On Staten Island, Rising Tide of Heroin Takes Hold

Barry and Candace Crupi’s son Johnathan died of a heroin overdose at their home on Staten Island. He was 21. The obituaries have a certain sameness to them: full of praise and regret for lives cut short, marked by telltale details and omissions. The deaths occurred at home, or at a friend’s house elsewhere on Staten Island. The mourned were often young and white, and although how they died was never mentioned, nearly everyone knew or suspected the cause.

A 23-year-old man, a cello student in high school and the son of an elevator company vice president died in March. A former high school hockey player who delivered newspapers died in 2013 at 22. Another 23-year-old man who was working construction died at home in July 2012. Family members and autopsy reports revealed that they died from heroin or combinations of drugs including heroin.

Staten Island, long a blue-collar bastion of police officers and other New York City workers, is confronting a heroin epidemic.

Thirty-six people died from heroin overdoses in 2012, the highest number in at least a decade, according to the most recent available city health department records; the death rate was higher than the city’s other four boroughs had seen in 10 years. The amount of heroin seized by the Police Department on Staten Island has jumped more than 300 percent from 2011 to 2013, and this year shows no sign of abating: Through April 13, officers seized roughly 1,700 glassine bags of heroin, up from about 1,200 bags over the same period in 2013. That number does not include the 347 bags seized on Wednesday in raids at an auto-repair shop and its owner’s home.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Personal photos of Johnathan from over the years. Hundreds attended his funeral including strangers whose families had experienced heroin addiction.Drug treatment facilities and addiction programs teem with patients; informal support groups for addicts’ relatives have had to find larger meeting spaces. And last month, the city authorized nearly all Staten Island police and emergency medical workers to carry naloxone, a drug to counteract heroin overdoses.

“You’ve got kids falling apart. You’ve got families falling apart,” said William A. Fusco, the director of Dynamic Youth Community, a drug-treatment center in Brooklyn whose clients include many young Staten Islanders. “You’ve got people who have got no idea what to do, and they’re all saying the same thing: This was a good kid. This was a good kid.”

For decades, heroin was mostly found in the urban sections of the island’s north, where the ferry docks from Manhattan and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge touches down from Brooklyn. It afflicted the borough’s poorest areas, with sales concentrated in open-air markets at a few notorious housing developments like Stapleton and Park Hill.

But as in towns and cities from Vermont to Washington State, heroin’s new surge on Staten Island has ravaged primarily its working- and middle-class communities, especially in the borough’s south.

Numerous heroin addicts and dealers said in interviews that the drug was usually purchased in bulk elsewhere in New York City or in New Jersey, then resold on Staten Island. Law enforcement officials back that account, noting that they have not found any heroin mills in the borough, requiring the police to fight an army of small-time dealers.

“They hide in plain sight,” Detective Ray Wittick said on a recent Wednesday as he steered an unmarked police minivan through a Waldbaum’s grocery store parking lot in Princes Bay, where drug deals are not uncommon.

Some parents have taken to sending their children for treatment in Brooklyn, in part to avoid the glare of those who would recognize them at facilities on Staten Island.


Officers seized 347 bags of heroin Wednesday from an auto-body shop and a home on the island. New York Police Department

Candace Crupi said she did not want to leave any mystery about her son’s death. The obituary in The Staten Island Advance in March said Johnathan Crupi, 21, had been overwhelmed by addiction. He died at home of a heroin overdose.

“I wanted people to know that I wasn’t ashamed of him,” she said. “People are so ashamed of addiction. There’s such a stigma, and it’s just not right.”

On the family’s kitchen table, among funeral bouquets of red and yellow roses, sat a photograph of Johnathan. It had been a formal occasion, the young man in a tuxedo, his hair closely cropped in a Caesar-style cut.

In a back bedroom, where his body was found on March 28, the smell of cigarettes still lingered 10 days later.

Since the obituary appeared in late March, Ms. Crupi, 60, said she had been approached by people she knew well, and those she only barely recalled, offering condolences and praising her bravery. At Johnathan’s funeral, hundreds showed up, including many strangers who described their families’ own struggles with heroin.

“People that I never knew were going through the same thing,” her husband, Barry Crupi, said. “It was so many people. So many people.”

An Island Unto Itself

Police officials say heroin enters Staten Island by car, some by way of Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Damon Winter/The New York Times

Police officials say heroin enters Staten Island by car, some by way of Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Damon Winter/The New York Times

Spread across an island more than twice the size of Manhattan, Staten Island’s 470,000 residents live in a collection of small communities often arranged around short main streets, the neighborhoods bearing the names of early residents — Tottenville for John Totten and his family — or for the industries once prevalent, like Graniteville for the quarries once active there.

