What happened to Jerlanne Rojas? A new detective squad tried to find the dealers who sold her deadly drugs in the Bronx, which has one of the highest overdose rates in the nation.
In December, police responded to a call from a landlord in the Bronx who could not reach a tenant. An officer broke a window and in the apartment made a grim if increasingly common discovery. The tenant, a young woman, was on the couch with a man; both were dead of an apparent drug overdose.
It looked as if they had been there for days.
Not long ago, the incident would have been just a day's work for the police: no evidence collected, no investigation, another drug death. But the arrival of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids has transformed the peril of addiction in New York City — and how the city deals with overdose deaths. For the first time, detective squads in each borough have been formed to treat these incidents as crimes to be solved.
On December 4, after the bodies were removed, police sealed off the apartment on Revere Avenue in Throgs Neck as if it were the scene of a murder. An officer put in a call to the narcotics unit in the Bronx, where someone wrote the names of the victims in a big, black ledger: Jerlanne Rojas and Alex Cruz.
The book, which says "Bronx Overdose Log" in Wite-Out on the cover, looks like a relic from another time, but it tracks the latest wave of the nation's epidemic in the Bronx, where more people die of drug overdoses than in any other place in the city. In 2017, there were a record 1,487 fatal overdoses in New York; the overdose rate in the South Bronx was higher than any place in the country except for West Virginia.
It was amid the dramatic increase in overdoses across the city — around half of which were found to have involved some form of fentanyl — that the Police Department created these dedicated overdose squads in each borough. Last year, the Bronx squad responded to more than 600 incidents, about a third of them fatal. Some victims had collapsed in public bathrooms and parks after shooting up or snorting drugs containing fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin. Others, like Rojas, were discovered long after overdosing.
The Bronx has battled heroin for decades, and the stereotype of an overdose victim is a longtime addict. But Rojas, who was 34 when she died, had not struggled with addiction for long. It began with a struggle with insomnia and took just a few years for it to take over her life, her family said. She lost a job; her son moved in with his grandmother. Rojas grew volatile. Then she died.
Such stories have become common
"Unfortunately, we do get them almost every day," said Sgt. Joseph Burckhard, one of the supervisors of the Bronx overdose squad. "The potency of the fentanyl is really taking a toll."
The Bronx has long been a center for heroin trafficking, and with the opioid epidemic it has also become a destination for fentanyl, according to the authorities. In June, nearly two dozen people suspected of being linked to the Sinaloa cartel from Mexico were charged with trafficking heroin and bringing more than 50 pounds of fentanyl into the Bronx, the equivalent of several million lethal doses.
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The drugs are being packaged for distribution throughout the region, but in the process, the Bronx has been flooded. Fentanyl has been found there in heroin, cocaine, counterfeit pills and other drugs. It is being sold by large rings and household operations.
Around Christmas, a 1-year-old named Darwin Santana died after being exposed to drugs, including fentanyl, allegedly being mixed in his parents' apartment in the Bronx.
Soon after the bodies of Rojas and Cruz were discovered, Detective Lee Arroyo of the Bronx overdose squad was assigned to the case.
The apartment, in a brick house on a quiet block, was tiny and sparsely furnished. A small bedroom was strewn with her clothes, some dresses inside-out, as if she had just tried them on.
Arroyo found no signs of violence. Instead, he discovered what appeared to be prescription drug packaging, and a tiny glassine envelope.
"It seems like they went on a binge," he said.
There were no computers or tablets to scour for information about their dealer; the victims had only cellphones.
From this scant evidence, the detective was tasked with figuring out what killed the couple and where it came from. He called Rojas' family.
"Like you and me"
"She was not a lowlife hoodlum," Rojas' sister, Tiffany Rojas, said. "Four years ago, she was like you and me."
The trouble began around 2014, she said, not long after Jerlanne arranged to have gastric bypass surgery. She was not obese, but she had always been self-conscious about her weight, said her sister, who is in her 40s.
Jerlanne was teased in elementary school in the Dominican Republic, where their mother had sent her and her brother to live with their father when they were children. As a teenager, she tried countless fad diets.
After high school, and after her father died of a heart attack, Rojas returned to New York, where she was born. She loved musicals and had recorded a CD of songs, dreaming of landing an audition on Broadway, her sister said. But she got pregnant around age 20.
She gained weight. Then she ended up in the shelter system with her little boy and started eating more fast food, and gained more.
After the surgery, in her late 20s, Rojas seemed to blossom. Her Facebook page filled with photos of clubbing outfits — what she called her "skinny dresses."
But privately, she was struggling. She had become anaemic and vitamin-deficient. Worse, she was afflicted with insomnia, which can be a side effect of bypass surgery.
