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Friday, March 18, 2011

Ruthless suspects in Staten Island prescription drug bust preyed on South Shore addicts, authorities allege

A band of mob-linked drug dealers turned a Lickety Split ice cream truck into a rolling pharmacy catering to the borough’s painkiller addicts, according to city and state narcotics investigators.
After the children got their soft serve, the real customers would move in, buying oxycodone for about $20 a pill.
Today, the city’s Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor announced the indictment of 31 people involved in keeping the truck supplied with pills, including the office manager at a Manhattan orthopedic surgeon’s office, a drug-addicted Luchese family soldier, and the truck’s driver.
The group recruited 28 "runners" — many of whom were addicts and desperate for money — to fill more than 300 bogus prescriptions from a pad stolen from the surgeon’s office, prosecutors said.
It turned into a million-dollar operation, authorities allege, and opened a spigot on Staten Island over the course of a year in 2009 and 2010 that poured 42,755 oxycodone pills into a borough already in the throes of an prescription drug abuse epidemic.

Staten Island drug dealers sold oxycodone from ice cream truck in $1M operation, authorities say  
Staten Island drug dealers sold oxycodone from ice cream truck in $1M operation, authorities say
As prosecutors tell it Joseph Zaffuto, 39, of Darnell Place in Charleston, a Luchese thug, had gone to the surgeon’s office for treatment. There, he met Nancy Wilkins, 40, of Highland Park, Brooklyn, the office manager.
Zaffuto — who in the early 2000s was tagged by feds as the muscle in a Long Island Mafia family — himself has an addiction to prescription painkillers, and had also used cocaine and marijuana while on federal probation in 2008 and 2009, according to court papers.
Ms. Wilkins sold prescription pads to Zaffuto and Louis Scala, 29, of Bedell Street in Pleasant Plains, who wound up running the operation, according to prosecutors.
Scala ran an ice cream truck that served the South Shore, and customers knew to wait in certain spots for the truck to arrive. The truck sold primarily around Scala and Zaffuto’s Charleston and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods, and it dealt mainly with friends, neighbors and relatives, prosecutors said.
Scala would often park right on Zaffuto's block on Darnell Lane, and the two were ruthless in how they found their customers, said city Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan.
"They knew who in the neighborhood was an addict, addicted to oxycodone, or who was in desperate financial straits," Ms. Brennan said.
They'd sell to members of the same family and watch the addictions spread throughout the neighborhood, she said, and when their customers became more dependent on the painkiller, they'd up the price.
"It's a community of close-knit neighborhoods," Ms. Brennan said of Staten Island. "And when the addiction got to a certain neighborhood, you could see it spread out from there."
Many of the customers were recruited to fill bogus prescriptions from the stolen pads, and were paid in either pills or cash. Scala and company would direct them to small, independently-owned pharmacies, to avoid being detected by larger pharmacies with more sophisticated filing systems, prosecutors said.
If a pharmacist became suspicious, Ms. Wilkins would field the call to the doctor's office, and vouch for the bogus script. She was paid $100 for each prescription form, meaning she got nearly $32,000 for her role in the scheme, Ms. Brennan said.
In all, they went to 22 pharmacies, 11 in Staten Island, 11 more in Brooklyn, according to prosecutors. They paid $200 cash at the pharmacy to fill a prescription for 120 pills, 30 mg a dose, and the ice cream truck could turn each prescription into about $2,400, Ms. Brennan said.
But the scheme unraveled last June, after a Tottenville man living in a Brooklyn motel robbed four pharmacies, two in Brooklyn and two on Staten Island, according to prosecutors.
The druggist at one of the Brooklyn pharmacies recognized the suspect — Raymond Cappola, 24, of Seguine Loop — as a man who tried to pass off a shady-looking prescription for oxycodone from a Manhattan doctor a few weeks earlier, prosecutors said.
That caught the interest of an investigator with the state Department of Health Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, who pulled the doctor’s prescription files and found a suspicious pattern, prosecutors said.
The doctor — whom prosecutors have not named — was unaware of Ms. Wilkins’ scheme, and once the investigator came asking questions in June, she quit the job and the ice cream truck operation abruptly vanished, according to prosecutors.
But by then, the damage had been done. Armed with names from the bogus prescriptions, investigators were able to track down the members of the drug conspiracy.
The conspirators include Scala’s 21-year-old brother, Anthony; Jason Reiff, 30, of Eldridge Avenue in Port Richmond, and his mother, Doris, 52; and Salvatore Cutaia Jr. of Sharrotts Road in Charleston.
Cutaia is currently in federal custody in connection with a Luchese and Bonnano family extortion and robbery case. Reiff and Louis Scala were recently arrested in South Plainfield, N.J., on burglary and weapons charges. The arrests marks the third massive bust in the past two years aimed at curbing the illegal supply of oxycodone and other prescription drugs on Staten Island.
Last November, federal authorities arrested Dr. Felix Lanting, an 83-year-old Grant city family doctor, accusing him of running a pill mill and writing 3,029 oxycodone prescriptions over a six month period — 10 times as many prescriptions as the ice cream truck ring allegedly filled out, in half the time.
And in February 2009, authorities took down a 23-person forgery ring run by the West Brighton son of a physicians assistant that put more than 20,000 oxycodone pills into the borough’s black market.
Authorities have also made arrests in several smaller cases, including doctors’ aides accused of stealing prescriptions, one suspect who authorities say forged an MRI to get prescriptions, and a band of young suspects accused of dealing out of South Shore parking lots.
Even so, drug treatment experts here consider the busts to be the tip of the iceberg in an epidemic of prescription drug abuse run rampant on Staten Island.
"I think people are a little naïve about the dangers of this drug," said District Attorney Daniel Donovan. "It is an opiate. It is highly addictive."
At least one member of the alleged ice cream truck conspiracy is loosely affiliated to one of the many young Staten Islanders who have died of prescription overdoses and suspected overdoses over the years. On a public Facebook page, Zaffuto’s wife Tina Mazza Zaffuto makes a reference to one of her son’s friends, whose death is being investigated as a possible prescription drug overdose.
An Advance analysis of obituary data and medical examiner public records showed eight young Staten Islanders, all between 13 and 30, died of prescription drug overdoses in 2008, as well as a ninth who died of heart failure after a long history of drug abuse, and five more overdose deaths in 2009.



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