A ‘grim’ trend in central N.J.

Law enforcement wrestles with heroin abuse

Staff Writer

Heroin has become the most popular drug in Monmouth and Middlesex counties, reaching a much wider audience than ever before, according to law enforcement authorities.

“Monmouth County has one of the highest concentrations of the purest heroin in the tri-state area. We’re really only contending with Philadelphia and New York City,” said Mike Pasterchick, chief of the Narcotics and Criminal Enterprise Investigation Section of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office. “That’s why the drug is so much more dangerous than it was 10 years ago, too. The purity was lower then and it wasn’t nearly as dangerous.”

On a local level, Howell police Detective Christian Antunez paints a similar picture when it comes to the heroin problem.

“Grim,” Antunez said of the situation. “The youth today face the most exposure to the most potent and deadly drugs in history. The trend in Howell is disheartening, to say the least, but we try our best to combat the problem with education, awareness and enforcement. Drugs not only affect the user, they greatly impact families and the community.” Antunez said heroin addiction is not a victimless crime. He noted the downward spiral that goes from being out of work and having to steal from family and friends to fuel the habit, to burglarizing homes and businesses.

“People who think drug crimes are victimless crimes are incredibly misled,” he said.

Middletown police Detective Lt. Stephen Dollinger provided similar information, saying that heroin is just as much of a problem in Middletown as it is throughout the county.

“We have seen people getting involved with drugs at an earlier age, which is increasingly becoming a problem,” said Dollinger. “The bottom line is that heroin is extremely popular right now. We have not experienced this much heroin in just Middletown since 2000-2001, and it is absolutely back in full strength, if not more.”

In Middlesex County, Capt. Michael S. Zarro of the Spotswood Police Department took a more personal approach to the issue, citing a family friend who started out on prescription pills and moved on to heroin before dying of an overdose.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see that happen, especially to someone you know,” Zarro said.

Zarro was aware of the common progression of pills to heroin. He said pills are more of a problem in Spotswood than heroin.

Sayreville police Detective Sgt. Jeffrey Sprague noted a suburban trend with heroin.

“It’s like shopping for the best savings here,” Sprague said. “We have dealers that go up to towns like Newark and Elizabeth and pick up their supply, and then bring it back here to sell. Some towns are cheaper than others and it gets competitive, so that’s how widespread the issue is now.”

In Sayreville, he said, the issue almost always starts with prescription pills.

“People get these pills and need that high. It’s a vicious cycle, and there’s always that blatant starting point.”

Sprague said police stay on top of what is going on around the town.

“We work very closely with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office’s Narcotics Task Force. We’re keeping track of names of dealers and suppliers — because they’re always moving around — keeping tabs on what they look like, what they’re driving, who they know, where they pick up from, what times they pick up, everything. It’s all about their routines,”

Sprague said. “Then maybe we can get some information out of them, too. Even on a local level, we need to stay in touch with the community, because people might know someone who’s selling pills, or are even trying to get help for their kids or friend’s kids.”

While local police departments do what they can to fight the issue, the prosecutor’s office in each county works on the bigger busts, such as Operation Hats Off, which in 2012 netted 52 arrests in an enterprise accused of trafficking more than 4,000 bricks of heroin.

“It’s younger people that are doing it now, and across a much larger span of social classes,” said Capt. Albert DeAngelis of the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.

Charles Webster, public information officer for the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, illustrated the point by providing pictures of the suspects to Greater Media Newspapers.

“Not the faces you expect to see, right?” Webster said. “There’s really not this gritty, dirty face of an addict that everyone expects to see. These are just people you’d see out at a bar or walking down the street. Just normal looking people, but you really have no idea. People moved to the suburbs from major cities to be ‘safer,’ but think about how big any given neighborhood is. Do you think anyone has any idea what their neighbors are doing? It’s scary, but that’s the truth; it’s not any safer.”

“We have had great success with the Detective Bureau and Quality of Life Unit, which works out of the Detective Bureau,” Dollinger said. “Detectives work hand in hand with members of the Quality of Life Unit, which consists of two patrolmen assigned to the unit for a three- or fourmonth stint.”

So far in 2013, detectives working with the Quality of Life Unit in Middletown have executed nine search warrants, seized three vehicles, recovered thousands of dollars in cash and charged 93 suspects, though the numbers are not limited to heroin abusers. The numbers also do not account for the work of patrol officers, Dollinger noted.

Howell police are working in a different fashion to combat drugs.

“The economy has impacted budgets and the ability to fully staff dedicated anti-drug units,” Antunez said. “However, the Howell Police Department has an exceptional, hardworking and dedicated force. As a result, many officers combat narcotics use in addition to their other patrol and investigative duties. Days off, shifts and hours are rearranged to combat that issue at the expense of the officers’ personal life but for the good of the town.”