A Tale of Two Heroin Arrests

Suburban Users Are Treated Differently

Friday, June 13, 2014

The pictures, name and age of all 325 people arrested in a heroin sweep were posted online, along with the names of the cities they live in. Its an effort to change the perception of heroin users. (Bergen County Prosecutor's Office)

If you want to buy heroin in North Jersey you go to Paterson – a largely low-income city with high crime.

“Heroin is being sold right across the street and we’re only a block away from the county jail,” said resident Joe Rabatin, standing on a street corner on Broadway.

“They see a young white girl driving through and they know exactly what you’re there for if you’re driving in that area,” says Kristen, a 25 year old recovering heroin user. “You give somebody money and they hand it to you. It’s a matter of minutes,” Kristen said.

The city sees a steady flow of buyers coming through from suburban towns. Last week, police arrested more than 40 dealers and 280 customers, and seized close to 12,000 bags of heroin. For the second time now, prosecutors published driver’s license photos of all the customers.

The publishing of the photos is part of a larger effort in suburban Bergen County to address a surge in heroin use. But while suburban users are being offered long-term treatment options to avoid a criminal conviction, those arrested in Paterson do not have that option.

How the Heroin Sweep Worked

Undercover police officers from affluent areas went to Paterson and waited for nice cars to drive by – they called them “suburban cars.” They watched people from the suburbs buy heroin. They followed them back to the towns the live in and handcuffed them there. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office posted photos with the each person’s name, age and city – and that was picked up by national news outlets. It was meant to send the message that the heroin problem is everywhere.

“I am literally the perfect example of that,” Kristen said. “I got a car when I was seventeen. I come from a good family. I lived in a nice home.” She checked herself in to a halfway house a few months before the Paterson heroin sweep.

“If I was out there right now, I would be one of those people because I went on a daily basis several times a day,” Kristen said. “I had a white Jeep Liberty, blasting my music. I had absolutely no fear at all.”

Kristen has a tattoo of the word “hope” on her left wrist. She has big green eyes, a short black bob and an awesome laugh. She started using prescription drugs like OxyContin and Roxicet as a teenager. She says one pill costs between $20 and $70 on the streets – depending on the strength.  

With a habit that was costing $300, she discovered heroin, which got her high for $40 a day. And as an underage teen, it was easier to get in Paterson than alcohol.

Heroin has led to 20 overdose deaths in Passaic County so far this year, according to prosecutors. In the more affluent Bergen County, there have been 17 deaths. Both are on track to surpass last year’s numbers. But suburban parents are in denial, said Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli.

“We grew up with an idea of what heroin was,” Molinelli said. “Heroin was nasty, it was dirty, the person who took it was a junkie, and it happened in the inner cities between alleyways.”

That’s why he posted the photos of all the users. So parents could see that many of those arrested in the sweep were in their 20s and from the suburbs. Molinelli received calls from irate parents, who were eventually convinced that their children had been battling a heroin addiction on their own.

“That’s the type of case I’m pleased with,” Molinelli said. “A young man in the early stages of heroin, mom hasn’t picked it up yet, now she knows. Now she becomes engaged, now she becomes involved.”

Caught in the sweep was a baseball prospect for the Philadelphia Phillies, a dental hygienist, an injured veteran, and a dad who left his two-year-old home alone while he went out to buy the drug. People from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina were arrested. And the 100 arrestees who live in Bergen County are now getting a better shot at getting clean.

Treatment vs Criminal Convictions ... For Some 

Currently, when someone is arrested for heroin possession, they’re convicted and usually get six months of probation. If they’re not arrested again during those six months, the case is dropped.

But Molinelli says that doesn’t treat the addiction. Starting with this sweep, heroin users in Bergen County will instead avoid a criminal conviction and be required to enroll in a drug treatment program for two or three years if they want to have their case dismissed. 

“Someone is going to fail before they will recover,” Molinelli said. “And we can’t simply throw them back in court if they fail.” For example, Kristen spent 9 months in Spring House, a drug rehab program, and still relapsed. “We need the time to be able to work with them,” said Sue Debiak, manager of the halfway house. “We can’t just let them go in 30 days because they’re out using again.”  

But the new treatment approach won’t be an option in Passaic County, home to Paterson, where 180 users were arrested. Users in the urban areas will still have a conviction. 

