Written by Paul Milo
A state investigatory agency has advised Gov. Chris Christie and other lawmakers to form an “opiod strike force” in order to combat the rising tide of illegal heroin and prescription drug use affecting every corner of the state, from wealthy suburbs to the inner city.“Scenes from an Epidemic: A Report on the SCI’s Investigation of Prescription Pill and Heroin Abuse,” released this month by the State Commission of Investigation, includes testimony from law enforcement officials, drug addicts, members of street gangs and physicians who operated so-called “pill mills,” where prescription drugs could be obtained under the guise of seemingly legitimate medical practices. The mills often have ties to organized crime, the report stated.
One doctor, Joseph Dituro, worked at bogus clinics in Wallington and Passaic, many of whose “patients” were homeless people regularly picked up from various locations in Newark, including the YMCA on Broad Street and St. John’s Soup Kitchen on Mulberry Street.
Dituro, who was paid up to $6,000 a week by members of the Russian mafia for his services, wrote thousands of prescriptions for the homeless men and women, all of whom were eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. The homeless were then allowed to keep the prescriptions in order to acquire powerful painkillers like Oxycodone, which they would sell or use themselves.
Dituro would then bill the government health insurance programs for phony exams, then pay off his gangster partners when he received the reimbursement checks. The scheme netted an estimated $1.6 million in fraudulent reimbursements over a 19-month period between 2010 and 2011.
“The flagrant and unbridled operation of this pill mill and others like it, the descent of sworn medical professionals into outright drug dealers, the intrusion of organized crime and other criminal elements into lucrative recesses of the healthcare industry to feed an epidemic of demand for drugs: These are among the key findings of the State Commission of Investigation’s ongoing probe of illegal trafficking in and abuse of prescription painkillers and other addictive narcotics,” the report’s authors stated.
Other “pill mill” scams described in the report were far less elaborate: Dr. Michael Lam, operating out of a spare office in Fort Lee, spent his days writing thousands of Oxycodone prescriptions for a fee of $130 each. Known as the “candy man,” Lam had built a client base reaching as far south as Ocean County by the time Fort Lee police arrested him in 2010.
Another Fort Lee pill mill, shut down by police last year, was operated by Dr. Kamil Mustafa and his partner, Joseph Gianetti, a former chiropractor who lost his license following a conviction for insurance fraud and who had once borrowed $100,000 from a loan shark with ties to the Genovese crime family.
The report also describes how a pill addiction can often tip over into heroin abuse. The drug, chemically similar to Oxycodone and other opiate-based medications, offers an even more powerful high than painkillers, and at a much lower price: a dose costs about as much as a pack of cigarettes, the report states.
Heroin, which once scared off many people fearful of injecting themselves with needles, is now available in a form pure enough to be snorted, convenience that is luring in users as young as 14 from throughout New Jersey. During a four-year period, nine recent high school graduates died from overdoses of painkillers, heroin or both in the rural Sussex County town of Vernon, which has less than 30,000 people.
“It’s everywhere,” Detective/Sgt. Brian Jernick, of the Vernon Township Police Department, told the commission.
“Heroin is here, and there is a lot of it,” said Lt. Thomas Dombrowski, of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
In affluent Hunterdon County, investigators recently arrested nearly 40 people involved with a lucrative heroin ring. A Monmouth County law enforcement official told the commission that drug activity is no longer confined to historically problem areas like Asbury Park, with routes 66 and 33 becoming popular drug corridors. Route 23, which winds through prosperous suburbs from Sussex to Essex counties, has now become known as “Heroin Highway,” the report’s authors said.
The commission also said the inner-city street gangs from cities like Trenton and Camden that largely control the trade are constantly upgrading their methods to thwart arrest. Cell phones loaded with prepaid minutes and that can be purchased without a contract—known on the street as “burners”—are used just a few times to conduct drug deals before they’re tossed. Drug deals are also done via text and even using the chat function on many home video game consoles, the commission said.
Drugs are being transported in vehicles equipped with “stash boxes,” secret compartments that can only be opened by a specific sequence of actions, like tuning in to a particular radio station, lowering a certain window and then activating the parking lights. Drugs contained in such boxes are often undetectable even by sniffer dogs.
The commission has made a number of recommendations, including outlawing stash boxes and regulating the sale of burners more closely. The commission also recommends providing law enforcement with greater access to a state-managed database that tracks prescriptions filled by pharmacies.Other measures include stiffer penalties for offenses involving heroin and required background checks of anyone employed by or associated with medical clinics.