Ronnie Cunningham resided at 62 Water Street in Elizabethtown.
ELIZABETHTOWN — A local man awaiting trial on drug charges has been hit with another round of felony charges relating to narcotics and weapons.
State police arrested Ronnie Cunningham, 54, on Thursday, July 31, at the Essex County Jail where he was awaiting trial of a series of charges stemming from getting nabbed in June with 15 bags of heroin and $5,600 in cash.
Thursday’s arrest warrant, issued by Essex County Court for two third-degree counts each of criminal sale and possession, stems from an investigation by the state police and Essex County Sheriff’s Department.
A separate investigation stuck Cunningham with an additional three charges: Criminal Possession of a Weapon 4th Degree, Private Sale or Disposal of a Firearm and Criminal Possession of Stolen Property 4th Degree.
Cunningham was arraigned at the Essex County Court on Friday. Specific details on those charges were not available by the time this story went to press.
Janice Hutchins lives across the street from the house on Water Street where Cunningham, who moved to Elizabethtown from Lake Placid last year, allegedly opened up a drug distribution center.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.
Hutchins moved to the area in 1961.
“We had the best neighborhood anywhere in the world,” she said. “Houses full of kids, everyone knew each other. It was nothing like it is now.”
On the tree-lined strip, real estate signs advertising empty houses, some with overgrown and unkempt lawns, were more common than children, even on a bright summer morning. Storefronts sat vacant on cracked and uneven sidewalks, many with shabby-looking edifices.
Hutchins said she heard rumors about 62 Water Street, the alleged drug house.
“But you can’t believe everything you hear,” she said. “There was quite a lot of activity in and out of there. What puzzled me was they left three floodlights on all night long.”
Hutchins said she asked her daughter for insight.
“Those lights indicated the product was in and available,” Hutchins said.
“Every once in a while, I’d be woken up in the middle of the night by car doors slamming,” she said.
The house, a handsome-looking log cabin, now sits empty. Hutchins recalled a break-in last month and noted a step-up of police patrols in the neighborhood.
“I would hate to get on the wrong side of these people.”
Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague said her office has seen a significant influx of heroin arrests within the past three months, about three times the average. Arrests stem from undercover operations to traffic stops, including the one that nailed Cunningham in June.
Sprague said her office has historically struggled to determine how much heroin, which is sold in tenths of a gram in packages called “bindles,” constitutes personal use as opposed to the intent to distribute.
A new package of bills pitched by the state legislature and approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June established new guidelines.
The new law provides that possession of 50 or more packages of a Schedule I opium derivative, or possession of $300 or more worth of such drugs, is presumptive evidence of a person’s intent to sell.
“This gives us a bit more bite to the outcome,” said Sprague.
In addition to the provisions designed to help law enforcement step up their efforts, the new batch of laws is paired with measures designed to support addiction treatment, expand public education campaigns and allow more access to naloxone, an antidote used to reverse potentially fatal overdoses.
Sprague said the state is also leaning toward drug treatment rehabilitative measures for repeat offenders, including drug courts.
This push toward rehabilitation often makes it difficult to separate addicts from hardened criminals who want to take advantage of the new measures to get lighter sentences.
“It’s a tricky thing,” she said.
Sprague urged residents to be diligent and patient.
“We’re working hand-in-hand with law enforcement to combat the dissemination the best we can,” Sprague said.
Sprague encouraged residents to continue to call both her office and law enforcement agencies to report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.
“We urge everyone to feel comforted that we are continuing to work at it to build cases that will stand up in court,” Sprague said.
State Sen. Betty Little, a co-sponsor of the new legislation, called the drug problem “a crisis” and attributed part of the uptick in heroin arrests to the I-STOP program that established a real-time monitoring system among the state’s pharmacies to crack down on the doctor shopping that allowed addicts to obtain large quantities of highly-addictive opiate-based prescription painkillers.
The cut-off of that supply has left many addicts turning to heroin, a cheaper and readily-available alternative that law enforcement officials say is making its way up the Northway from downstate.
New York has seen a 40 percent increase in heroin and prescription opiate treatment admissions in the past decade. Little said on Friday she is working on securing funds to open a new detox program in CVPH to help combat the epidemic.
“These are just heartbreaking stories,” she said on Friday. “It’s hitting everyone.”