Montauk Restaurant Workers Charged in Massive Drug Bust

Geraldo Vargas-Munoz, in the striped shirt, and two others were headed for Suffolk County jail after arraignment in East Hampton Town Justice Court on drug charges Thursday afternoon. Carissa Katz

The arrests of 15 people this week "struck at the heart of the drug supply in Montauk," Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy D. Sini said during a press conference Thursday.

The defendants, most of whom worked as bar-backs and line cooks at Montauk establishments, sold cocaine and pills, such as oxycodone, to patrons, all while living in housing provided by the restaurants and bars that employed them. The commercial establishments include Swallow East, 668 the Gig Shack, Shagwong Tavern, Liar's Saloon, and O'Murphy's Pub and Restaurant, the D.A.'s office said.

"In some cases they would literally be selling drugs out the back door of the kitchen," Mr. Sini said. They had hundreds of buyers, and moved "kilogram quantities of cocaine and thousands of pills" in the Montauk area during the months-long investigation by the D.A.'s East End Drug Task Force.

"What this drug crew did was take advantage of the tourism and the commercial activity that was going on in the Montauk area. We all know that the population of the East End, particularly Montauk, increases dramatically in the summer months," Mr. Sini said.

The defendants sold drugs at twice the market value or more, he said, selling a gram of cocaine for $100 and a single oxycodone pill for $40. "You can probably score a bag, a gram of cocaine, in Babylon for $40; Washington Heights for $30. We're talking about a significant mark-up."

They had "a very lucrative business," profiting $150,000 per kilo of cocaine, Mr. Sini said. All the while, they continued to work in the restaurants, grow their clientele, and keep the housing that was provided to them.

"We know we have struck at the heart of the drug supply in Montauk. There are going to be a lot of people very upset this weekend."

The investigation, which began in March, included a wiretap more recently. The defendants received packages by mail containing drugs sent from other parts of the country and outside the United States, according to the district attorney.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service intercepted one package with $17,400 in cash inside. Another package with oxycodone, Roxicodone, and Xanax pills — addressed to one of the locations the defendants were living at in Montauk — was also seized.

The investigation culminated on Wednesday when police executed search warrants at five locations connected to the distribution ring. The raids led to the seizure of $100,000 in cash and 650 grams of cocaine, Mr. Sini said. Police also found assorted pills, a kilo presser, cutting agents, cellphones and packaging materials, as well as a drug ledger outlining monies received and the identities of the sellers.

Two of the ringleaders, Geraldo Vargas-Munoz, a 37-year-old known as Chelo who worked as a cook at Swallow East, and Elvin Silva-Ruiz, 40, who goes by Pito and worked at O'Murphy's, were arrested in Queens County, the D.A. said.

Mr. Ruiz was taken into custody at J.F.K. Airport, as he was readying to board an international flight. Mr. Sini declined to say where he was headed, but noted he had $10,000 in cash on him and another $7,000 in his luggage.

Mr. Munoz also had $10,000 when apprehended; he was allegedly meeting another person to transport the money out of state.

According to the D.A., Mr. Munoz's part in the drug conspiracy was to arrange for the transportation of narcotics into Suffolk County, sell drugs, and supply other drug dealers, over the course of years. He said drugs were sold at the restaurants and motels where the defendants worked and lived.

Both men were charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the first degree, the highest felony drug charge there is. Mr. Sini said they would also be charged with conspiracy once indicted.

During the Thursday afternoon arraignments in East Hampton Town Justice Court, Brad Magill, an assistant district attorney, referred to Antonio Ramirez-Gonzalez as the "gatekeeper of the ill-gotten proceeds of the largest narcotics distribution ring in and around Montauk. " At his residence on West Lake Drive, investigators allegedly found $26,000 in cash, clearly marked and bundled in different denominations, as well as narcotics.

The 30-year-old, also known as Tete, told Justice Lisa R. Rana, who presided over the arraignments, that he works in the kitchen at the Surf Lodge as a dishwasher.