“Now that it’s starting to affect people in the suburban areas, now they want to do something about it,” said Joe Rabatin, who lives in the neighborhood and is a recovering heroin user. “And I think that’s a disgrace.”      


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Comments [7]

Homegrown from Paterson, NJ from Paterson, NJ

John Deer: you are a bit misguided. Paterson may not be ideal but far from a complete "dump". It has gone through a vast period of revitalization as evidenced by the tear-down of the Alexander Hamilton projects, the revitalized Great Falls project, and investment into the main city hospital and adjoining hotel construction. It does ultimately come down to a "disgrace" that affects us Patersonians deeply when we do not get the same passes as the people featured in the photo. If a person from the city itself has a blemish on their record while the affluent white individual gets off free, what kind of message does that send? "Sorry, but you need a little less melanin and a better zip code to avoid this?" Also, this comes off from years of comments from individuals from upper class areas near Paterson whom complain to me that Paterson is a dump but their sons and daughters are the ones fueling problems in our town. They get off their high horse on occasion only to then pick up drugs. For example, it's a huge item that a lot of Wayne High School students drive down to Paterson during their lunch period to pick up downtown. When these same users or families of users then get on their high horse, it gets me angry as they then have the gall to wonder why it's just so bad in Paterson. All of the money but none of the self-reflection it seems for these people.

Dec. 10 2014 12:48 PM
Karen from N.Y. Suburbs

Desperate times calls for desperate measures. Sad to say but Heroin is EVERYWHERE people. Every neighborhood. Every color. Everywhere. What would you do? Don't shoot the messenger.

Jun. 17 2014 08:39 PM
J. Reeves from New York

So these posted pictures of herion users, who are predominately white, is news. But when the problem was populated by people of color it was just what was expected. Now that the police force, predominately white, have to look for white users it's a problem. Shame on your reporter and NPR.

Jun. 14 2014 11:37 PM
John Deer

^ sorry man, but Paterson is a dump. No one is feeling guilty about reporting all of the crime and gang problems in Camden, Trenton, Newark, Paterson, Asbury... fact is we have huge ugly ghettos here in NJ.

Jun. 14 2014 10:57 AM
Margaret from Troy, NY

Shouldn't the story be why the treatment plan is not an option for those in Passaic county? Where those 180 people who probably need jobs the most, or need treatment equally, now have their record smeared with an arrest, barring them from opportunities that people with addiction or living in poverty need? I agree with Rabatin, this is a "disgrace."

Jun. 14 2014 09:25 AM
Mike Finegan from NJ

Having lived in Clifton for 60 years, just over the city line from Paterson, I have witnessed the dramatic change in the drug culture. Back in the 1960's, heroin was a inner city problem; heroin was not the drug of choice for suburban dwellers. Not so today; as a result of a long time friend's addiction, that friendship has been lost. Little did I know of her heroin addiction till she was caught in one of these stings. Of course denial is a big part of the problem. Often in such scenarios, the user finds excuses to justify their use and blames a innocent friend or family member for their problems. I have no answers to this problem; the lesson I have learned from life is that we all must confront our demons, till this happens, nothing will change.

Jun. 13 2014 01:43 PM
Concerned Citizen from Paterson, NJ

I'm not one to voice my opinions on social media but I just wanted to express my displeasure in listening to this report on Paterson this morning. I am from/ live in the area and I understand the prevalence of drugs in Paterson but the way in how this was reported this morning just felt sensationalized. I have driven through the streets of Rosa Parks Blvd and I am a Hispanic of very white complexion and have NEVER been "flagged" down or "chased" by some dealer to buy drugs. I don't even think the reporter even made it a point to act as if she was actually purchasing/looking for drugs, so how is it possible to even discern that whoever was flagging her down was a dealer? Believe me, I know where I live and it isn't picture perfect but how about doing more research on the topic, rather than focusing on what would seem most captivating to your more affluent listeners.

The report should have directed its focus on how rehabilitation of former drug addicts would be beneficial to all (both Bergen and Passaic Counties). Or discuss how the Paterson Police Department barely has a police force , which allows for such rampant criminal activity in all sectors of the city. This report allows for people to continue to marginalize this city, which is a shame.

Jun. 13 2014 11:51 AM

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