The calls and texts came at an alarming rate, almost 1,000 a day, according to investigators.
And they all wanted the same thing – heroin.
A Buffalo-based drug ring accused of serving up to 200 heroin users a day was broken up Thursday with the arrest of three men charged with leading the organization, investigators say.
The customers were “students in their 20s and suburban professionals in their 50s,” said John Flickinger, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Buffalo.
Investigators said the heroin operation is one of the largest they have come across in terms of the number of customers served by a single organization.
Described as a 24-hour operation, the heroin network sold between 400 and 500 doses of heroin each day and relied on runners to deliver the drugs to customers, many of them from affluent suburbs such as Clarence, Hamburg and Orchard Park, investigators say.
“It shows the epidemic level we’re at with heroin,” said State Police Lt. Kevin Reyes.
Investigators say the operation was headed by four men – one of them still at large – who operated out of stash houses in Buffalo but serviced a customer base from as far away as Angola.
Customers would call or text a central cellphone number, place an order and then arrange to meet a runner near one of the stash houses in the city, investigators say.
“They were so busy they would meet people on the street all the time,” Flickinger said.
Investigators said the two-year-long investigation produced evidence of a sophisticated and highly aggressive drug operation with hundreds of customers scattered throughout the county.
They also described the organization as violent and indicated a weapon was seized as part of Thursday’s arrests.
Three of the four defendants – Daniel Molina-Rios, Orlando Rios and Jose Andujar, all of Buffalo – appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy and were ordered detained. A fourth man, Luis Montanez, is still being sought.
The four are accused of buying large quantities of heroin in New York City and breaking it down into smaller quantities for sale in Buffalo. They were arrested after search warrants were executed at their residences on Fillmore Avenue and Grant, Potomac and Gorton streets.
Charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute heroin, they face up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
The arrests came at a time when prosecutors and public health officials are warning addicts about the dangers of heroin now being sold on the streets and the numerous deaths associated with its use.
“Right now, heroin is an epidemic in Western New York and the rest of the nation,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Thursday.
Statistics from the Erie County Health Department indicate at least 16 people have died this year because of heroin and fentanyl, a drug often mixed with heroin. The county says there have been at least 18 other suspected but unconfirmed deaths connected to the two drugs.
Hochul asked for the public’s help in tackling the growing problem of fatal overdoses. Some officials think the number of fatal overdoses in Erie County linked to heroin and fentanyl could reach 200 this year, nearly double the 116 last year.
“We can’t do it alone,” Hochul told reporters. “Frankly, we need the public’s help.”
The charges against the four men are the result of an investigation by the DEA, State Police, Erie County Sheriff’s Office and police departments from Buffalo, Hamburg, Cheektowaga, Lackawanna, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Niagara Falls, Niagara County Sheriffs and U.S. Border Patrol.