Editorial: Fentanyl-related arrests hark back to local horrors

In August 2021, a scourge of overdoses traced to fentanyl-laced cocaine led to six deaths in Southold Town and Shelter Island. Four of them occurred on just one day.

Overdose fatalities, and overdoses in which victims were saved by first responders, weren’t uncommon on the North Fork‚ but Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said at the time that the town had never seen anything so horrific in so few days.

Suffolk District Attorney Raymond Tierney’s announcement Monday of a 197-count indictment charging 21 defendants with narcotics and weapons charges has certainly brought home the horror of what our region — and the country — has been confronting.

The broad indictment includes conspiracies to distribute both narcotics and firearms and covers more than 60 criminal acts dating back to December 2021, four months after the local deaths in Southold and Shelter Island.

One of the 21 defendants is charged with selling fentanyl that led to the fatal overdose of a 25-year-old woman in a Ronkonkoma motel last November. Another defendant, identified in a release from the DA’s office as Terrence Lee, 33, of Riverhead, faces up to 25 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy in the second degree. The release says Mr. Lee is not in custody.

There are families across the North Fork who have buried loved ones who died from overdoses. Many first responders across the region have spoken about racing to the scene of an overdose to rescue a victim with the nasal spray Narcan, which is now found in many businesses and restaurants and through law enforcement.

In one case several years ago, first responders were called to the same Cutchogue residence twice in one day to administer Narcan to two residents who had overdosed.

In 2022, approximately 350 fentanyl-related deaths occurred in Suffolk County. The county health department does not release town-by-town data. But as Mr. Tierney’s release states, “That is more young people from Suffolk County than those who died during all the years of the Vietnam war put together.

“Fentanyl is involved in more deaths of Americans under 50 than any other cause of death, including heart disease, cancer, homicide, suicide, firearms and accidents,” he said.

Overall, Mr. Tierney’s release is a catalogue of horrors, from overdose deaths to firearms trafficking. In a nation awash in guns, armed drug-selling gangs add another level of horror to this American story. 

The release describes officers making one arrest and also finding in the defendant’s home a “loaded AK-47 assault rifle, a loaded Taurus 9mm handgun, a loaded Taurus .38 Special revolver, several large-capacity firearms, matching ammunition and narcotics packaging materials.”

This is how The Suffolk Times reported the August 2021 flurry of overdose deaths:

“The chief said the horror began seven days ago with the overdose of a 69-year-old man in Mattituck who was given Narcan by officers and survived. The chief said that night a 27-year-old male in Southold overdosed and died, and this was followed by a 28-year-old male from Southold. Of the four deaths on Friday, one was in Greenport Village, one was in East Marion, a third in Southold and the fourth on Shelter Island. A second survivor suffered an overdose in the King Kullen parking lot in Cutchogue and was treated with three doses of Narcan.

“It was one after another,” the chief said. “These are people who fly under the radar. Some live with their families and family members knew there was a problem.”

As for the likely source, the chief said it “reached the East End and it could be anywhere.”

It is everywhere.