QUEENS, N.Y. — A dog was allegedly used as a drug mule to traffic more than $1 million worth of heroin to New York, the Queens District Attorney said Monday.
The Avi Labrador mix had been shipped along the same route as many rescue dogs have been for years — and that has at least one major dog rescue organization, which is not at all involved in the drug crimes, concerned that this major bust will affect its legitimate, humane effort to save dogs' lives.
The dog had been shipped from Puerto Rico to Kennedy Airport, where authorities discovered the stash hidden in the false bottom of the animal's crate.
Samuel Seabrooks, 35, of the Bronx, and Carlos Betancourt-Morales, 27, of Carmel, New York, were arraigned Sunday for their alleged roles in the scheme.
They’re charged with first-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and second-degree conspiracy. A judge set their bond at $500,000 each, or $250,000 cash bail each.
Prosecutors said that the suspects met at an IHOP in the Bronx last Friday, then left in separate cars to JFK. They had a brief conversation at the airport’s American Airlines Priority Parcel Services area, then Betancourt-Morales walked into the cargo building and signed for a crate holding the dog.
He was pushing the crate on a rolling cart toward the exit when he was stopped by police.
The next day, officers executed a search warrant on the crate and found 10 bricks — 4 inches wide and 6 inches long — packed with heroin and stamped with the Nike Swoosh symbol and a five-pointed star, prosecutors said.
In all, the crate’s false bottom was carrying 10 kilograms of heroin, or about 22 pounds — worth more than $1 million in street value.
Founder of the Sato Project, a dog rescue organization, said she is "shocked and angry" that this happened.
"[Whoever put the drugs in a canine carrier] not only placed an innocent animal in great danger, but by associating rescuing with criminal activity, it undermines the incredibly hard work that The Sato Project and other organizations have put in to developing their rescue programs and to saving thousands of dogs’ lives," Chrissy Beckles said.
"We hope that this terrible abuse of the good will and trust established by rescue organizations will not make it harder for us and other organizations to continue our lifesaving work of rescuing hundreds and thousands of dogs every year from a life of suffering and abuse on the streets and beaches of Puerto Rico, and finding them loving homes with families in the U.S."
Beckles founded the Brooklyn-based charity that rescues up to 400 dogs per year from an animal-dumping beach in Puerto Rico, cleans them, vaccinates them and ships them to the U.S. for adoption, via JFK Airport.
"As an organization, I know what it's like to get clearance with the airlines, and it was quite a difficult process," she said.
Her organization, the Sato Project, was not involved in or affected by the crime, but it is concerned that this case could impede the charity's efforts to protect and help dogs in Puerto Rico.
The Sato Project is also concerned that the alleged crime will make it more challenging for it to find safe homes in the mainland U.S. for dogs, even though the organization is not at all connected to the drug trafficking arrests and its record remains unblemished.
The transport container in which the dog was shipped is not one belonging to the Sato Project. Still, with the drug smuggling operation having used a very similar route and method as their organization, the Sato Project's founder and its rescue coordinator are both concerned that an act of crime may make their mission to do good for dogs in need more challenging.
"It takes a lot in order to get [a dog] approved to even get on a plane," said Samantha Gurrie, who helped to organize some 1,500 dog rescues as the Sato Project's coordinator. "We're kind of at a loss that this even happened in the first place."
If convicted, both suspects face up to 20 years in prison, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.
Their alleged trafficking of heroin was derided as a deadly contribution to the heroin epidemic gripping the five boroughs.
"Statistics show that, unfortunately, heroin has made a comeback in New York City and its surrounding suburbs, with fatal overdoses outpacing homicides," Brown said in a statement.