Kings of Dust
35 Accused of Selling PCP in an Open-Air Drug Market
By AL BAKER and JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN
In a courtyard between two housing complexes in Upper Manhattan, an 8-year-old boy would sometimes steer a line of customers toward an enclosed area called the Pit.
There, for $10 a bag, customers would buy crushed mint leaves laced with the hallucinogen PCP, the police said. The spot drew hundreds of customers each day, and some traveled from as far away as Vermont for their inexpensive fix.
On Sunday, one of those customers, Hilda Santiago, 38, made a purchase and walked a block away, looking for a place to smoke the leaves with her niece. In the sixth-floor hallway of a nearby apartment building, she accidentally lit herself on fire while getting high — possibly when the aerosol spray in her hair ignited — and burned to death, the authorities said. Her niece, Krystle Ortiz, 26, was slightly burned and was charged with trespassing, the police said.
On Wednesday, law enforcement officials announced the indictment of 35 people charged in the drug-dealing enterprise, which they said they had been investigating for 15 months as part of a program called Operation Kings of Dust. Most of the suspects had been arrested by Wednesday, officials said.
The crew, based near the Milbank-Frawley public housing complex, sold up to a thousand bags of PCP a day, to hundreds of daily customers from New York City, New Jersey, Long Island and New England. A search warrant turned up two and a half gallons of liquid PCP, stored in Hawaiian Punch bottles.
“Now, that is a lot of PCP,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said Wednesday at a news conference. Officials said PCP — also known in its crystalline form as angel dust — was a scourge decades ago, when its use was linked to erratic behavior and violence on the city’s streets. Though PCP use might have waned in recent years, Mr. Kelly said, it has remained a focus of investigators.
“I think these trends sort of ebb and flow; I don’t think it ever went away,” Mr. Kelly said of PCP. “But they seemed to gain favor and come back.”
Officials said the drug ring also sold heroin and cocaine, and investigators overheard the operation’s ringleaders on a wiretap, in October 2010, discussing the creative aspect of their enterprise: They needed to find a stamp to affix a brand name to bags of heroin. They debated whether to market it as “Good Morning” or “24,” and they settled on the latter, according to court papers. Their annual profit was more than $1 million, officials said.
The first signs of the open-air drug bazaar came in the form of complaints from residents collected by detectives and investigators with the Crime Strategies Unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
“Neighbors told us directly that they walked in their hallways and streets in fear as their community filled up every afternoon with those people who were selling and buying drugs,” Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said at the news conference, at 1 Police Plaza. “Now, the peak hours of this outdoor operation were at the same time that kids in that neighborhood were walking home from school.”
Lamont Moultrie, 41, and his brother, Bernard, 39 — known to investigators by the nicknames Big Bro and Little Bro — ran the organization, and their principal deputy was Melvin Tarleton, 45, officials said.
“All three have violent criminal records,” said Mr. Kelly, who noted that they engaged in selling drugs despite meeting daily with parole officers.
Officials declined to identify the 8-year-old boy, but Inspector Lori Pollock said he was the nephew of one of the suspected crew members. Officials said they considered him to be a victim of the drug-dealing operation.