In January 2014, law enforcement authorities on the West Coast discovered more than 15 pounds of cocaine being readied for shipment from a Los Angeles-area seafood warehouse. The destination was more than 2,000 miles away, in Western New York.
Six months later, Nebraska State Patrol intercepted another shipment that originated in California – this time 24 pounds of cocaine and 33 pounds of heroin. Again, the illegal narcotics were headed to Western New York for distribution.
And this past March, Buffalo police made an even bigger find inside a Folger Street home – 48 pounds of cocaine, 4 pounds of heroin and 17 pounds of fentanyl.
Federal officials in Western New York now say all of those drugs stemmed from a single drug-trafficking organization, and a federal grand jury recently indicted five people in connection with the alleged drug ring. The seizures amounted to $3.5 million worth of drugs being removed from the streets of Western New York.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. on Wednesday said the 17 pounds of fentanyl alone would have amounted to 200 to 300 million “hits” of the lethal drug for area users.
“We have not only stopped a particular drug-trafficking organization that trafficked in heroin, fentanyl and cocaine simultaneously, but we have, in fact, recovered the largest quantities of drugs ever seized in the United States when you look at these three drug seizures combined,” Hochul said.
Indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin, fentanyl and cocaine were Herman E. Aguirre, 41, of Brea, Calif.; Troy R. Gillon, 41, of Lockport; Darryl J. Williams, 43, of Williamsville; Maulana Lucas, 41, of Niagara Falls; and Shirley Grigsby, 40, of Buffalo. The indictment was filed last week in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York. Two other defendants, Trent A. Hamilton and Michael P. Mitchell, also were arrested in March in connection with the case.
More indictments are possible against other suspects, said John Flickinger, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo.
Flickinger described the defendants as “high-level” drug dealers who were part of a sophisticated distribution network that used shell produce and seafood companies in California to accept millions of dollars in drug money collected in Western New York.
“We were able to take off the largest dealers in Western New York, distributing to Niagara County and Erie County. In addition to that, we were able to cut off the organization at its head and take off at least one of the Mexican sources of supply in California,” he said. “So, hopefully, by taking off the source of supply in California, we were able to have a more significant dent than is customary in investigations like this.”
Despite the seizures, an epidemic of opiate abuse continues in Western New York, with 90 overdose deaths in Erie County already this year. That reality tempered the enthusiasm of authorities battling the flow of drugs into the area. Hochul said the huge seizures are “symptomatic of the apparent insatiable demand” for the drugs.
“Here you have an organization that had already suffered two substantial seizures – in California and then again in Nebraska – continue to sell the drugs, continue to ship the drugs to the point where we have over 30 kilograms … still being shipped here,” Hochul said. “And we also continue to read about overdose deaths from opiates. So while it’s very good news, it’s got to be considered sobering as well.”
Authorities have not yet determined whether drugs sold by the indicted defendants resulted in any area overdose fatalities. Lockport Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert said his department is still investigating whether any drug-related deaths in Lockport could be traced back to the dealers listed in the indictment.
Since the massive March drug seizure in Buffalo, Eggert said his police force has seen a dip in drug overdoses and overall crime. “If you can dry up the supply, it does have a positive impact in the community,” he said.
But Eggert isn’t sure how long that will last, given the nature of drug addiction. “You still have the demand there, so all it really takes, unfortunately, is someone else to step up and fulfill that demand,” he said.
Dr. Howard K. Hitzel, president of Lake Shore Behavioral Health, a nonprofit agency that provides treatment and counseling for substance abuse, said his counselors are seeing more opiate heroin addiction than ever.
“These are terrible addictions, and people physically crave these drugs. That’s what makes it so dangerous,” he said. “Whatever efforts law enforcement can do to disrupt supply or intimidate the dealers, they have to push back on that.”
Citizens can assist in the fight against the flow of drugs into the community by helping steer friends and families who are addicted toward treatment, he added.
Authorities identified two of the defendants, Gillon and Williams, as the local suppliers and Aguirre as the Mexican supplier.
“They were literally the ones coordinating with Mexican cartels, importing the narcotics to Western New York,” Flickinger said.
Hamilton and Mitchell distributed the drugs primarily in Lockport and Niagara Falls, while Lucas and Grigsby used the modest home at 98 Folger St. in South Buffalo as a “stash house” for drugs. Buffalo police located the fentanyl, cocaine and heroin in duffle bags in Grigsby’s first-floor bedroom, after receiving a 911 call about a family dispute at the home. They later located Lucas in Niagara Falls, where they found a bag with $99,980 in cash in a rental car.
Federal officials have tracked at least $13 million that flowed from a bank in Western New York back to the fronting companies, Triton Seafoods, Fresh Choice Produce and Kamora Investments.
“Although they were holding themselves to financial institutions as a seafood company, it wasn’t proceeds from seafood or produce or anything like that. It was just drug proceeds,” Flickinger said.
“This was a prolific organization,” he added.