Pubdate: Mon, 05 Apr 2010
Source: Buffalo News (NY)
Copyright: 2010 The Buffalo News
Authors: Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel, News Staff Reporters


First of a Two-Part News Series: Arresting a Street Dealer Removes a
Big Fish, but Overall Problem Persists

The sun was just coming up on May 4, 2006, when the cops put the
hammer down on Frank "Fat Frank" Battaglia, the drug kingpin in the
Lovejoy section of Buffalo.

About 20 heavily armed Buffalo police officers and federal agents
stormed into his apartment on Willett Street. They arrested the
corpulent dealer in his bedroom - festooned with posters of Tony
Montana, the homicidal drug kingpin from the movie "Scarface."

Battaglia, then 24, and 14 alleged associates were arrested. All but
one were convicted of federal drug crimes. Six got probation, and the
others were sent to federal prison, where Battaglia still resides
today, serving out a sentence of seven years and three months.

Nearly four years later, police and many community residents consider
the drug bust a success. They say the investigation put Lovejoy's
biggest pusher - a man whose drug dealings hurt many families - out of

"I've been in this neighborhood all my life. Fat Frank was one of the
heaviest drug dealers we've ever had here," said Art Robinson, 56, a
Vietnam War veteran and community activist. "All I know is, Frank hurt
a lot of families. He didn't care who he sold dope to, or how they got
the money to buy it."

But did the prosecution provide any long-lasting benefit to

That's a tricky question. This much is clear: Lovejoy's drug problem
didn't go away when Battaglia did. Drug addiction - and the criminal
activities related to it - still remain a serious problem, according
to those who live there.

Not long after Battaglia's arrest, other pushers - smaller, less
flashy operators - moved in to supply crack cocaine, heroin and other
drugs to people who still crave them.

A few weeks ago, police busted a drug house in the 1200 block of
Seneca Street, near a community center where children play each day.
Robinson said young people have been taking drugs in a clubhouse at
the Milton Street playground.

"It's one thing to bust the dealers," said Common Council Member
Richard A. Fontana of the Lovejoy District, who is thankful that the
cops took down Battaglia. "But if you're not providing enough help to
the drug users, they'll find someone else to buy from."

The same scenario plays out in many other Buffalo neighborhoods where
small armies of cops move in for a day, arresting drug dealers by the
dozens, only to have them replaced by new drug dealers.

The continued demand for drugs and the willingness of a fresh crop of
dealers eager to replace those who have gone off to prison raise some
serious questions:

How much do major drug investigations cost taxpayers? In an age of
dwindling funds, is the investment worth it?

If such investments are not cost-effective, what would be the cost to
society of allowing drug dealers to run rampant?

Would better drug-treatment programs dry up the demand for pushers
such as Battaglia?

Is the drug war - which costs $15.5 billion for the federal government
alone - a nationwide exercise in futility?

"It seems like we are on a treadmill, trying to chase [drug dealers]
down. We find ourselves rotating around the city. When you put one
away, it seems there is somebody ready to step in," said Lt. Paul R.
Delano of the Buffalo Police Department's Narcotics Squad.

Source of Frustration

"One thing I've realized in 23 years as a prosecutor is that the
criminal law enforcement system is only part of the solution to the
drug problem," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. "It's not the
whole answer. Our public health system, the education system, families
and the faith communities all have roles to play."

As for the residents of Lovejoy - an East Side working-class
neighborhood with about 7,000 people - they're glad that the police
rid them of Fat Frank and his crew. Many are thankful that a small
army of 150-plus cops showed the dealers that they do not own Lovejoy.

But the fact that the drug problem still exists there is a source of
frustration for some, including Marcia Ciapa of East Lovejoy Street.
Her son, Samuel, 23, was killed in 2002 because of his involvement
with drugs.

"[Drug abuse] is a problem that seems like it's never going to go
away," she said. "Once Fat Frank was gone, others stepped right up to
take his place. Drugs are still out of control in this neighborhood,
. but you have to keep trying."

Police believe that a dispute with drug dealers - not Battaglia - led
to the murder of Samuel Ciapa, who was strangled, stabbed and dumped
in a reservoir in Sloan in August 2002. Her son had problems with
drugs for years and repeatedly tried to get off of them, his mother

"Frank and Sammy knew each other since they were kids. ... Frank's own
father was murdered by drug dealers," Ciapa said.

"I asked Frank once, "How can you live with yourself, selling drugs to
kids?' He just laughed at me."

Investigators from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration described
Battaglia as a brazen pusher feared by many. Cops said Battaglia acted
as if he owned Lovejoy while he cruised around in a big blue Lincoln
Continental, using his cell phone to bark out orders to the many small
dealers working under him.

The month before he was busted, cell phone records showed, he had made
more than 10,000 calls. Working the phones paid off. On some days, he
and his crew would take part in more than 50 drug deals.

