A Ridgewood man, along with six others from Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island, has been arrested as the alleged co-leader of a prescription forgery ring that filled the black market with nearly $3 million of prescription painkillers, law enforcement agents announced on Monday.
Prosecutors said that Joseph Bivona, 45, of Shaler Avenue in Ridgewood, and Steven Keller, 53, of Valley Stream, Long Island, conspired to lead the prescription forgery and drug diversion ring from December 2011 to Jan. 7 of this year.
Joining Bivona and Keller in cuffs are the ring’s alleged “runners” who were tasked with filling forged oxycodone prescriptions at pharmacies throughout Queens and Brooklyn: Paulita Hernandez of Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood; Joanne Bivona of Myrtle Avenue in Glendale; Alexio Cunto of 70th Drive in Forest Hills; Nicole Colletta of 66th Drive in Middle Village; and Tracy Staten of Stagg Walk in Brooklyn.
Their arrests were the result of a long-term investigation by the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Prescription Drug Investigation Unit, DEA Group D-22 and the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA).
Bivona and Keller allegedly hired their family and friends to be the runners of the operation since 2011, cops said. These runners filled over 930 false prescriptions for oxycodone with the name of a physician who operates a pain management practice in Astoria. The scheme led to more than 160,000 pills with a street value of nearly $3 million being pumped into the black market.
“There is a close link between the illegal traffic in pain pills and record numbers of overdose deaths in New York City,” said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan. “We will continue our efforts to identify and prosecute anyone involved in this deadly trade.”
Both Bivona and Keller were arrested at their homes on Monday, Jan. 23. During a court-authorized search of Keller’s home, police found approximately $60,000 in cash.
According to the investigation, when the illegal ring started in 2011, it was common for an individual runner to fill up to eight oxycodone prescriptions per month, investigators said. On average, each prescription was written for 180 pills of 30 mg oxycodone.
However, since 2013, the ring scaled back its operation and changed its methods — with each runner only able to fill a single prescription each month — at around the same time that “I-STOP,” New York state’s enhanced Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing, tightened the restrictions on the prescribing of controlled substances.
“It is alleged that Bivona and Keller schemed to profit off of other people’s addictions by pushing diverted oxycodone onto New York City’s black market since 2011,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge James Hunt. “Evident by [Monday’s] arrests, law enforcement is committed to identifying prescription drug rings whose crimes contribute to opioid misuse within our communities.”
According to the indictment filed by the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Office, Bivona and Keller have been charged with the top narcotics charge of operating as a major trafficker.
Additionally, the alleged ringleaders and the five runners are charged with Fourth Degree Conspiracy, Second Degree Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument, and Third Degree Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance.
All seven defendants are scheduled to be arraigned in Manhattan Supreme Court on Monday.