ELIZABETHTOWN — An assembly line of shackled individuals shuffled across Hon. Judge Richard B. Meyer’s courtroom at the Essex County Courthouse on Friday, March 21 for arraignment on felony drug charges.
Early this morning, 18 suspects were netted by raids conducted by a kaleidoscope of law enforcement agencies across the county — including the state police, town departments, the Adirondack Drug Task Force and the Essex County Sheriff’s Department — as part of a coordinated effort to identify, investigate and apprehend suspected narcotics dealers operating within the county.
The dates of the alleged crimes stretch back into last year and only now are suspects being brought up on multiple charges.
“This was part of a lengthy ongoing investigation of various individuals suspected of selling drugs in our communities,” Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague told the Valley News. “We will continue to collaborate with law enforcement agencies to make further arrests.”
Eight of the suspects are from the town of Moriah, seven are from Ticonderoga and one each from Auburn (Cayuga County), Hudson Falls (Washington County) and Saranac Lake, which spans both Essex and Franklin Counties.
During a break in Friday afternoon’s lengthy arraignment process, which was broken up into one two-hour session and another that lasted 90 minutes, New York State Police Captain Robert LaFountain said authorities typically try to conduct these operations twice per year and only do so when they’re confident that they have constructed solid cases that will hold up in court.
Authorities must offer a cautious approach that will not compromise ongoing investigations, he said.
“It really depends on the nature of each investigation. There are a number of considerations evaluated by law enforcement agencies and the DA’s office as to when arrests will take place.”
According to LaFountain, 50 law enforcement officials were involved in Friday’s arrests.
The arraignment process for each of the 17 suspects (Laurie B. Campney, who was reportedly in the county jail, was the only suspect who was not arraigned before Meyer on Friday) followed the same basic template:
The suspects, most clad in baggy county-issued jail uniforms and shackled at the waist, feet and wrists, were brought before Meyer, who then opened a sealed indictment before the court.
Meyer then asked the accused if they would like to review the indictment personally or have the charges read to them.
If the suspect opted for the latter, Meyer would briefly explain the charges — those explanations contained details of the date and location of the alleged crimes that were otherwise not made immediately available to the public — before explaining their legal rights and ascertaining if they required public counsel.
First Assistant District Attorney Michael Langley then presented the state’s suggestion for bond or bail for each defendant — the standard fee for each individual without prior convictions was $2500 cash bail (or $5000 insurance bond) — which would then be tweaked based on a set of variables, namely prior conviction records, current employment status, civic involvement, family dependents and a brief statement from the accused.
Based on the above, Meyer would then set bail and the next court date, most of which were set for Friday, March 28 to allow the defendants who, all of whom except two, needed time to obtain public counsel and start building a case.
All of the charges were felonies, the majority bundled into packs of two: Criminal sale of a controlled substance and criminal possession of that same substance.
Michael J. Rosselli, a International Paper staffer arrested at 6:45 a.m this morning on heroin charges, was the first defendant to be brought before Meyer:
Rosselli, 29, went through the process with his public attorney Julie Garcia before being dismissed to the holding room to Meyer’s left.
Most of the cases appeared to follow the same basic pattern:
According to their statements to the court, the defendants tended to be unemployed and living with family members; they were on disability and/or public assistance, arrested on opiate charges and appeared to be surprised that they got picked up for alleged crimes that took place months ago.
Joseph L. Gregory, from Port Henry, was arraigned on two counts of criminal sale and possession of hydrocodone, a prescription pain medicine, alleged to have taken place on Aug. 6, 2013.
“I’ve got a medical appointment at CVPH tonight,” he told the court. “I need access to my medication and I really need to be there because of my back.”
Meyers determined Gregory, 58, needed to be assigned public counsel and released him on his own recognizance.
Kathleen A. Savage, brought in on charges related to the alleged sale and possession of oxycodone on Aug. 5, 2013, appeared disoriented and confused:
“How did you come up with this?” she asked Meyer. “I just want to go home — I have mental health issues. I have panic attacks. I’m disabled and I need my medication.”
