SOUTHOLD, NY – 911 calls to the Southold Town Police Department started pouring in on a Wednesday. And for three days they didn’t stop.
Woman, 34, Greenport Village, unresponsive.
Male, 25, Southold, unconscious.
Male, 30, Southold, unresponsive.
Male, 27, Greenport Village, callous.
Male, 32, East Marion, unconscious.
Male, 40, Shelter Island, unconscious.
At least eight people in the chain of small towns along North Fork on Long Island by Friday had overdosed, and six of them – none over 40 – had died. Their deaths were caused, according to police, by cocaine containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that may be 50 times more potent than heroin.
They have left behind a seaside enclave surrounded by both familiar and puzzling grief: nearly 3,000 people have died of overdoses in Suffolk County in the past decade. But what’s new is the drug cocktail that killed the six in mid-August: cocaine adulterated with highly lethal fentanyl, which provides a cheap and potent high and was in the past more often mixed. to heroin.
The Suffolk County tragedy, according to police and prosecutors, reflects an emerging and dangerous shift in the street drug market, a trend that has intensified over the past year as dealers have been hit by the same pandemic issues that plague global supply chains. and drive up prices.
Some have turned to substitutes like fentanyl – cheaper and more readily available than cocaine or heroin – to bulk up their wares, maintaining their drug supply, regardless of the human cost. But even a grain of fentanyl can kill.
“The same market forces that cause shortages of everyday commodities are also putting pressure on drug markets,” said Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County District Attorney. “All the while, we’ve seen demand skyrocket from users due to the impact the pandemic has had on them. “
The presence of fentanyl in Southold is nestled in a larger-scale tragedy striking the county and the country: the opioid epidemic that has hung hundreds of thousands of people on prescription pain relievers. Last month, New York state, including the hard-hit counties of Suffolk and Nassau, wrested a billion dollar settlement from drugmakers, distributors and prescription opioid suppliers to alleviate damage resulting from their role in the epidemic.
Preliminary data from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in 2020 the highest number of people on record died of overdose in the United States – 93,000, an increase of nearly 30 % compared to the previous year.
In North Fork, the dead were not hardened drug addicts, but primarily recreational users, police said, looking for a fleeting spike. Behind the brief descriptions in police reports were rich and varied lives: a former Tehran jeweler who loved heavy metal music, and a restaurant worker and fashion plate rarely seen without his golden lamé boots. A Jamaican chef with a special talent for sourdough and a landscaper who always answered the phone with a joke. A woman who loved gothic makeup, whose mother called her “noodles”. New dad of a 6 month old baby boy.
Several other people also overdosed on cocaine between August 11 and 13, according to Southold police; rescuers resuscitated them with naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
Family members of those who died blamed the dealers. “They poisoned them to make money,” said Seth Tramontana, whose 27-year-old son, also named Seth, died on August 13 after ingesting cocaine, which his family believes he did not know. not that he had been tampered with with fentanyl. “You can tell he made his choice and did what he was doing for fun – but that’s not what he asked for.”
The trend is not limited to Suffolk County. In February, the San Francisco Department of Public Health issued a public health warning following a series of fentanyl overdoses by people who believed they had only used cocaine. Authorities in Nebraska issued a similar warning in August after 26 overdoses in three weeks were linked to cocaine containing fentanyl.
In New York City, users posted social media warnings in the spring of ‘wrong batches’ of cocaine containing the drug, urging each other to test cocaine for the presence of fentanyl using designed test kits. for this purpose.
“People who use cocaine think the overdose epidemic is none of their business,” said Dr Chinazo O. Cunningham, executive deputy commissioner of the New Town Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. York. In 2017, only 17 of the city’s overdose deaths were due to cocaine combined with fentanyl; this number rose to 183 in 2019, the latest year for which data were available. “Part of the problem nationwide is that the narrative revolves around opioids, and what we’ve seen is that it’s not just opioids – it’s cocaine,” she said. declared.
Days after the chain of deaths on Long Island, two men, Lavain Creighton, 51, of Greenport, and Justin Smith, 46, of Smithtown, were arrested. Mr. Creighton has been charged with several counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance; At a press conference, the district attorney said Mr Creighton sold the drugs that caused at least two of the fatal overdoses, based on text message exchanges and other communications.
Mr. Smith has been charged with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. Anthony Scheller, Mr Smith’s lawyer, said his client did not sell the drugs. “He feels bad for these people,” Mr. Scheller said. “But he had no implication.” A lawyer for Mr Creighton did not return a request for comment.
Suffolk County has been aggressively pushing for dealers to be held accountable for overdose deaths, securing a manslaughter conviction for a dealer in 2017, the first in the state. The county has only successfully prosecuted three similar cases since then.
Prosecutors say they are hampered in holding dealerships accountable because to successfully litigate manslaughter, they must prove that the dealer acted recklessly.
Shortly after the wave of deaths, Long Island state lawmakers lobbied again for a “Death by Dealer” law, which would allow prosecutors to lay homicide charges against traffickers. drugs and impose harsher penalties. Since 2011, about half of all U.S. states have passed similar laws, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization.
But critics argue that such legislation does not prevent overdose deaths and, conversely, may increase the risk by scaring people to call for help when someone overdoses for fear of it. reprisals.
Increasing access to fentanyl and naloxone test kits is a better way to avoid tragedies like those on Long Island, said Gray Gardner, senior counsel for the Drug Policy Alliance.
“What we need to do is do a better job as a country, as a society, to help people know when their supplies are contaminated and to have safe places people can use to avoid overdoses,” did he declare.
On August 12, a victim with the initials ML received a text message from a friend warning him of the presence of fentanyl in the cocaine he had bought from Mr Creighton, prosecutors said. But by the time he was sent, the man was already dead.
The police did not confirm the identity of ML. But the initials matched those of one of the men who died that day: Matthew Lapiana, a landscaper. His friend Clarisse Stevens said he was an ace in Italian cooking and always answered the phone with a wacky joke.
Ms Stevens was outraged by those who supplied her with the drugs containing fentanyl. “You put it in your stash and then you sell it and people die, it’s because it comes from your hands,” she said. “They should definitely be charged with murder.”
After the six deaths, police and social service organizations deployed to Southold, handing out Narcan kits and offering workshops on how to administer the anti-overdose drug.
Local newspapers and social media feeds were filled with obituaries, funeral notices and tributes: Nicole Eckardt, Fausto Rafael Herrera Campos, Swainson Brown, Matthew Lapiana, Seth Tramontana, Navid Ahmadzadeh.
They had been linked by the life of a small town; some were distant cousins, others former colleagues. Now they were united in death.
Sitting on their 5th Street porch in Greenport, Mr. Tramontana’s grandparents, Richard and Joan Olszewski, clung to memories of their 27-year-old grandchild, whom everyone called Boogie.
They remembered how Boogie sang through the quaint fishing village with battered gold boots that he patched with duct tape. How Boogie always escaped after Christmas dinner to bring a plate from his grandmother’s kitchen to a friend struggling with the holiday season.
“He did what he was put on this earth to do,” said Ms. Olszewski, 74. “Make all these people realize how wonderful they were. “
At the Pridwin Hotel on Shelter Island, Glenn Petry, a co-owner, kept a single jar of sourdough, left behind by his friend and chef, Swainson Brown. When he was able to tear himself away from fishing, Mr. Brown, 40, turned the hotel kitchen into a laboratory of dishes of his own invention.
“We would say, ‘Swainson, that’s not exactly what we’re looking for,’ recalls Petry. “
He stopped himself. “It breaks my heart now that we are praising this young man,” said Mr. Petry.