Two brothers were allegedly running the local drug trade from an Atlantic City block they controlled.
A monthlong investigation centered on the first block of South Florida Avenue dismantled a drug-trafficking organization that was pumping heroin, fentanyl and cocaine onto Atlantic County’s streets, Police Chief James Sarkos said during a news conference Tuesday.
The multi-agency operation culminated in 14 arrests, and seizure of 39,250 wax folds of heroin/fentanyl, seven ounces of cocaine, $86,650 in cash and four handguns, including one reported stolen and another with no traceable serial number, known as a “ghost gun.”
The heroin/fentanyl stamped “Bad Bunny” has been linked to 25 overdoses in the county, including eight that were fatal, officials said.
An Oct. 7 death in Linwood is currently being investigated, Assistant Prosecutor Chris D’Esposito told the judge during a detention hearing for a defendant in the case.
But Tuesday’s news conference gave deeper insight into the organization and the roles those arrested played in it.
Residents first called attention to the troubled stretch of housing unit, Atlantic County Prosecutor Will Reynolds said.
“Citizens were screaming for help on Florida Avenue,” said the new prosecutor, who added that one of his first sit-downs after taking office in June was at the DEA, where he was briefed on the investigation.
He estimated $400,000 in drugs were taken off the streets, and that an additional $50,000 in cash was seized prior to the raids.
Many on South Florida Avenue were living in fear with the Suarezes and their army of captains, lieutenants and suppliers in control, according to officials.
Operation Florida Keys got its name from both the block and the fact that during the investigation, “it seemed like they had keys to every single residence on the street,” explained Atlantic City Lt. Dan Corcoran, who heads the Special Investigations Section.
Alleyways leading to the housing units offered a hidden space for the illegal endeavors, and presented a challenge to investigators.
It was a much different scene when BreakingAC walked through the alleys following the press conference, and accompanied by some of the officers who worked the case.
A table was once just inside the entryway for quick sales, one of the men explained. It now is boarded up, a reminder of the impact the investigation made.
Atlantic City Detective Chris Dodson spent thousands of hours watching the block, looking for ways to build the case.
“We used some advanced techniques that I’m not going to get into,” Corcoran said. “It was a massive undertaking. Huge.”
The joint effort that included the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, DEA and the Atlantic County HIDTA Task Force, which stands for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas.
At 4 a.m. Nov. 14, leaders gathered at the command center watching on various video screens as SWAT teams from the city , county, State Police and DEA helped as about a dozen search warrants were executed, Reynolds said.
The effort included about 65 officers, he estimated.
“No one officer or on agency that can stop this alone it takes collaboration it takes partnerships,” said Brian Michael, deputy director of the Mid-Atlantic HIDTA Task Force.
“Violent crime and violent organizations can take over first a house and then a block and then an entire neighborhood until the local community is held hostage,” he said.
“Today you see the city means business about our clean and safe agenda,” Mayor Marty Small said.
While officials heralded their success Tuesday, miles away the brothers and other alleged members of the enterprise got the news they would be staying in jail.
In several detention hearings before Superior Court Judge Donna Taylor, the assistant prosecutor in the case repeated the allegations of a dangerous drug operation.
The Suarezes were leaders with four alleged captains under them: Arcadia Ridley, 32, of Absecon, and Howard Cubbage, 57; James DiMeo, 59, and Safiyah Hauser Braxton, 32, all of Atlantic City.
The captains insulated the leaders and ran stash houses with first-degree amounts of drugs, Corcoran explained.
Under them were lieutenants, who were named as Keith Potter, 60, of Galloway Township, along with Lydia Santana, 33; Terrea Acosta, 55; Briana Perez, 30, and Hauser Braxton’s husband, 34-year-old Maurice Braxton, all of Atlantic City.
During Braxton’s detention hearing, his attorney said there was nothing tying his client to any drugs or guns.
Braxton then tearfully begged the judge to release him for an upcoming job interview and to be there for his children.
Six kids were in the Braxtons’ home when the raid happened, according to information at the hearing. Three were Braxton’s from a previous relationship and were just visiting when the arrests came. He and his wife have one child together with two others hers from another relationship.
Knowing these homes had children inside was why the Division of Child Protection and Permanency was also on hand during the raids, Corcoran said.
“They were here on the day of the takedown and went to each and every address,” he said.
Cubbage and Ridley were charged with endangering. Ridley allegedly had thousands of folds of heroin and a gun in a suitcase within reach of her 5-year-old daughter.
An EMT was also at the command center in case of any health issues, the prosecutor said.
There was one, although no details were provided.
Three men were also arrested a sources for the drugs.
Jose Perez-Paradez, 29, and Yoao Jerez-Tejada, 27, both of Philadelphia, allegedly provided the cocaine.
Orlando Peguero-Perz, 36, of West New York, Hudson County, is accused of providing the heroin and fentanyl.
Rounding out the 16 arrests were Michael Howell, 35, of Atlantic City, and Malik Lyons, 22, of Egg Harbor Township.
Lyons was not listed as being in the jail at any point. Howell was released last week.