Detectives describe elaborate tricks to take down large drug rings, from car compartments to wall X-rays

Local News

WAMPSVILLE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The New York Attorney General visited Syracuse to announce the arrest of 78 people connected to two massive drug rings, but it was the work of two Madison County Sheriff’s deputies credited with starting the investigation.

In an interview with NewsChannel 9, those deputies, Sgt. Jonathan Morticelli and Detective Rocco Deperno, explained what triggered their investigation two years ago and what elaborate tricks they had to work around to find the drugs.

The investigation began more than two years ago as a single tip, as simple as a neighbor complaining about suspicious traffic patterns in driveways at late-night hours.

“Saying ‘hey I saw this weird scenario occur’ and here’s a license plate involved with it,” recalls Sgt. Morticelli.

One suspect in one county led to at least 78 in multiple counties.

Detective Deperno explains: “There’s always a supplier, always an end user and there’s always a middle man. You just have to find the people. Once you reach the supplier, he has to have a supplier himself, we move from the next supplier to the next, to the next. We try to go up the chain and get to the largest guy we can get to.” 

Two of the people arrested were the kingpin organizers of each network. The detectives followed the worker of one network to discover the second, often working around elaborate tricks.

“We had one home where we actually brought in an X-ray machine to X-ray the walls,” says Deperno. “Because they’ll go as far as tearing the wall out, stacking the drugs in it and re-sheetrocking it.”

To avoid getting caught during delivery, bags of cocaine, heroin and guns were hidden in secret capartments built into cars. Police call them “traps.”

“Some of them are very, very elaborate, where you’d have to use a magnet in a specific area to unlatch a compartment that would open in the back of the car,” Deperno says. “Some (need) a key code on the radio.”

Investigators got warrants to tap cell phone conversations and followed suspects to observe transactions, including to parking lots which became a frequent meeting place during the pandemic.

The officers are humble, making sure credit for the investigation is shared among both the small and large agencies needed to make it happen. Several local departments joined in, along with the United State Postal Service, New York State Police and the New York Attorney General.

Sgt. Morticelli says, “Seeing the narcotics on the table, that’s an overdose that’s not going to happen tonight. Seeing the weapons on the table, that’s a shooting prevented that night.”

Thursday, Sgt. Morticelli was promoted to lieutenant, where he will continue working to get drugs off the streets.

This fall, Detective Deperno will retire, having just completed the biggest drug bust of his career.

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