East Providence Police intensify heroin interdiction

Posted 1/8/16

EAST PROVIDENCE — There is no holiday from the interdiction of heroin distribution by law enforcement, especially when the drug's recent incarnation has likely taken on its most virulent form.

In recent weeks, members of the East …

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East Providence Police intensify heroin interdiction


EAST PROVIDENCE — There is no holiday from the interdiction of heroin distribution by law enforcement, especially when the drug's recent incarnation has likely taken on its most virulent form.

In recent weeks, members of the East Providence Police Department's Vice Unit have made a few key arrests, hoping to stem the sale and use of heroin in the city if just for the moment.

The Vice Unit's increased attention began at the beginning of 2015 and came roughly 14 months after its last investigation of significance, "Operation Blindside," took out a host of dealers and their close associates, often referred to as "runners."

"We're not naïve. We know it's an uphill battle, but our game plan was to disrupt the flow of drugs coming into East Providence. In doing so, we had hoped it would slow things down just long enough to save someone's life," EPPD Vice Unit Sergeant Diogo Mello said reflecting on "Blindside" and the most recent arrests.

This current effort came to fruition in the days prior to Christmas. The investigation intensified late in the summer and focused on a pair of area dealers nicknamed "Scooby" and "J," who were known to be selling heroin and cocaine. Twice previously, officers lost their tail before finally apprehending "Scooby" along with his runner and the runner of "J." A warrant is pending for the latter dealer, one count for delivery and four counts of conspiracy.

"Scooby" is Carlos Jose Lora, a 32-year-old Providence resident born in the Bronx, N.Y. Arrested around the same time as Mr. Lora were his runner, David De La Cruz, 27 of Providence, and "J's" associate, Luis Espinal, 23 and also of Providence.

"It was as if the city was their revolving door, which they would use on a regular basis," Sgt. Mello said of Mr. Lora, "J" and their associates.

"Scooby" and "J" were once partners turned competitors on the area drug scene. Police believe they had a falling out of some kind, leading to both attempting to maintain a hold on the city's customer base. During the investigation, which included the multiple undercover purchases of heroin, field tests on the product conducted by officers were almost always coming back positive for traces of Fentanyl.

"Heroin cut with Fentanyl gives the user a more intense high.  In an addicts world they want that ultimate high, taking them right to the edge," Sgt. Mello said.

The heroin "Scooby" and "J" sold is believed to be among the more lethal varieties of the drug cut with Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate similar to but more potent than morphine and some 50 times stronger than heroin alone, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Their heroin is under consideration by police for being connected to several non-fatal overdoses and at least two OD deaths.

"Heroin is so highly addictive it's almost impossible to break it's grip," East Providence Police Chief Chris Parella said. "And prior to the introduction of Fentanyl a few years ago we saw overdoes, but not nearly as many overdose deaths. The deaths have doubled. Overdoes have turned into deaths. Fentanyl is a deadly poison."

EPPD Vice was made aware of Fentanyl-laced heroin through its "CIs" or confidential informants. They were told "fire" or "hot bags" had made their way into the city's drug culture. Sgt. Mello said dealers often provided addicts with a disclaimer, "This is strong @#$% (slang for excrement)."

Another recent arrest of note according to Sgt. Mello was that of Jose Luiz Bautista, 23 and a city native with a last known address in Johnston. Mr. Bautista was caught in the area of Blanding Avenue, where he was believed to hoarding a "stash" of drugs at a home, near the Central Avenue playground. When he was taken, and following a foot chase, he was found to have a "large bag" of heroin, "crack" cocaine and the prescription pill Percocet.

"We received intel that Bautista would possess a 38 caliber handgun while making deliveries throughout the East Providence. Further investigation revealed the location of a loaded 38 at an address within the city, as well as a high-capacity magazine with 45 caliber rounds, seized from the Blanding Avenue address. His is definitely one of the more significant arrests we've made recently," said Sgt. Mello.

A total of 63 overdoses were reported in East Providence in 2015, according to police figures, and 90 percent of those were heroin related. Seven deaths due to heroin overdose have been confirmed. Police are awaiting the toxicology reports for two other outstanding cases.