Until 1964, when the Verrazano Bridge opened, Staten Island had no physical connection to the rest of New York City; older bridges led only to New Jersey. That long separation gave Staten Island its own sense of identity and culture, from the centrality of the Staten Island Mall to the wooded brush vulnerable to fires set by bored teenagers.

There is also a sense of continuity: Staten Island’s demographics have not greatly changed since the 1970 census. In contrast to the rest of the city, the borough’s white non-Hispanic residents outnumber minorities, accounting for about 64 percent of its residents, according to the 2010 census. Most homes are owner-occupied, and unemployment is below the city average.

“When I was growing up, you’d see people riding horses on Hylan Boulevard,” Detective Wittick, 45, said. “You felt like it was something out of a movie, you know. These little towns with the perfect life. You knew all your neighbors.”

That familiarity still exists, but now it carries a burden when drugs are involved.

For a time, a culture of recreational prescription pill abuse seemed like just the latest way for many on Staten Island to deal with weekend boredom. Pills could be found at the cafeteria in Tottenville High School, or at local bars where older men sold their medications, like Roxicodone, Vicodin or Percocet, for a healthy profit. A young barber on Amboy Road said some customers asked to pay for their haircuts in pills.

“You could make money off it,” said Andrea, a 21-year-old recovering addict from Great Kills. “It didn’t seem like there were any consequences.”

Heroin has hit areas like Tottenville. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Heroin has hit areas like Tottenville. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Or, in the words of a local rap song from 2012: “Pain killer paradise, Staten Island.”

Pills began showing up in drug seizures around the island, often traced to doctors whose offices were flooded by users seeking illegal prescriptions. One such physician, Dr. Felix Lanting, was 85 when he pleaded guilty to distributing oxycodone in 2012.

His arrest caused a momentary jump in prices, recovering addicts said, but he was just one source among many, including a Lickety Split ice cream truck where 30-milligram oxycodone pills were sold on the side.

An Inexpensive High

Gradually, dealers and users switched to heroin. Some opioid addicts found that their habits required 20 or 30 pills a day, an unsustainable proposition at as much as $30 each. Heroin, already available around New York City for about $5 to $10 for a single glassine, became a cheap alternative.

Brandon, 22, of the south shore town of Eltingville, remembered when the police arrested a group of young men in 2012 for selling pills around Tottenville. His supply dried up.

Then a fellow addict took him over the Goethals Bridge to an open-air heroin market in Newark. “It was so much easier, it’s $6 and it’s always there,” said Brandon, who is now in a 12-step recovery program. “I’ve done one pill since I got introduced to heroin.”

At Dynamic Youth Community in Brooklyn, many addicts in treatment are from Staten Island. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

At Dynamic Youth Community in Brooklyn, many addicts in treatment are from Staten Island. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Another recovering addict, Nikki, 29, said she began each day with 15 or 20 Vicodin pills. “I would take them in one shot,” she said.

The daily hunt for money to buy more, usually raised by finding and selling scrap metal with her boyfriend at the time, finally became too much. One day in 2009, the boyfriend came home with something new — 50 little bags of heroin. “I told him, ‘Once we go this way, there’s no going back,’ ” she recalled in an interview. “This is the beginning of the end.”

She said she got hooked.

Four years later, Nikki said, she was clean but admitted that there were lapses. During a recent period of recovery, a friend of a friend asked her to deliver some heroin to a buyer. She agreed but was subsequently arrested. She is now out on bail, raised through pawnshop proceeds from her jewelry. She is also pregnant: The baby is due in July and, once born, will immediately require detoxification from the methadone that Nikki takes every day. She and her new boyfriend will remain on methadone for the foreseeable future, but Nikki said heroin and pills are behind her.

“I’m going to become a mother,” she said.

Most of the addicts interviewed for this article passed through the Dynamic treatment center in Brooklyn, a Y.M.C.A. on southern Staten Island or a Pills Anonymous group that has expanded to include heroin addicts; all requested that they be referred to by only their first names as they rebuild their lives.

Nearly all began by sniffing heroin, much as they had sniffed crushed pills. Soon many sought out the greater high that a needle provided. For Brandon, his first time shooting up was in January 2013, with a fellow addict in the bathroom stall of the Wendy’s on Richmond Hill Road. “I’m thinking, I could be dead in 30 seconds,” Brandon said of his mind-set at the time. He did it anyway.

Ms. Crupi looks through a box of photographs in Johnathan's room. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Ms. Crupi looks through a box of photographs in Johnathan’s room. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Mike, 23, of Tottenville said he could find bundles of glassine bags in Newark for as little as $3 or $4 apiece. What he did not use, he sold on Staten Island for $10. Other recovering addicts described similar trips to East New York, Brooklyn, or Elizabeth, N.J. Any profits would go straight back into buying more heroin.