The D.A.'s office requested $500,000 cash bail and $1 million bond, claiming Mr. Ramirez-Gonzalez was a flight risk; he is from Puerto Rico. Justice Rana said the figure seemed a bit excessive. She set bail at $100,000 cash or $200,000 bond.

Mr. Sini said there was no evidence that restaurant owners were involved in the racket, but "what is clear is that there is a culture of complacency among the commercial establishments in this area. There is an infrastructure put in place to facilitate this criminal activity."

"We are seriously concerned that the businesses knew, or at least that some of the businesses knew, exactly what was going on, and that maybe there was a business incentive to allow this to go on. If you can get a steak dinner, a glass of wine, and a bag of coke, maybe you can attract more people than if you are just handing out hot dogs and hamburgers."

He said he was not suggesting the owners had committed a crime, but made it clear that his office would get to the bottom of whether the businesses were complicit. "We want to send a very clear message: We will not allow greed to ruin our communities in Suffolk County," he said.

While those arrested Wednesday may have taken advantage of the summer season, Mr. Sini said it was evident that "the illicit activity plagued the year-round residents."

During the investigation, when their cash was seized and the accused were unable to purchase drugs to sell in Montauk, "the phones lit up," Mr. Sini said. Customers were getting "dope sick" because they couldn't get their supply, he said. "So there is no doubt that part of this is selling cocaine to party-goers, but with that, is the sale of opioids to people who suffer from severe addictions."

Buyers were not the target of this investigation, and none were arrested.

Asked if the arrests could be tied to any overdoses in the area, Mr. Sini said they could not, but did not rule that out.

"This has been an extremely in-depth and multi-faceted investigation into a major narcotics distribution ring, which originated from very professional and industrious patrol and detective work by members of the East Hampton Town Police Department," Chief Michael Sarlo said on Wednesday. He thanked all of the outside agencies that brought the case together. "The community of Montauk and town of East Hampton are a safer place today," he said.
 

"This is not a new problem," he said, noting that year-round residents have been voicing concerns about drug-dealing in the community for years.

The D.A. said that between 2013 and 2018 the number of arrests for criminal possession of a controlled substance in Montauk increased 337 percent. He said attributed the "dramatic" increase to excellent police work by the East Hampton Town Police Department, but also to the increased drug-dealing going on.

"The tourism industry, and by extension the service industry, are certainly critical to Suffolk County's economy," he said. "We will not tolerate individuals who traffic drugs into our communities, target the tourists and residents in these world-class destinations and use the guise of customer service to flood our communities with drugs. We will certainly not tolerate any commercial establishments that facilitate or even condone those activities by their employees."

All the defendants have Montauk addresses and are U.S. citizens, according to the D.A.'s office. None are prior felons, he said. Some have had minimal contact with the criminal justice system.

Others arrested Wednesday were:

- Gilberto Quintana-Crespo, also known as Jimmy, 32, and William Crespo-Duran, also known as Flaco, 35, who were charged with conspiracy in the second degree, a felony.

- Thomas Harwood, 25, Nawar Qanbar, 32, and Louis Madariaga-Medina, 31, charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree.

- Israel Padilla-Rosas, 33, charged with criminal possession of marijuana in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor.

- Bryan Ruiz-Sanchez, 22, Kevin Becker, 30, John DeMelio, 32, charged with conspiracy in the second degree.

- Alex Joel Tirado-Rivera, 32, and Bracklie Vargas-Gonzalez, 24, charged with criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree and unlawful possession of marijuana.

- Gilbert Rodriguez-Mendez, 41, charged with unlawful possession of Marijuana.

Also, the D.A.'s office said John Doherty Valentin was arrested Thursday. He is charged with seven counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree, a felony.

With Reporting by Carissa Katz
 

Antonio Ramirez-Gonzalez, left, was described as "the gatekeeper of the ill-gotten proceeds of the largest narcotics distribution ring in and around Montauk," by an assistant district attorney at the arraignment on Thursday.Carissa Katz
The defendants' mug shotsSuffolk County District Attorney's office