A New Jersey man was sentenced Wednesday to 30 years in prison for running a drug delivery service that distributed dangerous drugs for over seven years, including the cocaine laced with fentanyl that killed three New York professionals, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced.
Billy Ortega, 37, from West Milford, New Jersey, ran a drug delivery service from his mother’s Manhattan apartment, acting as a dispatcher and coordinating deliveries by texting couriers and customers, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Ortega was convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute fentanyl, acetylfentanyl, and cocaine, the use of which caused the three deaths, along with other charges.
On March 17, 2021, Ortega’s couriers sent cocaine secretly laced with fentanyl to three customers across Manhattan, officials said. Attorney Julia Ghahramani, social worker Amanda Scher, and banker and soon-to-be father Ross Mtangi, all died after consuming the illicit fentanyl mixed into a batch of cocaine.
Ortega had been made aware that the laced cocaine had nearly killed someone before coordinating the additional deliveries, according to officials. After learning of the three deaths, he offered the supply to another drug dealer and continued his drug delivery operation up until his arrest nearly a year later.
Ortega was convicted after a two-week trial in January 2023 before U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams, who imposed Wednesday's sentence.
'Callous and remarkably evil conduct'
Officials said that before coordinating the three ultimately fatal deliveries, another customer warned Ortega his batch had almost killed someone. A friend of the other customer had been hospitalized and was administered a Narcan shot after taking the drugs, the customer’s text message said, which Ortega read before continuing with deliveries to three other people, who soon died from drug poisoning, according to officials.
Later that night, after the three people had stopped responding to his texts, Ortega offered the laced batch of cocaine to another drug dealer.
"Give it to some girls and you let me know lol bro," the message read.
After the three deaths, Ortega changed his phone number and continued to sell drugs until his arrest in 2022.
“Ortega’s callous and remarkably evil conduct rightly deserved a significant sentence,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Wednesday. “This sentence sends a message to the fentanyl traffickers causing the fentanyl epidemic in our communities that they will bear the most serious consequences.”
Families mourn losses
Families of the three victims appeared in court Wednesday as the sentence was handed down, WABC-TV reported. Mtangi’s mother, Lauren Lackey, sent a letter expressing her grief to Abrams, which was obtained by the station.
"My son is gone and my life destroyed because of Ortega's greed and callousness. I don't believe he cares about the destruction he caused or the rippling effects that our families will endure," Lackey said in the letter, according to WABC-TV. "It could have been prevented. My son was poisoned by Fentanyl. That horror sits on my chest and I feel it with every breath."
The family of Ghahramani, a 26-year-old lawyer and Columbia Law School graduate, founded the Julia Ghahramani Foundation in her honor, which now serves to support charitable and student-led organizations dedicated to social justice issues.
Ghahramani was also a contributor to the Columbia Law Review, "where one of her most cherished moments was a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with her hero and fellow Law Review alumna, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before she passed,” her family said.
Fentanyl overdose deaths on the rise
Every seven minutes, an American dies from fentanyl poisoning.
The powerful synthetic opioid is responsible for most overdose deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl overdose deaths climbed from 57,834 in 2020 to 71,238 the following year.
Illicit versions of the drug differ from legal fentanyl, a strong pain medicine vetted by the Food and Drug Administration and prescribed in medical settings to treat intense pain in cancer patients. Experts say illicitly manufactured fentanyl has increasingly been mixed with other street drugs, sold on the black market, and produced in labs overseas.
People intending to buy non-opioid street drugs may have no idea they are getting a potentially fatal mixture cut with fentanyl.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New York fentanyl poisoning deaths: Drug delivery leader gets 30 years