“Heroin is here because it is cheap,” Judge Kooperstein said, agreeing with Dr. Reynolds that this is a drug being abused, like others, in all communities, not just those tucked away from suburbia.
“You can’t divorce yourself from this,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”