What started out as a street corner drug deal at the Jersey shore has led authorities to narcotics rings allegedly operating in two states and a foreign country.
Authorities in Ocean County say 31 people have been charged as part of the rings that dealt opioids and other drugs throughout New Jersey, in the Bronx, New York, and operated in at least one other country.
The takedown is the largest in the 30-year history of the county's special operations group. The value of the items seized is in the millions.
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Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato says authorities broke up nine drug production facilities, seized 90,000 doses of heroin (worth between $90,000 and $126,000 on the street), nearly 20 pounds of cocaine (worth between $332,500 and $393,750) and hundreds of prescription opioid pills.
"Ocean County has been designated as ground zero in the opioid epidemic in New Jersey," he said. "This is something we need to address."
The case was the county's first after being added to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration "High Intensity Drug Trafficking" task force.
Coronato said the case began with a street-level drug transaction in Lakewood, New Jersey. Officers were conducting surveillance in the area and began the process of arresting dealers and following the chain of distribution, which led them to narcotics activity in Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean, Passaic and Union counties; New York City, and a foreign country investigators wouldn't identify.
Drug facilities in Bloomfield, Jackson, Sayreville, Paterson, Piscataway and Plainfield were dismantled.
Authorities seized 18 handguns, a rifle and an AK-47 assault weapon, along with nearly $850,000 in cash and 27 vehicles worth more than $700,000.
Police were still seeking three of the 31 suspects charged in the case as of Friday, and said the investigation remains ongoing.
"As evidenced by the seizure of 90,000 doses of heroin and 20 firearms, this drug ring was not only fueling the epidemic of opiate addiction that is destroying so many lives in New Jersey, it was engaged in the variety of drug trafficking that drives much of the gun violence in our communities," Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. "The tremendous value of these DEA HIDTA Task Forces is that they facilitate the type of law enforcement collaboration that makes these far-reaching investigations possible."
Click here for a full list of the suspects and the charges that each faces.