The helicopter hovered 1,500 feet above a stately prewar building across the street from Central Park, well known to “Seinfeld” fans as Elaine’s apartment in the early episodes of the sitcom.
But this was no tourist chopper. The pilot was working for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, and he zeroed in on the Beaux-Arts building because it is one in a growing list of drug mills in the city. His fellow agents had seized several pounds of fentanyl, one of the country’s most dangerous drugs, in a recent raid on a tony, seventh-floor apartment there.
The DEA has declared war on the deadly synthetic opioid, which gained worldwide notoriety after Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose last year.
In New York, agents are taking to the air to track drug-packaging sites and distribution routes that have made Gotham a major hub for the deadly narcotic that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Fentanyl is commonly used as a cheap additive to “cut” or dilute heroin — and expand drug dealers’ profit margins. On the street, addicts refer to fentanyl-laced heroin as “fire.”
Fentanyl can also be marketed on its own, as counterfeit OxyContin or Xanax. Two pounds of fentanyl can be used to make more than 600,000 black-market painkillers with a street value of $10 per pill, according to the DEA.
The opioid, which is produced by Mexican drug cartels with chemicals imported from China, is the fastest growing cause of overdose deaths in the country and behind nearly half of the city’s 1,374 overdoses — a historic high — last year. In the first three months of this year, 344 New Yorkers died of drug overdoses, up 13 percent from the 304 deaths in the same period last year, according to city Health Department data.
“Fentanyl is our number one problem,” said James Hunt, special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York Division, riding with a Post reporter in the back seat of the unmarked DEA helicopter as it circled over New York and New Jersey last month.
From the air, Hunt pinpointed the major routes used by agents of Mexican cartels throughout the city and the locations of the agency’s latest seizures.
The feds are increasingly relying on flyover surveillance and enforcement in their war on the dangerous drug. DEA helicopters regularly stake out suspected drug mills and provide an eye in the sky for DEA agents on the ground.
“It’s amazing what we can see from even 5,000 feet up in the air,” one DEA official told The Post. “We can follow a car a lot easier than someone following it on the ground.”
‘We’re seeing the bad guys going into nice neighborhoods because they don’t have to worry about getting robbed by competing traffickers.’
In conjunction with local law enforcement, DEA agents have already seized more than 187 pounds of fentanyl in the city this year. Most of the mills where fentanyl is mixed with heroin or is pressed into counterfeit painkiller pills are located in apartments in down-at-the-heels neighborhoods in The Bronx. In one August raid, in a fifth-floor flat in Morris Heights, DEA agents found 36 pounds of heroin laced with fentanyl — packaged in small, wax-paper envelopes stamped with names like “Versace” and “7UP.”
But increasingly, traffickers are using unlikely luxury locations, including the $4,000-a-month newly renovated Central Park West apartment where agents found state-of-the-art stereo equipment, a new large-screen TV and a leather sectional in the living room, along with telltale envelopes and coffee grinders used to mix and package the drugs.
In June, a hip boutique hotel in The Bronx yielded a 40-pound trove of fentanyl — the largest single haul of the drug in New York City history.
Last week, DEA agents from the Newark Field Division and New York State Police raided a swanky apartment in a high-rise in Long Island City, Queens, where they found a synthetic opioid mill and arrested two people.
“We’re seeing the bad guys going into nice neighborhoods because they don’t have to worry about getting robbed by competing traffickers,” said Hunt, a 32-year veteran of the DEA who began his law-enforcement career in the NYPD in Harlem. “All you need is a room to set up a drug mill, and traffickers are looking for anonymity. Right now, they have too much competition in Washington Heights and The Bronx.”
The customers are in every neighborhood as well.
A 2015 study by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that heroin and opioid use had spiked among women and the middle class. In New York, Staten Island had the highest rate of deaths of any borough in the city last year, with 31.8 per 100,000 people, up 66 percent from 2015, and almost double the national and citywide rate of 19.9 per 100,000.
With opioid-related deaths reaching epidemic proportions, Sen. Chuck Schumer in June called on the DEA to “include New York as a top priority” and dispatch an elite squad to crack down on the distribution of the lethal drug. To this end, he helped secure $12.5 million in federal funding for four such teams made up of DEA agents specialized in tracking opioids. The squads are to be deployed in fentanyl hot spots across the country.
“They will be located in states and/or regions where the heroin/fentanyl threat is greatest,” said a spokeswoman for the DEA. “The locations have yet to be determined.”
Most of the fentanyl that ends up in New York is shipped from Mexico in trucks carrying packaged foods and fruits and vegetables, Hunt said.
Sometimes the drugs are unloaded along with produce at the sprawling Hunts Point Terminal in The Bronx. Recently, at 1,500 feet above the market, hundreds of trucks looked like colorful Lego blocks as they unloaded their wares onto loading docks.
Increasingly, drop-offs take place at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops where truck drivers hand over the drug haul to a local dealer. The truck drivers earn up to $20,000 per trip, Hunt told The Post as the pilot maneuvered over the George Washington Bridge.
“This is a 24-hour operation,” said the pilot, who would not be identified. “Most of the drugs that come into the city merge right here on this bridge. Traffickers use the same route for heroin, coke, meth and fentanyl.”
After the handoffs at the rest stops, fentanyl is transported to the make-shift mills throughout the city where it is either mixed with heroin or pressed into pills.
The pills and the heroin/fentanyl powder are then funneled to dealers for distribution throughout New York and New England.
Two milligrams of crystalline fentanyl, which looks like two specks of sugar or salt, can be fatal, according to the DEA. In many cases, those who overdose from heroin or cocaine cut with fentanyl, or from black-market painkillers, don’t even know that they have ingested the drug.
“Obviously, these are not real chemists who are mixing this stuff,” said Hunt. “Fentanyl is manufactured death.”