She eventually lost her job, at a check-cashing place, and wound up living for a spell in her sister's apartment with her son.
Seeing her up night after night, her sister said she gave her some Ambien. She soon got her own prescription for Ambien and Xanax, her family said.
She seemed to improve. But as the months passed, her family sensed a problem. "She was taking way too many," said her sister, who once caught her trying to buy Ambien online.
Her mother asked the doctor in 2015 to cut off her prescription. Her sister stopped sharing, too. By then, though, Rojas had discovered other pills.
That year, she asked a childhood friend if she had leftover prescription painkillers after an operation that she could buy. The friend, who gave only her first name, Elizabeth, was alarmed and said no.
When Rojas and her son were back in the shelter system, and out of her family's sight, her addiction took off. Soon she was buying pills on the street.
The overdose squad
Arroyo inspected the paraphernalia found at the scene. The glassine envelope was stamped with "Halloween" and an image of a ghost — the distributor's brand.
Back at Bronx Narcotics, in an unmarked warehouse in the north Bronx, he searched the squad's case management system to see if the brand had turned up in other overdoses. Around him, in a room filled with maps, charts and news clippings, 14 detectives worked their own cases, trying to find the sources of the borough's spiralling crisis.
Arroyo, 35, a Bronx native, is tall and clean-cut except for the sleeves of tattoos on his arms that he got while in the Army.
Arriving soon after an overdose is important, he said. In the case of Cruz and Rojas, he was late. They had been dead for several days when their bodies were discovered, and any witnesses to their fatal drug score had probably vanished. But he still talked to Rojas' landlord and people in the neighbourhood, he said.
He also checked a digital map of overdose incidents in the borough to see if there had been a cluster of incidents in the neighbourhood.
Then he began scouring the victims' cellphones for clues. An overdose victim's last texts and calls are often to a dealer.
The case of Jerlanne Rojas and her boyfriend was one of several that Arroyo was juggling. He pored over grainy images captured by surveillance cameras near overdose scenes. He scanned victims' Facebook and Instagram accounts for conversations with possible dealers.
From this minutiae, the detectives hoped they could root out the big distributors of lethal drugs — working their way up from street dealers to the runners who transfer drugs from stash houses, and from there to the people controlling the packaging, pricing and transport of narcotics into New York.
"The idea is to get to the higher-level people," said Burckhard, 34, one of the squad's supervisors.
Before he was tapped to help oversee the overdose squad, in 2016, the sergeant supervised narcotics detectives in two Bronx precincts.
The overdose squads were initially called Heroin Overdose Teams, and the initials "HOT" were emblazoned on the jacket Burckhard wore. But the name hardly seems to apply anymore.
Fentanyl is now usually the squad's target: Some form of fentanyl is found in about 90% of drugs purchased by undercover officers in the Bronx, he said.
The detectives spend their days between hospitals — where they hand out brochures about treatment and ask survivors where they got their drugs — and fatal overdose scenes.
Cases can be hard to crack, Burckhard said. Even when street dealers can be found, they often say they have no idea what is in the drugs they sell, or where they come from — and it can be difficult to prove otherwise.
Distributors, for their part, insulate their operations with layers of middlemen. They switch out brands, in case a batch is involved in an overdose.
The squad has made arrests, including in the case of a special-education teacher who overdosed in a public school. It has broken up rings, such as one that sold drugs out of a diner in the South Bronx that led to five overdoses.
But hundreds of overdoses have occurred since the Bronx squad was formed. And in dozens of cases, the distributors — and even the dealers — have so far slipped away.
"You basically need all of the ends closed off," Burckhard said. "You need to be able to prove that that is the individual — or those are the individuals — that caused the victim's demise. That can take a long time."
In Rojas' case, the most promising clue had come from the New York Police Department lab.
While the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner tested the victims' remains to determine the cause of death, Detective Arroyo had sent the packaging found at the scene to the lab to see what drugs were involved.
The lab reported that the residue in the glassine envelope contained acetylfentanyl, a variant that is less commonly found on the streets in New York than fentanyl — and which is produced only for the black market, not made by pharmaceutical companies.
That clue could narrow the search for a dealer.
Arroyo asked Cruz's family if they knew anything about where he got his drugs, but they knew little about his habit, he said.
Rojas' family said she had taken to buying on the street, though they believed she had only ever bought pills. Her sister did not know where she got her supply. But she said there was one person who might.
While the opioid crisis was worsening in the Bronx, Rojas was falling deeper into dependency. She was going out clubbing more often and had a turbulent, on-and-off relationship with a man who was an exotic dancer.
She was not his only girlfriend, her sister said, and she suffered.
