Heroin may be more expensive and harder to find in San Luis Obispo County for at least the next six months, said the lead investigator in the county’s largest drug-ring takedown in recent history.
But eventually, another group will move in to fill local demand for the drug, said retired San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s Detective Nick Fontecchio.
“When you deal with a supply line it definitely throws a monkey wrench in the whole operation,” said Fontecchio, 56. “But someone else will step up and fill the void because people will want it.”
Fontecchio was the Sheriff’s Office lead investigator in a six-month investigation that culminated Wednesday in 15 arrests and the seizure of 50 weapons, about $66,000 in cash, eight vehicles and one boat. Investigators seized nearly three pounds of heroin valued at $110,000 over the past five months. Other local, state and federal agencies participated in the joint effort.
The weapons included revolvers, rifles and semi-automatic weapons. One was stolen, and three are assault weapons, said sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla.
Three of the arrestees were owners or part-owners of local businesses. Forty weapons were found at the Oceano home of 29-year-old Jose Jaime Figueroa, who owns Figueroa’s Tires in Atascadero; and Adrian De Martino Morales, 24, and Aldo De Martino Morales, 22, are part-owners of the Cinco De Mayo restaurant in San Luis Obispo.
A longtime narcotics detective, Fontecchio normally prefers to stay out of the spotlight but agreed to talk about the case because he retired Nov. 30 after 26 years with the department. He still plans to work cases as a part-time reserve deputy so the department can benefit from his years of experience.
Toward the end of 2010 and beginning of 2011, Fontecchio said he started to notice an increase in heroin use across the county, and the trend has continued upward.
Arrests of users and seizures of the drug were rising, and overdoses — some of which ended in death — had increased. Of the 30 overdose cases investigated by the Sheriff’s Coroner’s Office in 2012, four were documented heroin overdoses. So far this year, the number of fatal heroin overdose cases has doubled, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Cipolla said.
And users started telling him that “the pills weren’t good anymore,” referring to OxyContin, an opioid pain medication. The drug was reformulated in 2010 to make it more difficult to crush, break, or dissolve, all of which delivers a powerful high.
Instead, they were turning to heroin. One-tenth of a gram — enough to get one average person high — could be bought for $10. And it was easier to obtain than OxyContin, which involved “doctor shopping” to obtain prescriptions for the pills.
Fontecchio said he started developing information about a group of people who were selling drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine, which had traveled from Mexico to San Luis Obispo County.
“A lot of people talk, but you can’t take that on its face,” he said. “I was able to take what people were saying and discover that what they were saying was correct.”
He declined to discuss the investigation in great detail, but said detectives “started to follow people, take photos, develop informants. We got enough information to proceed.”
Toward the end of the investigation, detectives were conducting surveillance almost every day, said Fontecchio, who worked two weeks straight without a day off.
Thirteen search warrants were issued simultaneously about 6 a.m. Wednesday morning at locations across SLO County, as well as in Riverside and Monterey counties. Fontecchio said of the 15 people arrested, 12 were part of the drug-trafficking group.
The individuals were connected to heroin suppliers in Tijuana, Fontecchio said. He described them as mid- to upper-level dealers who were ordering one pound of heroin every four to five days — bringing in about 6 to 8 pounds a month.
When asked if the possibility of another group moving in to fill the void discouraged him, Fontecchio said, “I don’t let it. It means to the county that for awhile it will be harder to get heroin, and maybe someone will take the leap and try to get sober. If one or two people don’t use heroin it’s successful, in my book.”
He was disappointed that he wasn’t able to arrest “Mr. Big,” the supplier based in Mexico, but added that efforts to identify and arrest him are ongoing.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigative arm of the federal Department of Homeland Security, said federal investigators “strongly suspect” the ring is connected to the powerful Sinaloa cartel.