Bail was set at $2,500 and Savage, 47, was assigned public counsel and dismissed to await transport back to the county jail in Lewis.
Christine M. Sheldon, 41, picked up for the alleged sale and possession of oxycodone in Moriah on May 1, 2013, said she had no prior convictions. She told the court she was receiving mental health outpatient treatment at St. Joseph’s Treatment Center in Elizabethtown and staying in a motel with her son, a minor enrolled in PINS, a diversion program designed to keep at-risk youth out of juvenile justice facilities.
The two of them, she told the court, were trying to put their lives back together after the recent suicide of the child’s father.
“We’re just trying to get on our feet,” she said.
Bail was set at $2,500 and Sheldon, who was determined to be eligible for public counsel, was dismissed.
Port Henry resident Timothy K. Emmons, arrested on charges related to the alleged sale of tapentadol, an opioid analgesic commonly prescribed for pain relief, told Meyer that he is on disability for back problems and had a medical appointment scheduled for Thursday, March 27 at the VA.
Langey suggested bail at $10,000 cash/$5,000 insurance bond.
“Holy toledo!” he interjected. “He just wants me to sit in jail, but that’s okay,” he said.
Meyer reduced the amount by half and set Emmons’ next appearance for Friday, March 28.
Marcus A. Rancour, 42, said he “vaguely” understood the charges stemming from the alleged possession and sale of suboxone strips in Moriah on April 5, 2013.
“I hope to go back to work next month,” he said. “I work construction.”
Suboxone is an FDA-approved and regulated semi-synthetic opioid designed to treat opiate addiction, namely heroin, by weaning addicts onto what addiction specialists say is a safe and legal replacement to illicit substances.
Prescriptions have skyrocketed in the past decade, pushing out the previously utilized methadone, and its use is said to diminish the withdrawal symptoms that are common when addicts decide to stop using opiates.
Suboxone was responsible for the largest number of charges at the arraignment:
Seven defendants faced a total of 16 suboxone charges, followed by cocaine with 12, hydrocodone, tramadol, tapentadol, clonazepam and subutex, another opiate withdrawal aid similar to suboxone, with four and marijuana, meth and oxycodone with two each.
Aside from meth, cocaine and marijuana, the aforementioned narcotics are opiates, the class of drugs used in pain relief and the class to which oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin belong.
“This region has seen a surge in heroin use in recent years and prescription medication remains a significant problem,” said LaFountain.
Some of the suspects had outstanding cases, like Brandon W. Martinez, 26, the Moriah resident picked up for two counts related to crack cocaine. Martinez was found guilty by county court last December of one count of failure to provide sustenance to a dog, a misdemeanor under Agriculture and Markets Law 353-B, and was scheduled to be sentenced on Monday for one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
“I have a lawyer who was assigned counsel for another case and I have no idea why he’s not here,” he told Meyer during his arraignment.
Auburn resident Thomas R. Saerig, 24, brought in on marijuana charges, has been on probation since Dec. 2012 for growing-related charges and has, according to Langey, been arrested multiple times by Lake Placid and Saranac Lake authorities.
Damien Sprague, no relation to the DA, was brought in on four counts of criminal sale and possession of suboxone and meth and reportedly faces felony weapons charges in the Moriah town court.
Sprague, 20, was in the public spotlight last December after escaping a house fire in Moriah that killed 22-year-old Sierra Daha.
Narcotics investigations throughout the region are ongoing and similar raids will be conducted in the future, said LaFountain.
He said while he could not reveal the exact investigative tactics used by law enforcement agencies in Friday’s sweeps for safety reasons, he said that narcotics sales made today, for example, may be under surveillance and participants may be brought in on future raids.
“The only way that you can ensure you don’t end up in court in handcuffs is not to sell drugs,” he said.
A raid in Franklin County netted 21 suspects and more arrests related to today’s sting in Essex County are expected to be conducted shortly.
The Valley News will have more on this story as details continue to emerge.