SOUTHOLD, N.Y. — The 911 calls to the Southold Town Police Department began to pour in on a Wednesday. And for three days they did not stop.
Female, 34, Greenport Village, unresponsive.
Male, 25, Southold, unresponsive.
Male, 30, Southold, unresponsive.
Male, 27, Greenport Village, unresponsive.
Male, 32, East Marion, unresponsive.
Male, 40, Shelter Island, unresponsive.
By Friday at least eight people in the string of small towns along Long Island’s North Fork had overdosed, and six of them — none older than 40 — were dead. Their deaths were caused, police said, by cocaine laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times more powerful than heroin.
They left behind a seaside enclave wreathed in grief that feels both familiar and confounding: Nearly 3,000 people have died from overdoses in Suffolk County over the last decade. But what’s new is the drug cocktail that killed the six in mid-August: cocaine adulterated with highly lethal fentanyl, which delivers a cheap and powerful high and was in the past more commonly mixed into heroin.
The tragedy in Suffolk County, according to police and prosecutors, reflects an emerging and dangerous shift in the street-drug marketplace, a trend that has grown in the past year as dealers have been affected by the same pandemic-linked issues plaguing global supply chains and driving up prices.
Some have turned to substitutes like fentanyl — cheaper and more readily available than cocaine or heroin — to bulk out their wares, keeping their supply of drugs flowing, whatever the human cost. But even a speck of fentanyl can kill.
“The same market forces that are causing shortages in everyday products are also putting pressures on the drug markets,” said Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney. “All the while we have seen demand skyrocketing from users because of the impact the pandemic has had on them.”
The presence of fentanyl in Southold is nested in an even larger-scale tragedy gripping the county and the country: the opioid epidemic that hooked hundreds of thousands of people on prescription pain pills. Last month, New York State, including hard-hit Suffolk and Nassau Counties, wrested a $1 billion settlement from the drugmakers, distributors and purveyors of prescription opioids to mitigate the harm that stemmed from their role in the epidemic.
Preliminary data from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that in 2020, the highest number of people ever recorded died from an overdose in the United States — 93,000, a nearly 30 percent increase over the previous year.
On the North Fork, the dead were not hardened addicts but mostly recreational users, police said, seeking a fleeting high. Behind the brief descriptions in the police reports were rich and varied lives: a sometime jewelry maker from Tehran who loved heavy metal music, and a restaurant worker and fashion plate rarely seen without his gold lamé boots. A Jamaican chef with a special knack for sourdough, and a landscaper who always answered the phone with a joke. A woman who loved goth makeup, whose mother called her “noodle.” A new father of a 6-month-old boy.
Several other people also overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine between Aug. 11 and Aug. 13, according to the Southold police; emergency responders resuscitated them with naloxone, or Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose.
Family members of those who died blamed the dealers. “They poisoned them to make money,” said Seth Tramontana, whose 27-year-old son, also named Seth, died on Aug. 13 after ingesting cocaine, which his family believes he did not know had been doctored with fentanyl. “You can say he made his choice and did what he was doing to have fun — but this is not what he asked for.”
The trend is not limited to Suffolk County. In February, the San Francisco Department of Public Health issued a public health warning following a slew of fentanyl overdoses by people who believed they had consumed only cocaine. Authorities in Nebraska issued a similar warning in August after 26 overdoses in three weeks were linked to fentanyl-laced cocaine.
In New York City, users passed warnings across social media in the spring about “bad batches” of cocaine containing the drug, urging one another to check cocaine for the presence of fentanyl using testing kits designed for the purpose.
“People who use cocaine think that the overdose epidemic is not relevant to them,” said Dr. Chinazo O. Cunningham, executive deputy commissioner in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In 2017, just 17 of the city’s overdose deaths were from cocaine combined with fentanyl; that number rose to 183 in 2019, the last year for which data was available. “Part of the problem nationally is that the narrative has been around opioids, and what we’ve seen is that it’s not just opioids — it’s cocaine,” she said.
