Natalie Ciappa was a pretty 18-year-old cheerleader from Massapequa with an honor roll GPA and a voice so beautiful that she was asked again and again to perform at her school, Plainedge High School. She was, according to her mother Doreen, “everybody’s kid, not the kid they would have to worry about.”
The talented teenager was also a heroin addict. So when she did not return from a party on June 21, Natalie’s mother and her father, Victor, went looking for her, fearing the worst. It had been a rough year for the Ciappas. Natalie had developed a serious drug problem in the summer of 2007, and on Memorial Day 2008, she overdosed on heroin.
Three weeks after the holiday, every parent’s worst nightmare confronted them. Their daughter, a recent high school graduate, was gone, a victim of heroin. Suddenly, a life full of promise and joy became another statistic in Nassau’s battle against the dangerous opiate that is making a troubling resurgence across the region.
On July 9, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice joined Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Natalie’s parents, and members of the Nassau County Police Department (NCPD) and district attorney’s vice/narcotics squads at a press conference announcing the arrests of at least one dozen people on a host of heroin distribution charges. The representatives stood feet away from two tables holding huge stacks of cash, hundreds of bags of heroin, packaging equipment and a handgun.
Among those arrested was Philip Ordaya, an ex-boyfriend of Natalie, and, according to her mother, a chief reason Natalie was addicted. Natalie is among several dozen who have died in Nassau County this year from the devastating drug.
“You know, 37 [suspected heroin] deaths [in Nassau County] is too much,” says Rice in an interview with the Press. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that it is a problem.”
Police sources have told the Press that others were caught in the recent sting that nabbed Ordaya. According to Rice’s spokesperson Eric Phillips, “There are more coming.”
“It definitely makes a dent, but it doesn’t eliminate the threat,” says Detective Lt. Peter Donohue, deputy commanding officer of the NCPD narcotics/vice squad, which oversees the Heroin Investigation Team (HIT).
As some predicted, the confirmation that heroin killed Natalie is beginning to rip the lid off the unseen lives of suburban heroin addicts. And her death also underscores the problem in that South Shore community of Massapequa, which police say is a hotbed of heroin activity among young people. In a recent Press cover story (“Long Highland,” June 26), officials from the Massapequa School District vehemently denied any heroin-related incidents at Massapequa High School.
But a police source has confirmed to the Press that on Oct. 5, 2007, a Massapequa High School student was indeed caught in heroin’s web. According to the source, the student, a minor, was incoherent during school hours. After her condition was brought to the attention of school administrators and police were called, she was found to be in possession of 28 bags of heroin and subsequently arrested. A spokesperson for the district, Kathy Beatty of Sayville-based Syntax Communications, did not return requests for comment.
Doreen Ciappa also said that Natalie had told her there was no shortage of drugs in the hallways at Plainedge High School. When Doreen asked the school for help, she says, she received none, and when she tried to talk to Natalie’s guidance counselor about her daughter’s weight loss, the counselor said she thought Natalie “looked great.” As was the case with Massapequa, a call to Plainedge Superintendent of Schools Christine P’Simer was not returned.
“School administrators need to wake up,” says Rice. “It is a real problem.”
Rice, who has made a name for herself as an Eliot Ness-type of prosecutor since entering office, believes that this is a start, but a lot of work is to be done. “At any given time, there are numerous investigations going on in this office,” says Rice. “We keep track of the ODs in the county, and we saw the trend.”
Rice applauded the bravery of Natalie’s parents, who only weeks ago lost their daughter. She hopes their story will help parents identify the signs of heroin abuse early on so no more young people are lost.
“I hope it brings awareness to parents,” says Rice.
Supported by her husband, Doreen took the podium at the press event and told the heartbreaking story of a fallen angel and a mother’s desperate fight to keep her daughter alive. Doreen had poked and prodded through Natalie’s belongings, questioned her and even joined MySpace and Facebook—posing as another person—to gain insight into Natalie’s troubled life.
“Before you knew it, I was even the dealer’s friend,” she says.
Ciappa recalls that Natalie began dating Ordaya in 2007—although she later learned that Natalie knew him before they were a couple. He visited the house, and was even invited to a family function. Doreen did eventually discover that Ordaya was dealing heroin.
She also chronicled a futile attempt to get help for Natalie, who refused rehab, even after the Memorial Day incident. She recalled her horror when, after that overdose, she was told by authorities that the little glassine bags she found in Natalie’s room were from heroin. Well before the Memorial Day incident, Doreen and Victor compromised, and sent Natalie to therapy, still not knowing the full gravity of her addiction. But when Natalie turned 18, they became completely powerless over her. In fact, Doreen remembers, she was so desperate that she planned on going to authorities to either gain control over Natalie or have her arrested. But it was too late.
“I would like to see the laws changed,” says Ciappa about not being able to make decisions to get young people help once they turn 18.
According to Donohue, it was a connect-the-dots game in the aftermath of Natalie’s death. The family, whom he describes as being “very helpful from day one,” turned her cell phone and computer over to the police, who discovered some familiar names and numbers in her records. One name that did pop was Ordaya’s. Police realized he was one of those being recorded on one of the wiretaps that had already been secured. Ordaya’s cell phone was subsequently tapped, too.
According to police sources, investigations that led to the arrests have been going on since late fall of 2007, but in February 2008, went into full gear after the HIT squad gathered important information. Police had noticed an increase in a long-standing drug trade at the Hempstead Bus Terminal.
“Hempstead Bus Terminal has been a known heroin-buying spot for years,” says Donohue. “There are lots of people who are functioning [heroin] addicts, and they will buy their drugs before they go to work, getting just enough to keep from getting sick during the day.”
As the investigation continued, the police found a stash house—a place where drugs are packaged for sale and kept until street dealers pick them up—in nearby Roosevelt. The police obtained a search warrant and found 804 bags of heroin ready for sale.
A search of that house also revealed that the main suppliers of the drugs were allegedly Alexander and Edward Fontanet, both of Queens. Police said that they were working with Donald Kurth of Merrick and Patrick Graf of Massapequa. Rice had successfully applied to Nassau County Court Judge Frank Gulotta for an eavesdropping warrant on two cell phones used by the Fontanets, and information gathered led to the court allowing Graf and Kurth’s phones to be tapped as well.
The resulting investigation netted evidence against Alexander Fontanet’s wife Lorraine Cianciulli, Queens-based Jose Demench, Kurth’s girlfriend Heather Wahl and Graf’s wife Melissa. Evidence also piled up against Damon Marinacci, of Syosset, and eventually Ordaya, of Seaford. With the exception of Ordaya, who was arrested July 7, the rest of the suspects were taken into custody on June 17. Additional searches at the Fontanets home revealed more than 1,000 envelopes of heroin and tools used to package and sell the drug.
A search of Graf’s Massapequa residence and vehicle also turned up heroin, with cops finding about 500 bags, and Kurth’s Massapequa home had more than 100. Ordaya was found to be in possession of bags marked with a “XX,” denoting a particular heroin often discussed among the suspects. According to Nassau County Assistant District Attorney Teresa Corrigan, chief of the district attorney’s narcotics bureau, Graf was responsible for the street sale of up to 700 bags of heroin every one or two days before he would get more supply.
Rice, like most law enforcement personnel, is shocked at the popularity of heroin on LI’s sleepy streets. But she has grown accustomed to being surprised when it comes to drug offenses.
“First, it was the prescriptions that kids were getting out of medicine cabinets,” she says. “Now it is heroin.”
Before Doreen left the press conference through a back door, she pleaded with parents to be more realistic about their children’s private lives.
“Look in their eyes,” she said. “Don’t be fooled.”