PLATTSBURGH — Sixty people have been indicted on drug charges by a Clinton County grand jury in the largest drug sweep in North Country history.
The busts were announced at a news conference Wednesday afternoon held by Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie and representatives of other law-enforcement agencies.
‘FIVE STILL SOUGHT’
Five were still being sought as of Wednesday, Wylie said.
Two are in state prison and will be arraigned in the coming days, and two of the defendants are awaiting extradition to Clinton County from Florida and Maine.
In the bust, police seized a 9mm Glock handgun, more than 7 ounces of cocaine, 260 bags of heroin packaged for individual sale and about $20,178 in cash, Wylie said. The funds will be distributed to local police departments, the DA’s Office and drug treatment programs.
The investigation into the alleged drug sales dates back to October 2012, the DA said, adding that the majority of those arrested were taken into custody Monday and Tuesday, with the rest arrested in the past 10 days or so.
’PRISON TIME LIKELY’
The defendants have been charged with either third- or fifth-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance or third- or fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, both felonies.
“A multitude of the defendants will likely face state prison sentences,” Wylie said.
Depending on their charges and criminal histories, defendants could face sentences ranging from two and a half to 60 years in state prison.
As of Wednesday afternoon, two people had posted bail, seven had been released by the court, and 17 remained in the Clinton County Jail, Clinton Country Sheriff David Favro said.
Of the 60 suspects, 28 were charged with the sale and possession of heroin, 15 for cocaine, 16 for prescription medication and two for methamphetamine, Wylie said.
Wylie said heroin has had an increased presence in the community over the past year, calling the impact “devastating.”
“The majority of the heroin is coming from New York City or Albany,” said Plattsburgh City Police Det. Matt Bell, who works on the Adirondack Drug Task Force.
And as far as the prescription drugs go, police don’t believe any of the pills that were sold were stolen, Bell said.
Those arrested sold prescription drugs they themselves were prescribed, Bell said.
Twenty-three of those arrested have previous felony convictions, with 17 having a prior felony conviction for the sale or possession of controlled substances, Wylie said.
Among those arrested is 32-year-old Steven Baker, who has already served time in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the January 2006 death of Albert Montanaro III, who was jogging near his parents’ home in AuSable when Baker struck him with his car while driving drunk. Baker is charged with selling and possessing cocaine.
’SOME COLLEGE STUDENTS’
Seven of the defendants were current or former SUNY Plattsburgh students when they sold drugs to confidential informants, with one enrolled at Clinton Community College, Wylie said.
The students suspected of drug dealing sold narcotics to their fellow students, said James Burns Jr., assistant special agent in charge for the Albany District Office of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.
”It’s unfortunate when young adults make choices that so drastically affect their education and their future,” SUNY Plattsburgh University Police Chief Arlene Sabo said.
The criminal activity was discovered through undercover buys, surveillance and intelligence, Burns said.
“These weren’t just fly-by-night folks. They were using very sophisticated traps in vehicles,” he said, referring to a vehicle authorities seized that was found to have an electronically operated compartment under the passenger’s seat that was allegedly used to smuggle cocaine into the county.
’INCREASE OVER YEARS’
When Plattsburgh City Police Chief Desmond Racicot started his career more than 20 years ago, people were not found with drugs as often as they are now, Racicot said.
“It used to be very surprising when we made an arrest and we saw certain drugs in the booking room,” Racicot said. “It’s nothing (now) for our officers to find people with hypodermic needles, cocaine, heroin on them, and it’s really changed the face of our law enforcement.”
’OTHER CRIMES FOLLOW’
Racicot said it costs some users hundreds of dollars each day to support their drug habit.
And authorities said narcotics users almost always resort to crime to get money for drugs.
Drug prices are higher in the North Country when compared to Albany and other areas downstate, Racicot said.
A bindle of heroin, about a tenth of a gram, sells for between $50 and $60, with an ounce of cocaine going for $1,600, he said.
“It’s very easy to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in theft.”
Those involved in the drug business have subjected North Country residents to home invasions, assaults, larcenies including retail theft, armed robberies and homicide, State Police Troop B Bureau of Criminal Investigation Capt. Robert LaFountain said.
State Police have confirmed that 27 people have died in Troop B’s area from drug overdoses since 2012, LaFountain said, adding that other death investigations are pending the cause of death.
He noted that number does not include overdose deaths investigated by other law-enforcement agencies.
“We have people that are dying. You can’t put a cost on that.”
The deaths were caused by overdoses of illicit and prescription drugs but also the “huffing” of noxious substances, LaFountain said.
Favro said that, over time, he has seen the physical and mental deterioration of individuals addicted to drugs who are brought to and from the Clinton County Jail.
More than a half a million dollars is spent each year on the medical care of inmates at the County Jail, Favro said.
In 2013, the jail’s medical staff dispensed more than 60,000 individual medications to inmates, he said, with more than 68 inmates taking daily psychotropic medications.
“We have withdrawal issues, specifically with this incident that we’re going through right now.”
Each person that was booked had to undergo a full medical assessment to determine immediate and future medical needs, Favro said.
’WILL NOT END IT’
Regarding the drug trade in Clinton County, Wylie said, “This is not going to put an end to it, but it certainly is going to slow it down for quite a while.”
This sweep captured double the number of county residents that authorities arrested about a year ago, when they nabbed 32 on narcotics sale and possession charges.
Authorities emphasized the close partnership among the law-enforcement agencies that have a presence locally and how that relationship helps in large-scale investigations.
“Without this cooperative effort, the community would not be as safe as it is today,” Burns said.
Prosecuting the cases with Wylie will be Clinton County Assistant District Attorney Douglas Collyer.
The bust was a collaborative effort involving the Adirondack Drug Task Force, comprising the Plattsburgh City Police Department, New York State Police, the State Police Troop B Narcotics Enforcement Unit, Clinton County Sheriff’s Department, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and the District Attorney’s Office.
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