At one point, Battaglia was making more than a million dollars a year
selling drugs, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney's office estimated.
They said he slept with a loaded shotgun next to his bed and had an
electronic alarm system installed in his apartment.

In May 2008, Battaglia - after losing 170 pounds in jail - took a plea
deal. Admitting to a felony charge of running a continuing criminal
conspiracy, he apologized to the judge, his family and the community.

"He has turned his life around," said Battaglia's attorney, Rodney O.

Battaglia could be back on the streets less than two years from now,
according to court officials.

Going to prison is a risk most dealers are ready to take, according to
Tommy, a former drug dealer and gang member.

A Buffalo resident in his 20s who joined a gang and began stealing
cars at 11, Tommy has been around drug dealers all his life. He spoke
with The Buffalo News on the condition that his full name not be published.

"Some people aren't scared of jail. They don't give a darn about going
to jail," he said. "I know dealers who get arrested, get out on bail,
and still deal drugs while they are on bail."

In gang-infested neighborhoods with little opportunity for honest
work, some kids look up to flashy drug gangsters as heroes, Tommy said.

"The guy with the biggest rims and the biggest chains has the money,"
Tommy said.

The key for police, he said, is to aim high if they have any hope of
making a meaningful attack on drug dealing.

"[Police] always seem to catch the middle-level dealers and the
low-level street hustlers. They don't catch the big guys," Tommy said.
"If you don't catch the big dude who's supplying it, what's the point?"

That is true, according to Peter Allen Weinmann, a Buffalo attorney
who formerly headed drug prosecutions for the Erie County district
attorney's office.

Weinmann was not involved in the Battaglia case, but one thing about
it caught his eye - six of 14 defendants were sentenced to probation.
Aiming to get suppliers

"That raises some question with me as to how far up the food chain
these people really were," Weinmann said. "Sometimes, I think there is
a tendency to go after bigger numbers of arrests to get more headlines
and more funding."

Weinmann said he understands why authorities needed to prosecute
Battaglia and his top henchmen.

"But I wouldn't be able to tell you whether it was a successful
investigation until I knew if the case led to convictions of bigger
suppliers," he said.

Did the case lead to prosecutions of major suppliers?

"We always try to go up the ladder, to get the suppliers," said
Charles H. Tomaszewski, resident agent in charge of the Buffalo office
of the DEA. "In just about every major investigation, we get
information that helps us in other cases, sometimes cases in other
cities. We obtained helpful information in this case. I'm not going to
be more specific than that."

Putting dealers in prison isn't cheap, and the cost goes up all the

While declining to give specifics, law enforcers estimated that a
long-term drug investigation lasting six months or more can easily
cost up to $100,000 for personnel alone. The Battaglia case was
smaller than many, lasting about three months.

A team of investigators may work on a case for months, with some
conducting surveillance and interviews on the streets, while others
spend endless hours listening to wiretapped conversations among the
targets. Thousands of dollars more are often spent to pay informants
and to make undercover drug buys.

On the day of the arrests, it is not unusual for more than 100 police
officers and federal agents to take part in the raids. Some officers
receive overtime for their participation.

After that comes a wave of court costs. Officers, prosecutors, judges
and other court personnel all must be paid for the hundreds of hours
they spend in court.

In drug busts where 20 to 30 people are arrested, it is not unusual
for more than half the defendants to receive court-appointed attorneys
at taxpayer expense. In federal court, the court-appointed attorneys
now receive $125 an hour.

Costs Versus Benefits

After that comes perhaps the most expensive part of all - the cost of
imprisonment. In New York alone, more than 9,700 people are serving
prison time for drug felonies. The state estimates the cost of housing
a prisoner at $44,567 a year.

That means the state spends about $434 million a year to house drug
prisoners, and that figure does not include those held in local jails
and federal prisons.

To Delano, the veteran street cop, it's money that must be spent. "The
payoff is safer streets, hitting the bad guys where it hurts the most,
taking their money and assets and seeing the residents trying to take
back their neighborhoods," he said.

He said Buffalo narcotics cops last year seized nearly $1 million in
drug money, made nearly 900 arrests and removed 150 guns from the streets.

According to federal law enforcement agencies, anywhere from $20
million to $25 million is forfeited in connection with federal drug
cases in Western New York each year.

"Quite often, we seize more money and property from the dealers than
we spent on the investigation," Tomaszewski said.

Allowing narcotics dealing to go unchecked would cost society even
more, financially and otherwise, said Dick Gallagher, executive
director of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services. Aside from
destroying individuals and families, Gallagher said, drug abuse is a
huge expense to public health system and social services programs.

"Any time you can take any drugs off the street it helps," Gallagher

One retired narcotics detective said that it would be wrong to stop
arresting drug dealers just because other dealers will replace them.

"You can't stop arresting child molesters," he said, "just because you
know other child molesters will take their place."

TUESDAY: Debate over legalizing drugs 
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