EO Fire Department response leads to $3M drug bust

Photo Courtesy Connie Jackson
East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor, center, has a press conference in the City Hall rotunda on Monday, May 22, to announce the East Orange Police Department’s multi-million dollar marijuana drug bust on Thursday, May 18, at a home on Springdale Avenue near Soverel Field Park as police Chief Phyllis Bindi, left, and other officers listen. Authorities said police seized 1,470 marijuana plants from a four-car garage worth ‘an estimated street value of $2.95 million.’

EAST ORANGE, NJ — The East Orange Public Safety Department put a new spin on the saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” on Thursday, May 18, when firefighters from the Fire Division responded to a call of smoke coming from the garage in the backyard of a private home on Springdale Avenue and stumbled onto a sophisticated indoor marijuana-growing operation that officials said resulted in the confiscation of illegal plants with a street value of $2.9 million.

The four-car garage where the marijuana was found is located in the backyard of a private home located on Springdale Avenue, the location of which authorities did not reveal. Mayor Lester Taylor mentioned the structure during a press conference on Monday, May 22, that included police Chief Phyllis Bindi, other police officers and the fire chief, but nothing further related to the incident was discussed.

“I cannot disclose exact location, in order not to compromise integrity of investigation,” Connie Jackson, the city’s public information officer, said Monday, May 22. “The photo I sent was simulated one. We can’t show actual photos, for same reason. What I can add that is not in the release is that it took manpower of over eight hours to dispose of and take inventory of all the plants.”

Authorities said Sherline Dare, 37, who was taken into custody immediately after the discovery, was arrested and charged with maintaining a controlled dangerous substance production facility, distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, possession with intent to distribute, possession of more than 50 marijuana plants, distribution within 1,000 feet of a school, distribution within 500 feet of a public park, and conspiracy.

Gregory Rutty, 56, also was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled dangerous substance after marijuana and $1,736 in cash were found in his truck, which was parked on the street in front of the house.

If convicted, authorities said Dare could face as much as 25 years in prison. A warrant has been issued for her husband, Densley Lawrence, 41, for the same counts.

“He remains at large,” Jackson said. “Gregory Rutty has been released on bond. I cannot confirm details of the incident that was reported, due to the investigation being active.”

Taylor said the find on Thursday, May 18, was “one of Essex County’s largest seizures of marijuana.” He said East Orange police discovered a total of 1,470 budding plants in a four-car garage located in a single-family home, “not far from Soverel Park, near Springdale Avenue.”

“Authorities believe the entire pot production has an estimated street value of $2.95 million,” said Taylor on Monday, May 22.

Public Safety Director Sheilah Coley reportedly did not attend the press conference on Monday, May 22, however, she said police discovered the sophisticated indoor marijuana farm shortly after 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 18, “after responding to the report of an incident in the backyard of the home.”

“This was a high-tech, high-level marijuana-growing operation, the size of which I have not seen in my over 25 years in law enforcement,” said Coley on Monday, May 22. “Grow houses like these often go unnoticed, even by next-door neighbors. Thank you to the state police and Essex County Sheriff’s Office for all of their support in getting these illegal substances off our streets and out of our community.”

Taylor and Bindi said the drug discovery and subsequent bust was the latest success in the city’s ongoing public safety fight. According to her, in the first five months of 2017, East Orange police have seized more than $3 million in drugs.

“This latest bust now brings the total street value of drugs seized by East Orange police in 2017 to $3,090,000,” said Bindi on Monday, May 22. “In the first five months of 2017, police executed 16 search warrants, resulting in the seizure of $83,400 in cocaine, $10,733 in heroin, $444 in Xanax and $28,600 in (methamphetamine). Police have also seized six cars, 33 guns and $82,700 in cash this year. Cash seizures are already up by 60 percent from 2016.”

Bindi went on to state that an undercover investigation dubbed “Operation Strike” yielded the arrests of 13 people, more than $318,000 worth of narcotics, $68,000 in cash and seven illegal weapons last month.

“That investigation was prompted by citizen complaints and anonymous tips,” said Bindi.

Taylor commended the Department of Public Safety and credited its success to intelligence-led and community-oriented policing, as well as good, old-fashioned cooperation between the the departmental divisions.

“Since 2014, through the hard work and commitment of our officers, crime has continued a steady decrease, dropping 20 percent overall over the past two years,” Taylor said. “I pledged to provide our officers with the resources needed to enhance crime-fighting strategies and to implement preventative programs to foster mutual respect and cooperation. The brave men and women in law enforcement are a genuine reflection of our community, bound by shared experiences, rooted in common values and vested in the same goal of building a safer, stronger East Orange.”

Authorities said anyone with information about the case is asked to call the East Orange Police Department Tips Hotline at 973-266-5041.