Most people don't associate the mostly rural county of 130,000 with drug trafficking, but as the number of young prescription pill addicts turned heroin junkies balloons throughout the state, Hunterdon has become a battleground.
The number of New Jerseyans between the ages of 18 and 25 in treatment for heroin addiction jumped by 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, records show, and Hunterdon felt the brunt of that boom. The county has suffered 10 heroin-related deaths since 2011 and 13 people overdosed on heroin this year alone, including three fatalities, authorities said.
Every day, Kearns told The Star-Ledger of Newark, county residents are driving to Newark, Trenton and Easton, Pa., to buy heroin in bulk and then resell it at home with a mark-up, charging what police call a "safety premium."
So the cops started following them.
Prosecutor's detectives and local police have arrested nearly 50 people in a 10-month initiative dubbed "Operation Day Tripper," Kearns said. With the help of federal investigators, authorities said they also intercepted a $1.25 million heroin shipment from Honduras at John F. Kennedy International Airport and tracked it to Hunterdon County. Authorities said they seized the shipment at an apartment in Flemington.
"We got together and we recognized that we had a problem with heroin," Kearns said. "The majority of the heroin in this county seems to be coming, on a daily basis, from out of county."
New Jersey's heroin boom followed a national surge in prescription pill abuse. Most young addicts start out stealing from their parents' medicine cabinets, but when that access vanishes or their wallets empty, they turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
New Jersey has the dubious distinction of being home to some of the country's purest heroin, making the addiction all the more deadly, authorities say. The majority of the 47 suspects arrested were between the ages of 18 and 25, according to Kearns, and some users were buying up to 50 bags of heroin each day for personal use.
All were charged with either drug possession or distribution, according to Kearns, who said the growing heroin demand in Hunterdon has garnered the attention of gang-affiliated drug dealers from Newark and Trenton. Several dealers with gang ties have come looking to take advantage of the untapped suburban market in the past year, and Kearns said he is trying to prevent the gun violence that usually comes next.
"We have not seen the violence that typically follows that, and we don't want to see the violence," Kearns said.
Officials were also disturbed by the 6? pounds of raw heroin they seized with the help of Homeland Security officials as part of the operation in December.
The sheer quantity of heroin, which was mixed into baby food containers and smuggled through JFK Airport in New York City, stunned local officials.
"I haven't seen that much in my career," said Sgt. Ryan Neiber, a prosecutor's investigator.
The volume is a concern to prevention officials like Lesley Gabel, an associate executive director at Hunterdon Prevention Research.
Gabel pointed to a 2012 survey that shows the number of county high school students using heroin is higher than the national average, and while she applauded Kearns' efforts, Gabel said prevention and treatment are the only way to truly break the county's growing drug culture.
"I don't think the arrests, in particular, are scaring off anyone," she said. "Most people don't think they are going to get caught."
Gov. Chris Christie's Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse has been monitoring the state's heroin boom closely, and plans to release a report on the issue next month.
Celina Gray, the council's director of community relations, said investigations such as the one in Hunterdon are crucial to stemming addiction.
"(Prosecutor Kearns') efforts, along with the efforts of law enforcement officers and agencies throughout the state of New Jersey are invaluable, as we work to stem the tide of heroin and other opiate use by youth and young adults," she said.
Information from: The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com