New York's Heroin Factories: Drug 'Mills' Feed City's Ravenous Demand
NEW YORK -- In many ways, the reputed drug dealers on Grandview Place were good neighbors.
Their two-story, red-brick home in the New York City suburb of Fort Lee, N.J., looked perfectly ordinary with its white trim, gable porch and manicured shrubbery. Neither noise nor sketchy visitors were an issue, authorities say.
The only sign that something was amiss was the rented van that would disappear into a lower-level garage each day. The driver's job: To deliver immigrant workers from the inner city to package heroin in thousands-upon-thousands of glassine envelopes stamped with catchy logos like "LeBron James" and "Roger Dat."
The Fort Lee operation represented the new, more serene face of the ever-thriving heroin trade in the New York City area, the drug's national epicenter, according to the Manhattan-based narcotics investigators who shut it down.
"It can still be a violent, dirty business, but it's changed," said Bill Cook, a veteran investigator with the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for New York City.
Absent are scenes out of films like "American Gangster," with kingpins flaunting their wealth, settling turf wars with brazen gunplay and serving a clientele of strung-out junkies queuing up to buy low-grade product.
The new business model calls for more discretion and discipline, and better branding and quality control. The heroin is purer and the users more mainstream, including college students and professionals who snort rather than shoot up. Many have seamlessly transitioned to heroin after first getting hooked on prescription painkillers belonging to the same opiate family.
Compared to past eras marked by images junkies cooking the drug with a dirty spoon, heroin "doesn't have the same stigma attached to it," said John Gilbride, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York office.
Authorities say more abuse by a broader customer base has taken a devastating human toll that's difficult to measure. Rehab centers have told them that more people are seeking treatment, and there have been recent reports of fatal heroin overdoses by teenagers on Long Island and Westchester County.
That hasn't discouraged retailers – mainly Dominican immigrants supplied with Colombian heroin by Mexican cartels – from steadily expanding their operations throughout the city and its suburbs.
"There are more mills, and they're better at what they do," Cook said.
Recent raids by the special prosecutor, DEA, New York Police Department and New York State Police have resulted in multiple arrests and larger and larger seizures. They've also given colorful insight into current operations.
One mill was located in a newly renovated apartment in midtown Manhattan that rented for $3,800 a month and was mere blocks from Times Square and Broadway theaters. Workers there used coffee grinders to cut the drug. They then filled glassines stamped with the brand names "Jersey Boys" – title of a hit musical – and "95 South" – a reference to the interstate served by the nearby Lincoln Tunnel.
In another mill on an 18th-floor apartment in upper Manhattan a sign read: "Clean Up After Yourselves – The Management." The wall of yet another Bronx mill displayed its menu of brand names, including "Lady Gaga" and "Charlie Sheen."
Farther north, a mill was discovered across the street from Manhattan College in a Bronx apartment building where students lived. Workers there wore school sweatshirts to try to blend in.
One heroin ring used an unlikely location for transactions: a Brooklyn neighborhood populated by young families living in renovated brownstones. A dealer riding a three-wheeled motorcycle and a helmet emblazoned with the heroin brand name "Sin City" would direct customers to an exact block – code-named "the office" – then pull up alongside their cars in the middle of traffic and exchange glassines for cash.
Authorities say a dramatic spike in the amount of drugs seized during the investigations shows that suppliers are working overtime to the meet the escalating demand and maximize profits.
"They're very savvy businessmen who have one thing in mind – making money," said Bridget Brennan, the special prosecutor.
In the past two years, Brennan's office has brought drug-dealing charges against at least 200 people associated with the mills. Many face deportation if convicted.
The DEA has seized about 205 pounds of heroin in New York City and the rest of the state so far this year, a pace that would eclipse the 278 pounds total last year and the 169 pounds in 2009. The seizures this year have accounted for a quarter of those for the entire nation.
The heroin flooding the region – sold in kilograms – carries an average wholesale price of about $60,000 per kilo. The retailers who package it can cut a kilo to a 50-percent purity level using powdered vitamin B or other nontoxic substances. That provides enough drugs to fill 30,000 single-dose glassine envelopes that would be sold for $5 each to street-level dealers, who in turn charge customers $10 to $15. In the end, after subtracting the cost of the kilo, wages and other expenses, the mill operator would turn a $70,000 profit per kilo.
With retailers determined to saturate the market, mill employees tend to work around-the-clock. Brennan compared them to factory workers who, unlike the old days, don't sample the product.
"They're not in it for the drugs," she said. "It's strictly for the dollars."
Workers can make up to $5,000 a week, depending on how many 12-hour shifts they work. Their employers often protect them from an occupational hazard – heroin dust – by installing ventilation systems or providing them with respirators. They're also given meals and toiletries to help make it through their shifts, authorities said.
In the case of the Fort Lee mill, there was free transportation as well. Surveillance photos from the Washington Heights section of Manhattan showed the workers congregating each day like day laborers to catch the shuttle van to work.
When authorities raided the home in April, they came across a scene emblematic of the current market: The young daughter of one of the mill workers was at the kitchen table eating cereal and watching cartoons. Sitting on the same table were two boxes stuffed with glassine envelopes.
About five pounds of heroin and $50,000 in cash were recovered.
Associated Press researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.