New London-Providence heroin trade exposed in major drug bust
The demand for heroin soared in southeastern Connecticut over the past two years, and law enforcement authorities say 32-year-old Michael Luciano of New London and his associates here and in the Providence, R.I., area were hustling daily to deliver the drug to users.
"Bring me a lot of drugs, because they go quickly," Luciano texted one of his suppliers one day in late July 2017, according to a court document.
A 109-page affidavit, authored by Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Keith Warzecha and submitted to a federal judge last month as part of a case called Operation Domino Effect, details the day-to-day transactions of the alleged drug trafficking organization that authorities say was operating in the region as overdose deaths were mounting.
The suppliers and dealers bought and sold drugs at a frantic pace, despite their acknowledged suspicions during intercepted phone conversations that police were watching and their awareness that some of the product they were peddling was potent and potentially deadly.
Testing a new batch of heroin on a user, a common practice to determine its potency, produced startling results for one of the alleged ring members on Nov. 6.
"He fell to the floor," Maycol Campos, 36, of Attleboro, Mass., told a supplier, Mario Recinos, 26, of Central Falls, R.I., during a Nov. 6 phone call that was intercepted by authorities, according to the report. "He fell really hard."
"Can you imagine, with just one hit?" he continued.
Based on the affidavit, the DEA, Statewide Narcotics Task Force-East and New London police obtained and executed 12 search warrants on Nov. 14, seizing more than 3 kilograms of heroin and 100 grams of fentanyl and $27,000 in cash from members of the alleged drug trafficking organization.
Two weeks later, on Nov. 28, a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Hartford returned a 14-count indictment charging 10 members of the so-called drug trafficking organization, or "DTO," with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute heroin.
Some of those who police consider the area's big players, including Luciano, 47-year-old Roberto "Indio" Roman of New London and William Gonzalez-Nieves, 26, of Norwich, were detained and are scheduled to be arraigned before Judge Robert A. Richardson in U.S. District Court in Hartford on Dec. 14. Eddy Pena, 29, of Montville, a Dominican national and alleged supplier, also was detained and is scheduled to appear before a federal judge on Tuesday. The investigation is continuing.
The case has tentacles both stateside and abroad, and the involvement of the federal drug enforcement agency signals its significance, according to local police.
"The results of that operation will show large dividends as far as lessening the heroin distribution in the region," Capt. Brian M. Wright, commander of the New London Police Department's investigative division, said during a recent phone interview.
From N.Y. to Providence to New London
During a four-day period in January 2016, fentanyl-laced heroin was responsible for 22 overdoses and two deaths in New London County, marking the beginning of a sharp rise in opioid-related fatalities at all levels of society that highlighted the grim reality that anybody's son or daughter could become the next body on the coroner's table.
The New London police tracked the sale of some of the "tainted heroin" to Brian Rodriguez, who was arrested and eventually pleaded guilty in state Superior Court and was sentenced to 78 months in prison followed by seven years of special parole. He remains incarcerated.
According to the affidavit, a search of Rodriguez's phone revealed he would routinely purchase 75 to 100 grams of heroin from "Mike Mike" Luciano, who used his mother's apartment at 93 State Pier Road and his girlfriend's apartment at 394 Jefferson Ave. as bases for his operations. Luciano also appeared to maintain a "stash house" at 99 Ford St. in Providence, according to the affidavit.
Police say they went further up the supply chain, to Pena. During a search of an apartment at 156 Garfield Ave., Apt. 21, in New London, in October 2016, they said they found Pena standing over a toilet, acting panicky and sweating profusely. The police found nine grams of heroin and $5,373 of cash in the apartment, and said Pena admitted later he had flushed 50 grams of heroin down the toilet.
The investigators learned that Pena was getting the heroin in Providence from people who brought it from New York. He admitted he gave Luciano 100 to 200 grams at a time. Luciano also obtained the drug directly from sources in the Providence area, according to the affidavit.
Police said the investigation revealed that Luciano regularly received the heroin on credit from Recinos, 26, of Central Falls and Elizabeth Morales, 47, a Guatemalan citizen who co-owns the El Chapin Restaurant and a check-cashing business in Providence. Luciano's girlfriend, 28-year-old Selma Mena, and "Indio" Roman of New London were among those who helped him package the heroin for distribution and collect payments, according to the affidavit.
Heroin hidden in woods
The investigators used many of the traditional tools available to law enforcement in the ongoing war on drugs. They relied heavily on details provided by confidential informants, usually people caught up in the drug trade who were providing information with the hope of getting leniency in their own court cases.
The authorities set up "controlled purchases" in which they had the informants arrange to buy drugs from the targets, provided the informants with pre-recorded cash, equipped them with an audio recorder and transmitter and conducted surveillance while the deal was transacted.
The investigators started using wiretaps in July 2017 after U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant signed an order authorizing interception of voice and text communications of phones of several of the targets. They said intercepted communications confirmed that Luciano was dealing "re-distribution" weights of heroin to an extensive customer base.
Deception is another tool available to law enforcement, and in August 2017, fearing one of the alleged dealers would become violent, they resorted to issuing a news release that contained misinformation and which was reported in The Day and elsewhere.
On Aug. 3, investigators watched William Gonzalez-Nieves, a dealer allegedly supplied by Luciano, enter the woods near Gallows Lane after telling a customer he needed to pick up drugs. Surveillance team members went into the woods later and found 105 grams of heroin hidden inside a plastic container, according to the warrant. The police seized the drugs, and for the next two days heard Gonzalez-Nieves complaining on his tapped cellphone that he had been robbed. He said he thought he knew the two people who were responsible. He said he was going to "break their faces," or if one of them did not show up as requested, was going to "shoot."
The New London police issued a news release that said they had seized the 105 grams of heroin after receiving an anonymous tip. The release contained pictures of the plastic container of drugs as it had been found and of the bag of heroin sitting on a digital scale showing its exact weight.
"The press release was an effort by law enforcement to divert Gonzalez-Nieves from retaliating against the two persons he thought might have stolen his narcotics," the warrant said.
Somebody told Gonzalez-Nieves about the news release, and he confirmed from the pictures that the drugs were his, according to the affidavit.
Test subjects and coffee
The use of testers is unique to heroin distribution, police say.
The affidavit describes Luciano texting a user to inquire how good a batch of heroin was on Aug. 1, 2017. The response was, "Not that good."
"Case agents know from training and experience that it is common for heroin distributors to have individuals test their new heroin in attempt to receive feedback regarding the potency of the heroin," the document says.
Conspirators often discussed how much the latest batch of drugs would need to be "cut," or adulterated with a product like super mannitol, a powdery sweetener, to decrease its purity and increase their profits.
Commenting about another batch in a text message to a girlfriend, Luciano wrote, "new tires make the bitch jump like a grasshopper no good." Warzecha, the DEA special agent, wrote in the affidavit that it appeared to be a reference to the heroin being laced with fentanyl.
On Aug. 27, Luciano texted one of his alleged customers "New Fire," indicating he had new heroin of high potency and quality, according to the affidavit.
Informants learned that Luciano often kept a cup of coffee with him when in possession of heroin, believing he could dump the heroin into the coffee and destroy it if stopped by police.