For the first time since the current epidemic of fatal opiod overdoses began, a drug dealer is going to prison for selling the deadly cocktail that caused a death,
Peter N. Militello, a 34-year old Town of Tonawanda man, became the first defendant in Western New York to plead guilty to selling fentanyl-laced heroin that killed someone.
Militello admitted his role in the May 2013 death of Robert Runfola, a Buffalo man, as part of plea deal that could send him to prison for 30 years. Runfola was one of the first overdose victims to give a name and face to the recent rash of heroin-fentanyl deaths across the region.
“This is really an historic conviction,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. “We are now holding narcotic traffickers responsible for the lives of their customers."
Runfola’s death led to an investigation by the Buffalo Police and Drug Enforcement Administration that traced the drugs he took to Militello, who pleaded guilty Friday to distributing heroin and fentanyl.
Militello’s guilty plea is the first ever conviction in Buffalo federal court of a defendant who sold heroin-laced fentanyl that resulted in a death. He could have faced life in prison without parole if he had gone to trial and been convicted.
“The proof in this case was overwhelming,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Catherine Baumgarten.
Baumgarten said Militello sold the drugs to Runfola, who she identified in court as R.R., on May 23, 2013.
Runfola was found dead several hours later in his bedroom by his brother, the bags of heroin and fentanyl near his body.
Militello, who was a user and a dealer, said little during his appearance but his lawyer later acknowledged that the prosecution’s case against his client was overwhelming, which is why he took a plea.
“The evidence was very tough," said defense attorney Frank Falzone.
Militello, in his agreement with prosecutors, said he was aware of the presence of fentanyl-laced heroin on the streets of Buffalo and that it was popular among the heroin users he referred to as “fiends.” He also claims that he never thought the heroin he sold Runfola would kill him.
“He also didn’t know that batch of heroin contained fentanyl" Falzone said of the drugs his client sold that day in May.
Militello’s guilty plea came at a time when public health officials are warning of a growing number of heroin-fenatanyl deaths across the region.
“This is really a crisis in our community," said Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County’s Health Commissioner. “We’re seeing a high percentage of these cases."
Burstein said the county had 138 confirmed deaths last year due to opiate overdoses and indicated the number could rise as high as 200 this year if current trends continue.
The sudden arrival of heroin mixed with fentanyl has helped fuel that expected increase here and elsewhere across the country, especially in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, where the problem first became evident.
“It’s not just our problem," said John Flickinger, supervisory agent for the DEA in Buffalo. “It’s a national problem.” email: email@example.com