PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – As Rhode Island officials spent the winter of 2014 scrambling to address a surge in overdose deaths fueled in part by the sudden emergence of fentanyl-laced heroin on the streets, the criminals pushing the drug had other ideas.
With addicts begging for heroin mixed with the powerful painkiller, dealers in Providence started “advertising and crowing [about] how deadly their heroin was,” according to a report published by the Providence Police Department’s Intelligence and Organized Crime Bureau.
It worked. Providence police say some street dealers in the city were grossing more than $20,000 a day last year, with drug transactions “occurring all over the city,” the report states. All told, 80% of drug investigations in Providence in 2014 involved heroin.
By the time users started to realize how lethal their drug of choice truly was, the damage was done. There were 239 overdose deaths in Rhode Island in 2014 – up 73% since 2009 – at least 83 of which involved fentanyl, according to the Department of Health.
“Right now, heroin is the drug of choice,” Providence Police Maj. David Lapatin told Target 12. “I think for a few reasons. It can be snorted, it can be injected. It is cheaper. We’re finding through our contacts on the street that it’s cheaper in Providence than it is in Massachusetts.”
It is unknown how much heroin moves through Providence and the rest of the state each week, but Lapatin said the city’s 18-member narcotics bureau, led by Capt. Anthony Sauro, is “dealing with this every day.”
The department issued 102 search warrants, recovered 47 firearms and seized $354,776 from drug dealers across the city in 2014, according to the report. Resident complaints, Sauro wrote, come in from every neighborhood.
Last March, police recovered nearly $28,000 in cash along with more than 40 grams of heroin from a couple accused of selling drugs on Ridgeway Avenue in the city’s Manton neighborhood, according to an incident report obtained by Target 12. An informant told police Jenny Romero, 27, delivered drugs throughout the city in a silver Cadillac SUV or in rental vehicle. A man arrested after purchasing heroin from her told police he “buys off her every day.”
Charges are still pending against Romero and 31-year-old Rafael Llaon.
Just days after Romero and Llaon were arrested, police seized $21,000 in cash, 1.7 kilos of heroin with a street value approaching $400,000 and a gun from Joan R. Nunez, an accused dealer they said was distributing heroin throughout the city from his older model minivan. Police raided his “stash house” on Superior Street in the West End and his apartment on Mitchell Street on the South Side.
The U.S. Attorney’s office announced Friday that Nunez, 35, was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison for heroin trafficking. U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha said leaders need to work to prevent doctors from overprescribing opioids – which can lead to heroin addiction – and law enforcement officials “must intercept and aggressively prosecute those, like the defendant here, who deal heroin to the addicted.”
“One can pick up a newspaper in any city in America today and read about the terrible toll taken by heroin use,” Neronha said in a statement. “Greater Providence, and indeed the entire state of Rhode Island, is no exception; people are dying or nearly dying from heroin overdose at an astonishing rate.”
But even as arrests and overdoses pile up, heroin still finds its way to the capital city.
Lapatin said police believe the drug is coming from several locations, including the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Guatemala. He said the heroin is driven into the United States through Texas before making its way throughout the country. Dealers in Providence are largely purchasing their supply from Baltimore, New York City and Florida, he said.
On Friday morning, police raided a home on Rosedale Street in the West End, recovering 587 grams of heroin. Hector Javier Sanchez-Alvarez, 24, was charged with intent to distribute. Officers also seized about $390 in cash.
And the demand for the drug doesn’t appear to be waning.
Jonathon Goyer, a recovering user who now volunteers as an advocate for addicts, told Target 12 he regularly spent $400 daily on various substances “just to get through the day.” He said he isn’t surprised to learn some dealers could be grossing $20,000 a day.
“Every single day, my life had become focused on finding ways and means to get more drugs,” he said. “Make more money to get more drugs. That was my entire life.”
Now police find themselves playing dual roles, Lapatin said. They want to help addicts, in part by carrying naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses. But they also want to go after some of the “bigger people” in the city, dealers getting rich off pushing poison.
Lapatin said the department has established a three-member intelligence organized crime unit, designed to focus specifically on long-term cases.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “To work and to find who’s on top and then take the whole organization down.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this report referred to a police department’s special unit as the Narcotics and Organized Crime Bureau. It is the Intelligence and Organized Crime Bureau.