Sophie Sonnenfeld, Contributing Photographer

A New Haven man pled guilty on Tuesday to distributing 599 grams of fentanyl — around 299,500 potentially lethal doses – to an undercover government investigator.

The plea deal comes as drug overdoses, in particular fentanyl busting cases, have skyrocketed in the state in recent years. 86 percent of overdose deaths in Connecticut were connected to fentanyl use, far above the national average and up from just 4 percent in 2012.

The case represents an above-average bust for law enforcement in the state, though it remains unclear what percent of the distribution was pure fentanyl. 

“[These dealers] are more probably on the middle level, but lower level probably right above street level kind of dealer,” Bobby Lawlor, a drug intelligence officer with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, explained to the News. 

“The problem with that at all is because fentanyl is so powerful that you need a small amount, so 600 grams of pure fentanyl would be a massive amount,” Lawlor added. “Without the lab results from the federal government, it’s kind of hard to tell just how much of that 600 grams was fentanyl.”

In 2021, 1,524 people in Connecticut died from drug overdoses, up by 150 in 2020 and more than quadruple the 357 recorded in 2012. 

According to a DEA report, the agency seized somewhere between 1 and 66 kilograms of fentanyl in Connecticut in 2019. Investigators seized over 16 kilograms of fentanyl from two Hartford men in March, which marked one of the largest fentanyl busts in the state. 

The New Haven man, Ismael “Junie” Heredia, was arrested in April alongside his alleged co-conspirator, Luis “Bebe” Salaman under fentanyl trafficking charges. Investigators first learned in October 2021 that Salaman, 40, may have been distributing “large quantities of narcotics” throughout the city. Just two milligrams of fentanyl is potentially lethal to an adult human. 

The FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force launched an investigation that revealed that Salaman had been working jointly with Heredia, 29, to distribute heroin and fentanyl. After the arrest, Salaman was detained and Heredia was released on a $100,000 bond.   

Before announcing his new plea, District Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer reviewed what the plea might entail for Heredia come sentencing. The charge holds a maximum penalty of life in prison. The minimum mandatory sentence is 10 years in prison and probation between five years and life, with a maximum fine of up to $100 million. The two factors that would play into Heredia’s sentencing, Meyer explained, would be the quantity of fentanyl and an acceptance of responsibility. 

Police and court records indicated that Heredia has what Meyer said qualified as the “lowest level of criminal history.” This means that in one potential sentencing calculation, Heredia could receive 70-87 months, or six to seven years, in prison. Of course, the mandatory minimum sentencing of 10 years in jail would still apply unless the sentencing judge decides to grant Heredia a “Safety Valve.”

A safety valve applies only in drug trafficking cases where the defendant has a minor criminal history, did not use violence or possess dangerous weapons, was not the organizer of the activity or any continuing criminal activity, has cooperated with prosecutors and did not cause serious bodily harm or death to another person. 

“I can’t tell you what the court will implement,” Meyer said at the US District Courthouse in New Haven Tuesday morning. “There are a lot of factors up in the air.” 

Heredia kept his head bowed and adjusted his glasses. 

Meyer asked Heredia a series of questions, establishing that any plea would be of his own will with a full understanding of the legal implications. Heredia waived his right to a trial and the right to challenge the conviction.

The prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Conor M. Reardon and Robert S. Ruff, signed the plea agreement and passed it over to Heredia and his lawyer, West Haven-based attorney Steven B. Rasile. The nearly-empty courtroom was silent as Heredia bent over to sign the deal, pleading guilty to “Conspiracy to Distribute and to Possess with Intent to Distribute 400 Grams or More of Fentanyl.”

Meyer then called Reardon to summarize the evidence prosecutors had planned to present in trial. Reardon said prosecutors had collected physical evidence and witness testimony as well as video and audio footage showing Heredia’s intent to distribute fentanyl. 

Heredia met with an “undercover government source” on eight occasions spanning from November 2021 through April 2022. In these controlled purchases, Heredia sold 599 grams of fentanyl to investigators. Investigators also recorded phone calls with Heredia and Salaman related to these transactions. 

The FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force includes FBI agents and specially trained local police from departments including the New Haven Police Department. The FBI has three of these task forces operating in Connecticut — based in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. 

Lawlor said the severity of such trafficking depends on the chemical concentration of fentanyl investigators tested. 

Lawlor said it’s hard to know if the nearly 600 grams of fentanyl in Heredia’s case contained 100 percent fentanyl or if it was cut with other substances. With 100 percent fentanyl, the men could have cut their supply into more hazardous though less potent pieces, allowing for a larger scale operation.

“You know, we’ve seen people who sell mainly in their own little neighborhood because they’re smaller dealers, and we’ve seen more probably what we’re talking about when somebody’s buying or selling 600 grams of fentanyl, more middle-of-the-road, higher level dealers who have a reach probably county-wide, if not further,” Lawlor explained. 

Public health experts note that disrupting the drug market can be harmful if people depend on a specific dealer to provide a stable supply with consistent drug potencies. When Lawlor was a sergeant with the NHPD in 2011, he said the drug market was “pretty stable” in terms of consistent potencies for drugs like heroin.

These batches of heroin largely contained the same concentrations and additives each time. This could allow people to use harm reduction practices, using the drug relatively safely without overdosing. On rare occasions, when dealers might get a new “connect,” these factors could change and produce dangerous “hot batches.”   

With fentanyl, nearly every dose could be a hot batch — with varied additives and concentrations in each pill. Lawlor said that when his agency tests substances that are seized by law enforcement in Connecticut, they see a “mishmash of drugs” in each sample. 

Additionally, unlike other illegal narcotics, fentanyl carries a higher risk of overdose and death because of its chemical structure. According to Lawlor, the drug, which is a bit of a “heavier powder,” tends to cling to itself more than other narcotics, making it difficult for dealers to crush it uniformly into pills. 

“The problem is in today’s drug market, that it’s so volatile, and it’s so dangerous to the point where you’re kind of playing Russian roulette with every dose of drug you take,” he said.  

Heredia and Rasile declined to comment for this story. Near the conclusion of the trial, Meyer mentioned he heard that Heredia has been “doing well” on probation. 

In the next few weeks, Heredia will have to meet with a probation officer, who will interview him and compile a pre-sentencing report. Meyer noted that this report will contain more specific details about the case and about Heredia as a person. 

The sentencing trial date for Heredia is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 13.

Sophie Sonnenfeld is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor and covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a junior in Branford College double majoring in political science and anthropology.