Although deaths from heroin are apparent here, evidence of the drug on the streets is less so. Sales take place by arrangement over the phone, a quick stop in a shopping center parking lot or in the house next door.

For instance, Angelo Gallo and his father, Ugo Gallo, pleaded guilty to selling heroin last year out of their two-story detached house on David Street in Eltingville. A city sanitation worker now rents the home, a few doors down from a police officer.

In the similarly sleepy bedroom community of Oakwood, police officers caught Frank Monte, 47, in the act of selling 300 glassine envelopes in a white plastic bag for $1,320 in cash.

Mr. Monte, who pleaded guilty to felony drug possession, denied any involvement in the sale, saying his previous time in prison for selling drugs had biased the officers. “When you go to jail on Staten Island, you’re labeled for life with these cops,” he said in a phone interview in March.

A few days after that conversation, he was arrested in a car near Clove Road and the Staten Island Expressway with 531 bags of heroin, according to the arrest report. He pleaded guilty, this time to a higher degree of felony possession.

Sabrina, a recovering addict, remembered telling her parents she was going out for ice cream only to go see a dealer by the public pool near her family’s Woodrow home. The dealer took her $100 and drove off.

Flowers from Johnathan's funeral on the kitchen table near his senior portrait. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Flowers from Johnathan’s funeral on the kitchen table near his senior portrait. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Desperate for a hit and out of cash, she returned home and told her mother she had been robbed. Her mother questioned why she needed so much money for ice cream. Incensed, Sabrina began tearing apart the home. In the struggle, she shoved her mother, breaking her ankle. Soon after, Sabrina, 25, checked into rehab.

Difficult to Police

Unlike more established drug markets that predominate in other areas of the city, those running heroin here are mostly independent and deal in small quantities. Narcotics officers on Staten Island who have worked in other parts of New York say that dealers and buyers here tend to be even more suspicious of outsiders than elsewhere in the city.

That complicates catching dealers here, as the Police Department has had more difficulty conducting the sort of buy-and-bust operations that are the baseline of narcotics work in other boroughs. “There are those inherent challenges because of the closeness of Staten Island,” said Capt. Dominick D’Orazio, the commanding officer of the borough’s narcotics squad.

Most heroin gets to Staten Island by car and is delivered that way by the dealers who crisscross its neighborhoods, officials said.

“They’re not coming down with a kilo,” said Daniel M. Donovan Jr., the Staten Island district attorney. “They’re going uptown and getting an ounce and then breaking it out.”

Prosecutors and the police said they have noticed that violent drug gangs who have long operated on the north shore of the island — selling mostly crack and marijuana — are switching to selling heroin, where the profit is.

During a press conference in Staten Island, Deputy Chief Surgeon Charles Martinez holds up Naloxone (also known as Narcan), an antidote for heroin overdose. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

During a press conference in Staten Island, Deputy Chief Surgeon Charles Martinez holds up Naloxone (also known as Narcan), an antidote for heroin overdose. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

New York City authorities are moving to track the incoming, often prepackaged heroin. Investigators have had some success in turning small-time players to catch those coming onto the island with greater quantities. The goal is to follow the trail back to the major suppliers in the city, who are believed to be primarily in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, where the police have discovered the city’s largest heroin mills.

That many middle-class Staten Island families send their kids to Brooklyn for treatment speaks to the pervasiveness of the problem and the shame it carries in an insular borough. “Families generally feel better when their child is out of the community,” said Karen J. Carlini, the associate director at Dynamic.

Last year, parents began gathering informally in the backyard of Alicia Reddy’s home in the Huguenot neighborhood. A registered nurse with experience in detox, Ms. Reddy, 44, had been fielding so many calls from parents about addiction, she said, that she decided to hold a monthly meeting to provide information.

“A big factor was that parents were ashamed,” she said.

As the problem worsened, the gatherings quickly outgrew her yard. They are now held at a nearby school, attached to Our Lady Star of the Sea, a Roman Catholic church on Amboy Road, two miles down from a tight cluster of businesses — a decorator, a barber shop, a bagel store — tied in recent years to illegal pill sales, guns or heroin.

Nearby, in the basement of the church rectory, a Pills Anonymous group meets. On a recent Tuesday night, 36 people gathered, describing feelings of helplessness, as well as the strength they found in one another. The program’s 12 steps, written out by hand, hung on a table at the front.

Brandon told his story of repeated episodes of treatment and relapse. In an interview after the meeting, he said that he has been clean for nearly a year, since June 16, 2013.

He counted at least 10 people who he knew had died from pill or heroin overdoses, including an acquaintance from high school he saw again while in treatment for heroin. The classmate died last month.

“There’s no reason that I’m different from Adam,” he said. “I should be dead too.”

VIA NY Times