"In all my years in Narcotics, I've never seen it this bad," Sgt. Mello said.

Of the heroin epidemic locally and nationally Chief Parella said, "It's a societal problem. It's here. It's everywhere. We've been hit hard with overdoes. To me, this amounts to murder. Because Fentanyl is such a strong pharmaceutical. It amounts to murder when they sell the heroin with it."

EPPD Vice made approximately 40 heroin related arrests in 2015 and took several other suspects into custody, often users or addicts they don't charge in an attempt to "flip" them to gain important information, Sgt. Mello said.

"Out of the hundreds of addicts we've interviewed, not one has said, 'I love being an addict.' We want to get them the help they need, if they're ready and want it. As for the dealers, we don't want to hear it. You're going to jail," Sgt. Mello added. And for those sellers that can be directly tied to any deaths, he said facing manslaughter and murder charges is "not out of the realm of possibility."

"There are three aspects to this: enforcement, treatment and prevention. It's a collaborative effort," Chief Parella said. "The medical community has a role, the schools, treatment programs, there's a political aspect to it as well. The most effective thing is treatment, but the problem is even if it's court ordered treatment you can't keep them in it forever. And if they're in jail, you can only hold them for so long. We need more treatment and we need more cooperation between the disciplines to really have an impact."

In addition, police have secured around 200 grams of heroin, almost a 1/4 kilo, that's equal to about 10,000 bags or street doses, which sell for between $3 and $5 each on the street. However, that total weight would likely to have been divided up again, leading to even more money being made by dealers. Police said grams currently sell for between $80 and $130 apiece depending on the packaging.

According to public health figures, relapse rates for addicts have been reported to be as high as 80 percent. Learning from informants, the availability of Narcan (or Naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids especially in overdoses) over the counter at pharmacies is likely leading to fewer overdoses being reported.

Said Sgt. Mello, "Lately, they'll only call 911 if the first or second dose of Narcan doesn't work.  Every second counts and we've witnessed individuals administered 3 or more doses of Narcan."

"We can talk about treatment and what the medical community needs to do, but we don't have control over that. What we have control over is enforcement," Chief Parella said. "If your product reaches the streets of East Providence, whether it's sold here or not, you're going to get nailed. We're going to push from a prosecutorial aspect. We're going to push hard. That's what we have control over. And even then I don't think that's a deterrent because we still have overdoes even with the amount of arrests we make."

Law enforcement has little tolerance for heroin's encroachment. It's not just the sale of the drug that affects their job daily. It's also the ancillary crimes that take up manpower and resources.

"When you get a rash of breaks in a certain area that are brash and bold, a lot of the time it's because people have got to get their fix and they'll do anything. They steal from their own family. So you know it encompasses other crimes," Chief Parella explained.

He continued, "To make these substantial arrests it takes months of work, hours of overtime. We could literally use a 15-man unit. And all we can do is create that deterrent. We need the community to get involved. Drug drop-offs work. We have people going into (real estate) open houses just to steal pills. We tell residents, if you have old painkillers, get rid of them."

Currently, there are five members of the EPPD Vice Unit, including Sgt. Mello as well as Officers Mike Rapoza and Ryan Vose, Corporal Kevin Feeney, working out of the department's Detective Unit, and Drew Dubois, who works with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

"It's extremely time consuming and frustrating, but it's the job. And we don't have time to wait because people are dying," Sgt. Mello said. "But even with that you know what's going to happen, and it's a sad reality. We're going to be right back here three months down the road talking about the same thing. There's too much money to be made."

Added Chief Parella, "We know there are going to be five more even after we arrest these few. We don't have the deterrent we'd like, but people still don't want to come here and deal. I would put us up against any city or town in the state and even Southeastern Massachusetts. I would put our guys up against any other group. We have a pretty aggressive group considering the number we have on this right now. The arrests we make here are going to save lives. The time it takes away from the dealers will interrupt their business. If you save one person before they get hooked, it's worth it. That interruption in time for these dealers will save lives."

— Photos by Rich Dionne

East Providence Police, heroin, investigation

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.