TOMS RIVER – It started with a routine drug bust in Lakewood, that then led law enforcement to Jackson, to Monmouth County, to Middlesex County, up to the Bronx, and somewhere overseas. That led to 28 drug arrests, three fugitive warrants issued, and nine illicit drug facilities taken down in what the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office dubbed Operation “Heading Back.”
Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato, flanked by law enforcement officers from all over the state, announced the spoils of the operation to a packed press conference March 9 at the county administration building. He was also joined by New Jersey DEA special agent Valerie A. Nickerson and First Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Davenport.
The operation began back in April 2017, focusing on a panoply of illicit drug distributors found in seven New Jersey counties—Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic, Union— and the Bronx in New York. The prosecutor’s special operations group, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Ocean/Monmouth High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force and 30 state, county, and local law enforcement agencies worked together.
In addition to the arrests and warrants, more than 90,000 dosage units of heroin, more than 19 lbs. of cocaine, 20 fire arms, 27 mostly high-end vehicles, and $848,481 were seized. Locally, search warrants were executed in Brick, Howell, Jackson, Lakewood and Toms River. One local production facility found on East Connecticut Concourse in Jackson was dismantled.
Coronato said Sen. Cory Booker and Reps. Tom MacArthur and Chris Smith were instrumental in getting Ocean County its HIDTA designation, which allowed this operation to take place.
“Our acceptance into the U.S. Drug Enforcement High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Northern Group last year has increased tenfold our scope and ability to conduct investigations limiting the import of illegal narcotics into Ocean County and beyond,” Coronato said. “Today marks the disclosure of the first of many significant future narcotic operations, adding to our already robust enforcement of our drug laws and the drug-induced death strict liability statute. We’re sending a clear message to drug dealers that Ocean County is not fertile ground for their enterprise.”
This was easily the largest drug bust in Ocean County in the last 30 years, if ever, the prosecutor said.
He reiterated that Ocean County is often seen as “Ground Zero” of the opioid epidemic, something he is tackling with his “three block” system: prevention and education, strong law enforcement, and breaking the cycle of addiction. The county led the state in opioid deaths in 2016, but saw a sharp decrease in 2017. The county was the first to use Narcan, but also saw a reduction in Narcan use in 2017.
Petty thefts, shoplifting, and larceny is also down, Coronato said.
“This investigation is yet another example of how collaboration between law enforcement agencies on all levels can make a greater impact on the State of New Jersey,” Nickerson said.
Davenport echoed both Coronato and Nickerson, praising the collaboration of all levels of law enforcement to stop drug trafficking.
“The effects of criminal organizations like this one aren’t just felt in Ocean County, and as you’ve heard, throughout the state and beyond,” Davenport said. “On behalf of Attorney General [Gubir] Grewal, I commend the state, local and federal law enforcement officers involved in this investigation, not just for their hard work, commitment and excellent results here, but for their interagency cooperation.”
Locally, the Ocean County Regional Special Weapons & Assault Team, county Prosecutor’s Financial Crimes Unit, county Sheriff’s Department, and the police departments from Waretown, Barnegat, Beach Haven, Howell, Lacey, Lakewood, Lakehurst, Long Beach, Manchester Township, Seaside Heights, Ship Bottom, Stafford Township, and Toms River participated.