NEW YORK -- Searching for the supplier of a deadly blend of heroin that may have killed as many as 14 people in the last week, police have saturated the Lower East Side of Manhattan with undercover agents and surveillance teams.
Since Monday, when the rash of overdoses was discovered, the police have arrested a number of street-corner heroin dealers in an effort to find the distributor who packaged the potent brand, known as China Cat.
"We are making a major effort," said Assistant Chief Martin O'Boyle, head of the department's narcotics division. "We don't want any more addicts to overdose on this drug."
It was the worst outbreak of heroin overdoses in New York in more than a decade, drug experts and police officials said. And, they say, it reflects the rising abundance and popularity of heroin in New York.
"Heroin has re-emerged on the drug scene after nine years of cocaine prominence," said Dr. Mitchell S. Rosenthal, president of Phoenix House, the nation's largest residential drug treatment group. "We're likely to see continued rising use of the drug and continued casualties."
Police have been focusing on the Lower East Side within a few blocks of an intersection that they and heroin users say has been the main marketplace for the China Cat brand. Teams of eight officers have been working undercover, buying heroin and arresting sellers, while other officers on rooftops and in parked cars have been observing sellers and signaling for arrests.
In a meeting with reporters yesterday afternoon, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said he was giving the deadly heroin high priority.
"It's of great concern that we've had so many deaths in such a short period of time," Commissioner Bratton said. "The purity of this is about as pure as you can get."
Assistant Chief John J. Hill, the chief of detectives in Manhattan, said that a laboratory analysis of two bags of China Cat, which were found beside the body of a 46-year-old piano tuner on Sunday in his TriBeCa apartment, showed that the contents were more than 96 percent pure heroin.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when heroin was causing havoc in New York and other cities, a bag of heroin sold on the street usually had 4 percent to 5 percent of the drug, plus diluents like lactose and powdered coffee creamer. In the last few years the percentage of heroin has been rising sharply and now, the police say, the purity levels in bags sold in New York are generally 45 percent to 60 percent.
Police and other drug experts say the distributor of China Cat may have intentionally put on the market heroin that was virtually undiluted in an attempt to draw customers seeking a more powerful high than is available from other brands. Or, they say, the distributor may have made a mistake. But they are somewhat skeptical about a mistake, because a great deal of money was at stake.
A kilogram or 2.2 pounds of heroin costs distributors at least $160,000 in New York, compared with the same amount of cocaine for $18,000 at least. By cutting the heroin in half, the distributor doubles his money. The only brake on the distributor's dilution level, the police and drug experts say, is the competition.
"If you're selling 50 percent heroin and I'm selling 80 percent heroin, they're going to buy my heroin," said Kenneth McCreary, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York.