LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Prosecutor announces largest Ocean County drug bust

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

“This clearly was a very sophisticated drug network. It was based on dollars, it was based on profit,” said Ocean County Prosecutor Joe Coronato.

Coronato said investigators busted a far-flung criminal business enterprise — drug operations across seven New Jersey counties and the Bronx who took orders for heroin, cocaine, pills, whatever you wanted. Brokers went straight to the source.

“They were true business dealers. And they would go in and negotiate with different drug dealers to get the better price and get the quality and, when they could, get the quantity,” said Coronato. “So one time, they’d go to one drug dealer for their cocaine, if they didn’t get a good enough price, they would go to the other drug dealer.”

Coronato said customers could even complain about product performance.

“After a period of time, if they weren’t happy with the quality of what they had, they would go back and they would hold them accountable for the type of drugs they had. It was a very sophisticated, driving, businesslike network,” he said.

Dubbed “Operation Heading Back,” the bust yielded 28 arrests. Investigators seized 90,000 doses of heroin, 19 pounds of cocaine, plus 20 guns, diamond jewelry, $848,000 in cash and 27 cars, including an $80,000 Jaguar. It closed down nine alleged drug mills in six New Jersey towns including Piscataway, where local police got involved.

“Actually, I was a little dismayed when I found out the extent of what was occurring in Piscataway,” said the town’s Police Chief Scott Cartmell. “It also opened up our eyes to more of the networking now and, as the prosecutor referred, how the drugs are distributed. The days of the street level drug dealing are pretty much nonexistent anymore.”

“The drug dealers change, police work has to change to stay on top of things. I just think it was a great team effort,” said Piscataway Police Department Lt. Warren Morrison.

Coronato noted “Operation Heading Back” got its name from their determination to trace local Ocean County drug sales back to the ultimate source. The undercover operation started last April with a single drug surveillance case in Lakewood, and its scope at the end was international. The prosecutor drew upon resources from its membership in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force and 30 law enforcement agencies.

“This is clearly the largest drug investigation, drug bust, I would say, in Ocean County at least for 30 years and probably ever. And it’s all because of the people who are in this room,” said Coronato.

“The DEA Monmouth Ocean HIDTA Task Force was formed for this exact reason, to bring additional resources to aid in the fight against drug trafficking,” said Valerie Nickerson, special agent in charge with the DEA New Jersey Division.

“Quite honestly, we never could’ve done this ourselves. We wouldn’t, as a local Prosecutor’s Office, have the capabilities. That’s why I’m so proud of the people that stand behind me.”

The investigation is ongoing. Three suspects remain at large with more charges expected to be filed.