TOMS RIVER - A new task force formed through the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office will work with Atlantic County authorities and other agencies to combat what Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato is calling a heroin crisis.
The formation of the task force, which will be divided into southern and northern units, comes after nine people died of heroin overdoses during an eight-day period, Coronato said.
The epidemic in Ocean County is something that should not and will not be hidden, Coronato, who took the office of prosecutor 30 days ago and formerly worked as an assistant prosecutor in Atlantic County, said during an interview Friday afternoon.
During the past month, the office has seized more than $300,000 and 15 cars, and more than 30 people have been arrested on drug charges, he said.
"I've talked to (acting Atlantic County Prosecutor) Jim McClain, and we're going to work together. There is total cooperation between his office and my office. From his standpoint, I know he also wants to know where the heroin is coming from," Coronato said.
"I have been in touch with Prosecutor Coronato and have assured him he will have Atlantic County's full support in addressing this issue," McClain said Friday.
Coronato said he has also been in touch with Deputy Attorney General Jim Ruberton, who works with Atlantic City's Task Force, which consists of state, county and local law enforcement.
Although the neighboring counties regularly work together, authorities joined forces recently after a 26-year-old Stafford Township man was found dead April 18 in his car in Barnegat Township - the victim of an alleged heroin overdose.
Inside the car with Steven Janson were baggies used to package heroin with the word BOOM stamped on them, authorities said. This is one of four stamps dealers use to identify their drugs that have been named as potential problems, Ruberton said. Other stamps include Nyquil, Hard 10 and Ferrari.
Police said they learned during the investigation that Janson and Kenneth Ebinger, 27, of Barnegat, had purchased heroin from a man in Atlantic City just days before. The man was later identified as 22-year-old Rasan S. McGee.
Task force members and Atlantic City's Vice Unit arrested McGee just after midnight April 20 on drug-distribution charges, Ocean County authorities said.
"We know that we need to work together, and unless we cooperate we're not going to get anywhere on this. If we ID a target in another county, we're going to work with that county to go after it," Coronato said.
Historically, there has been a presence in the southern portion of Ocean County of detectives from the Prosecutor's Office, but Coronato said that in light of recent events connected to drug abuse, that presence needs to be intensified. Efforts have not been heavily directed toward the southern portion of Ocean County in the past, he said.
"It's virgin territory. I wouldn't say it is worse further south, but I would say it hasn't been addressed, for lack of better words to describe it. Our focus is the drug dealer, and we're going to attack. We're going to seize what they have, take them off the street and throw them in jail," he said.
The Ocean County Prosecutor's Office's beefed-up task force will include five detectives in the southern half of the county and five to the north, Coronato said. The plan is to be proactive and target the big-fish drug dealers selling high volumes, he added.
Police departments in the southern and northern portions of the county are being asked to dedicate personnel to the task force - one officer from each department.
"So I have five detectives from here going down, and I could have five additional officers working with the task force from local departments. The burden is going to fall on this office to produce, and we will produce. I have five years to my term, and I intend to make every one of those days count," he said.
Barnegat police Lt. Keith Germain said the department's Narcotics Unit and an officer from the department will work with the task force to improve information dissemination.
The department is running 15 percent smaller than it was a few years ago, and it will stretch the force to dedicate one officer to the county unit and take that person off the road, but it has to be done, Barnegat police Chief Art Drexler said.
"We had to look at what we're going to gain by having more eyes out there looking for narcotics. Southern Ocean County is a whole new market where bad guys are realizing they can make money here and they're from out of the area. Buyers used to go to the dealers, but I think this is the early stages blowing up here that they're going to start dealing inside the county," Drexler said.
About 40 percent of the drugs, including heroin, are coming from Atlantic County and about 60 percent from the northern part of the state from places such as Newark, Coronato said.
"That is exactly our problem. It's coming into Little Egg Harbor northbound on the roadways and the public transportation system, and we need the weight of the prosecutor to get us to where we need to be on this," Little Egg Harbor Township police Chief Richard Buzby said.
Drugs today are not exclusive to borders, he said.
There has always been a substantial load of heroin coming in to Little Egg Harbor Township from Egg Harbor Township, Egg Harbor City, Pleasantville and Atlantic City, Buzby said.
Buzby said he and Coronato discussed the formation of a southern unit of a task force well before Coronato assumed the office of prosecutor. The far-reaching heroin problem is not exclusive to one area of the county or state, and Coronato gets that, Buzby said.
"I am on board with what they're doing, and I know the other chiefs down here are as well. This is long overdue down here," he said.
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