Police share complex tricks that take down drug rings

New York News

WAMPSVILLE, N.Y. (WSYR) — New York Attorney General Letitia James has been busting drug rings and illegal weapons networks with local law enforcement officials in recent weeks. In the Capital Region, they took down 47 people from two rival gangs, and in Central New York, they arrested 78 people connected to separate operations.

At the announcement in Syracuse, two Madison County officers—Sgt. Jonathan Morticelli and Det. Rocco Deperno—were credited with starting the investigation there. Detectives have access to many elaborate measures—from secret compartments to X-ray devices—when building a criminal case.

Morticelli and Rocco told NEWS10’s sister station in Syracuse about innovating workarounds to crack the case. They said the investigation was triggered more than two years ago as a single, simple tip, when a neighbor complained about suspicious traffic patterns in driveways at late-night hours.

“Saying, ‘Hey, I saw this weird scenario occur’ and here’s a license plate involved with it,” recalls Morticelli. One suspect in one county led to at least 78 in multiple counties.

Detective Deperno explains: “There’s always a supplier, always an end-user, and there’s always a middle man. You just have to find the people. Once you reach the supplier, he has to have a supplier himself, we move from the next supplier to the next, to the next. We try to go up the chain and get to the largest guy we can get to.” 

Two of the people arrested were the kingpin organizers of each network. The detectives followed the worker of one network to discover the second. “We had one home where we actually brought in an X-ray machine to X-ray the walls,” says Deperno. “Because they’ll go as far as tearing the wall out, stacking the drugs in it, and re-sheetrocking it.”

To avoid getting caught during delivery, bags of cocaine, heroin, and guns were hidden in secret compartments built into cars. Police call them “traps.”

“Some of them are very, very elaborate, where you’d have to use a magnet in a specific area to unlatch a compartment that would open in the back of the car,” Deperno says. “Some [need] a key code on the radio.” Investigators got warrants to tap cell phone conversations and followed suspects to observe transactions, including to parking lots which became a frequent meeting place during the pandemic.

The officers don’t brag, making sure credit for the investigation is shared among both the small and large agencies needed to make it happen. Several local departments joined in, along with state police and even the U.S. Postal Service.

Sgt. Morticelli says, “Seeing the narcotics on the table, that’s an overdose that’s not going to happen tonight. Seeing the weapons on the table, that’s a shooting prevented that night.”

Thursday, Sgt. Morticelli was promoted to lieutenant, where he will continue working to get drugs off the streets. This fall, Detective Deperno will retire, having just completed the biggest drug bust of his career.

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