A few days after the chain of deaths on Long Island, two men, Lavain Creighton, 51, of Greenport, and Justin Smith, 46, of Smithtown, were arrested. Mr. Creighton was charged with several counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance; in a news conference, the district attorney said Mr. Creighton sold the drugs that caused at least two of the fatal overdoses, based on text message exchanges and other communication.
Mr. Smith was charged with possessing drugs and drug paraphernalia. Anthony Scheller, Mr. Smith’s lawyer, said his client did not sell the drugs. “He feels terrible for those people,” Mr. Scheller said. “But he had no involvement.” A lawyer for Mr. Creighton did not return a request for comment.
Suffolk County has aggressively pushed to hold dealers accountable for overdose deaths, obtaining a manslaughter conviction for a dealer in 2017, the first in the state. The county has successfully prosecuted just three similar cases since then.
Prosecutors say they are hampered in holding dealers accountable because to successfully argue manslaughter they must prove that the dealer acted recklessly.
Shortly after the spate of deaths, Long Island state legislators made a renewed push for a “Death by Dealer” law, which would allow prosecutors to level felony homicide charges at drug dealers and impose stiffer sentences. Since 2011 about half of all U.S. states have adopted similar laws, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization.
But critics argue that such legislation does not prevent overdose deaths and conversely may increase the risk by making people afraid to call for help when someone is overdosing because of fear of reprisal.
Increasing access to fentanyl testing kits and naloxone is a better way to head off tragedies like those on Long Island, said Grey Gardner, a senior staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance.
“What we need to be doing is doing a better job as a country, as a society, helping people know when their supply is tainted, and having safe places for people to use to prevent overdose,” he said.
On Aug. 12, a victim with the initials M.L. received a text message from a friend warning him about the presence of fentanyl in cocaine he had purchased from Mr. Creighton, prosecutors said. But by the time it was sent, the man was already dead.
The police would not confirm M.L.’s identity. But the initials matched those of one of the men who died that day: Matthew Lapiana, a landscaper. His friend Clarisse Stevens said he was a whiz at cooking Italian food who always answered the phone with a goofy joke.
Ms. Stevens was outraged at those who provided the fentanyl-laced drugs. “You put it in your supply, and then you sell it and then people die, it’s because it came from your hands,” she said. “They should definitely be charged with murder.”
Following the six deaths, police and social service organizations fanned out across Southold, handing out Narcan kits and offering workshops on how to administer the anti-overdose drug.
Local newspapers and social media feeds were crammed with obituaries, funeral notices, and tributes: Nicole Eckardt, Fausto Rafael Herrera Campos, Swainson Brown, Matthew Lapiana, Seth Tramontana, Navid Ahmadzadeh.
They had been linked by small-town life; some were distant cousins, others former co-workers. Now they were joined in death.
Sitting on their porch on 5th Street in Greenport, Mr. Tramontana’s grandparents, Richard and Joan Olszewski, clung to memories of their 27-year-old grandchild, whom everyone called Boogie.
They recalled how Boogie sang his way through the quaint fishing village in battered gold boots he patched with duct tape. How Boogie always slipped out after Christmas dinner to bring a plate of his grandmother’s cooking to a friend who struggled with the holiday season.
“He did what he was put on this earth to do,” Mrs. Olszewski, 74, said. “Make all these people realize how wonderful they were.”
At the Pridwin hotel on Shelter Island, Glenn Petry, a co-owner, was saving a single jar of sourdough starter, left behind by his friend and head chef, Swainson Brown. When he could tear himself away from fishing, Mr. Brown, 40, had turned the kitchen of the hotel into a laboratory of dishes of his own devising.
“We’d say, ‘Swainson, that’s not exactly what we are looking for,’” Mr. Petry recalled, “And he’d say, ‘Taste it’ — and it would be like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
He paused. “It breaks my heart now we are at this point eulogizing this young guy,” Mr. Petry said.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.