She would come home to find her on the couch. "Crying, crying, talking on the phone and smoking," Tiffany Rojas said. "My poor sister."
By 2017, she had lost a new job at a hair salon and stopped paying her share of the rent at the subsidised apartment she had moved into on Revere Avenue. She still regularly saw her 12-year-old son, who had moved in with her mother, often stopping by to make sure he was bathed and ready for school. But the stretches between her visits grew longer.
Once, she turned up limping and with bruises on her face, said her brother, who asked that he and his mother not be named because they had been threatened in the past by Rojas' dealers over her debts. Another time, she called saying she had been kidnapped by dealers and needed hundreds of dollars.
The person who knew more about what happened in Rojas' hidden life was a family friend, a taxi driver who had always had a crush on Rojas, her family said, and gave her rides to appointments with people he came to realize were her dealers.
The driver, whose name is being withheld because of his role in the investigation, said one dealer had fallen in love with her and offered to give her medication to wean her off street drugs if she moved in with him. But she refused. Another threatened her, and he and the taxi driver almost came to blows.
Rojas' bruises came after three women jumped her, a brutal beating that left her walking for a time with a cane, according to the driver.
She bought from many dealers, moving on as she racked up debts or the relationships soured.
Her drug of choice remained painkillers, which go for about $10 per pill on the street in the Bronx, where prescription pills are sold alongside counterfeit ones. "She loved her Percocets," her mother said in Spanish.
One of the places Rojas went to score, the taxi driver said, was 149th Street and Grand Concourse, near a busy commercial intersection in the South Bronx known as the Hub, which has long been an open-air marketplace for drugs.
At the Hub, the borough's crisis is visible everywhere. Users sleep on the stairs of a nearby church and perch in scaffolding. Outreach workers approach carrying naloxone, an overdose antidote. Women from a church group serve arroz con pollo. Syringes and needle caps litter the ground.
In her last years, Rojas could no longer hide her addiction, and her brother once caught her eating coloured pills from a plastic baggie. "Like Skittles," he said.
She often waited to use until after she saw her son off to school. Then she would nod out in the living room, dropping lit cigarettes in her lap.
Her family begged her to go into treatment, but she insisted that she was only suffering the side-effects of her surgery and that the drugs were her medicine.
"She never admitted she had a problem," her sister said. "'Oh, you're bugging,' she would say. 'I'm not high.'"
The final moments
Alex Cruz, 38, was also Dominican and born in the Bronx. He loved music and was good-looking, Rojas told her mother.
The couple had met over the summer of 2018, when Rojas briefly enrolled in a month long treatment program, her family said, but dropped out after several days.
The two quickly became inseparable.
The last time her family saw Rojas was the weekend before she died. She had taken her son out for pizza and had his passport photos taken, hoping for a trip to the Dominican Republic.
She wore a green dress, and her mother said she saw a glimmer of her daughter as she had been before — the girl who dreamed of Broadway.
That Saturday night, Rojas sent her mother a text message saying she was home with Cruz, about to go to sleep.
Her last text message: "I hope you'll give me your blessing, if he is the right one, Ma."
More than three days later, the police discovered the bodies.
Rojas' body was so badly decomposed that her family was warned against viewing it, and there was no funeral.
About a week after her death, Tiffany Rojas, her sister, picked up the ashes. She flew to the Dominican Republic, where on a sweltering day, she placed them in the family crypt at a cemetery in Santo Domingo, next to their father's remains.
"She was sweet, extroverted, obedient — a very decent female," Tiffany Rojas said. "Please put that in your report. Because it's so unfair she ended up like this."
Her friends in the Bronx — who said they had not known Rojas was using — got together shortly after her death and tearfully sang "Killing Me Softly," raising their cups in her memory.
Rojas' autopsy results came back several weeks after she died. She had ingested the generic form of Xanax, oxycodone, oxymorphone, morphine and fentanyl.
It was the kind of drug cocktail that has become typical in overdose deaths. But there was a surprise. The acetylfentanyl — the substance found in the glassine — was not in Rojas' body.
The medical examiner said that drug was found only in Cruz's system.
It was a crucial lead for Arroyo.
Rojas had died hours before Cruz, according to notes from the medical examiner's investigator, who recorded the temperature of the bodies when they were found.
It was possible, Arroyo said, that after Rojas died, her boyfriend went out and bought the glassine containing the acetylfentanyl. When the bodies were discovered, he lay with his head resting on Rojas, still wearing his coat.
A Romeo and Juliet scenario?
"Something like that," Arroyo said.
Several months after the couple's death, the investigation is ongoing. No arrests have been made.
Written by: Annie Correal
Photographs by: Sara Blesener
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES