Shawn Flemmings, 33, of Paterson, was arrested without incident today on a warrant by members of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, who stopped him in a car in Paterson. He is being held in the Passaic County Jail with bail set at $100,000 full cash. The first-degree charge carries a sentence of 10 to 20 years in state prison. Flemmings is charged in connection with the death of Stephen Ference, 27, of Warwick, N.Y. Ference was found dead inside his home on Oct. 17 as a result of an overdose.
The arrest was the result of a joint investigation conducted with the New York Attorney General’s Office and the Warwick (New York) Police Department. The New York Attorney General’s Office enlisted the aid of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in the investigation as a result of their existing partnership on the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Heroin Task Force (NEMA-HTF), a task force of state attorneys general that is promoting collaboration to fight heroin trafficking. Through prior task force discussions, the New York prosecutors were aware of New Jersey’s strict liability statute and the potential to prosecute a drug dealer for a first-degree crime in connection with an overdose death.
“This case demonstrates our resolve to hold heroin dealers accountable for their conscienceless infliction of addiction, misery and death upon our communities,” said Acting New Jersey Attorney General Hoffman. “New Jersey law enables us to hold drug dealers criminally responsible for the deaths they cause by sending them to prison for up to 20 years. Through our partnership with the New York Attorney General’s Office, we’re seeking justice for the family of the young man allegedly killed by this drug dealer’s heroin, as well as the many others who undoubtedly have suffered because of his poison.”
New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said, “The heroin crisis doesn’t stop at state lines – and neither can our fight against it. Cooperation and coordination among states and law enforcement agencies is critical to finally put an end to this deadly crisis. This investigation is a prime example of the innovative work being done by many states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that will lead to larger and stronger criminal cases against kingpins and dealers. My office will continue to work with our partners throughout the region to leverage the best practices and best technology available to finally end this epidemic.”
“A year ago we issued a directive to police in New Jersey to investigate all overdose deaths with a view to potentially charging the dealers responsible under our strict liability law,” said Director Elie Honig of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. “Our efforts to make use of this important law even led to discussions with our task force partners in New York, who responded with this investigation. This is exactly the type of collaboration we need to tackle the epidemic of heroin abuse in our states.”
Warwick police officers initiated the investigation on the evening of Oct. 17 when they responded to Ference’s home on an emergency call after he was found unresponsive. Ference was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency medical personnel. Officers found syringes and empty glassine envelopes on the bed next to the body and on the floor. In total, police seized 23 single-dose glassine envelopes of heroin and four empty ones, all stamped “Ball Room” in black ink. The Orange County (N.Y.) Medical Examiner determined that Ference had opiates in his system and died of acute fentanyl intoxication.
Warwick officers seized Ference’s iPhone, which revealed potential communications with his heroin supplier in Paterson, N.J., who was identified with the street name “S.” The phone was turned over to the New York Attorney General’s Office for further investigation. Examination of the phone’s call log, text messages and other data revealed that Ference traveled on Oct. 16 to a location on Vreeland Avenue in Paterson, where he obtained heroin. The New York Attorney General’s Office enlisted the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office in the investigation, and detectives of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau began working with detectives of the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office to identify the drug dealer who sold heroin to Ference.
Sheriff’s detectives already were familiar with Flemmings as an alleged drug dealer called “S” who was dealing in the block where Ference obtained heroin. The Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, in fact, arrested Flemmings on Oct. 27 on drug charges, including a charge that on Oct. 26, while under surveillance, he distributed a “brick” of roughly 50 glassine envelopes of heroin stamped with “Ball Room” on the same block where Ference obtained the heroin immediately prior to his death. Through further investigation, the Division of Criminal Justice, the Passaic County Sheriff’s Office, the New York Attorney General’s Office and the Warwick Police obtained extensive additional evidence that Flemmings allegedly is the dealer who supplied the heroin laced with fentanyl that killed Ference.
In addition to the first-degree charge of strict liability for drug-induced death, Flemmings is charged with distribution of heroin. The charges are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Acting New Jersey Attorney General Hoffman and New York Attorney General Schneiderman commended all of the officers, investigators and detectives who investigated the case for the Warwick Police Department, New York Attorney General’s Office, New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and Passaic County Sheriff’s Office.
As part of the Comprehensive Drug Reform Act of 1987, New Jersey enacted a provision making it a first-degree crime to unlawfully distribute a controlled dangerous substance that results in death. The statute prescribes strict liability, and it is no defense that the drug user contributed to his or her own death by voluntarily ingesting the substance that caused death. The statute applies to every person along the drug distribution chain, not just the dealer who may have personally interacted with the decedent.
The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Heroin Task Force operates under the auspices of the National Association of Attorneys General. The primary goal of the task force is collaboration, coordination and information-sharing between the attorneys general and other law enforcement agencies to combat organized narcotics enterprises that are supplying people with heroin.