TRENTON – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that a Mercer County man was sentenced to a lengthy prison term today for running a drug network that marketed cocaine and designer drugs online and distributed them through the mail. He was charged along with 11 other alleged ring members and associates in an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice called “Operation Skin Deep.” He and the two other top members of the ring have all pleaded guilty to first-degree charges.
Luke A. Atwell, 37, of Hamilton (Mercer County), N.J., was sentenced today to 19 years in state prison, including 16 years of parole ineligibility, by Superior Court Judge Bernard E. DeLury Jr. in Atlantic County. He pleaded guilty on April 27 to a first-degree charge of leader of a narcotics trafficking network. Atwell acted as managing partner of the drug ring.
Atwell’s partner, Christopher Castelluzzo, 33, of Lake Hopatcong, N.J., who formed the enterprise, also pleaded guilty to a first-degree charge of leader of a narcotics trafficking network on May 24. He faces a recommended sentence of 21 years in prison, with 18 years of parole ineligibility. He is scheduled to be sentenced on June 21. The third top ring member, Aldo T. Lapaix, 31, of Absecon, N.J., was sentenced by Judge DeLury on March 23 to 10 years in prison, including 8 ½ years of parole ineligibility. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 28, 2017 to first-degree charges of racketeering and distribution of cocaine. Lapaix helped procure drugs for the ring and handled the packaging and shipping of drugs.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Barile is prosecuting the defendants and handled the sentencing of Atwell for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau.
Operation Skin Deep began when a detective of the Division of Criminal Justice identified individuals trafficking cocaine while monitoring the activities of white supremacist groups in Atlantic City. The investigation into cocaine sales in Atlantic City ultimately exposed a network that was using the internet to arrange mail-order sales of cocaine and designer drugs, including ethylone, which is known as “M” and is similar to ecstasy.
“This sentence sends a loud and clear message to narcotics traffickers that if you choose to profit by spreading addiction in New Jersey and fueling street-level crime with your drugs, we will come after you and you will face hard time,” said Attorney General Grewal. “I commend the detectives and prosecutors who pursued all the leads to bring these defendants to justice, beginning with drug sales in parking lots and back rooms in Atlantic City and ultimately exposing a statewide drug network that relied on the internet and mail delivery to distribute its corrosive wares.”
“Atwell and his partners were making millions of dollars using their unconventional business model for dealing drugs,” said Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We have put them out of business and ensured with these prison sentences that they won’t be operating any illicit enterprises for many years to come.”
Atwell, Castelluzzo and Lapaix were indicted on March 3, 2016 along with nine other men, including seven other alleged ring members and two alleged associates. Six of those ring members have pleaded guilty and received or face prison sentences ranging from five to 10 years.
Another man charged in the indictment, Jose Ruvalcaba, 30, of Oxnard, Calif., pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He is a tractor-trailer driver who was arrested by detectives of the Division of Criminal Justice in a parking lot off Union Turnpike in North Bergen, N.J., along with alleged ring member Shazad Khan, 34, of North Bergen. Detectives found approximately $1.2 million in cash in the trunk of Khan’s Infiniti, wrapped in bundles with duct tape. It was one of the largest cash seizures in New Jersey law enforcement history. Khan allegedly met Ruvalcaba so that Ruvalcaba could transport the cash as payment for cocaine.
Castelluzzo was the primary leader who formed the enterprise. Atwell, as managing partner, was responsible for marketing the enterprise’s drugs on the internet, tracking and managing the gross receipts and expenses, dealing with customers, and keeping an inventory of the remaining drugs. Lapaix helped procure drugs for the ring to sell and handled the packaging and shipping of drugs. Atwell would send computer files to Lapaix containing lists of orders, including screen-names of customers, their addresses, and the amount and type of narcotics that each customer ordered. When Lapaix received the files, he and two men who worked under him would weigh out the drugs, package them, create tracking information, and mail each of the orders. Atwell would ensure all orders were properly filled. Lapaix obtained the supplies for packaging the orders and Atwell reimbursed him. Lapaix also engaged in street-level narcotics sales.
Search warrants executed at various locations yielded approximately a quarter of a million dollars in cash, diamond jewelry, gold bars, another quarter kilogram of cocaine, numerous rounds of ammunition, firearm silencers, cocaine testing, cutting and packaging materials, and related equipment.
Deputy Attorney General Barile is prosecuting the case for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau, under the supervision of Acting Bureau Chief Andrew Johns, Deputy Bureau Chief Jacqueline Smith, and Assistant Attorney General Jill Mayer, Deputy Director of the Division of Criminal Justice. Former Deputy Attorney General Alyssa Schwab and Analyst Bethany Schussler assisted in the investigation for the Specialized Crimes Bureau. Deputy Attorney General Derek Miller and Analyst Debra Maiorano handled the civil forfeiture action.
The lead detectives for the Division of Criminal Justice were Detective Scott Caponi of the Gangs & Organized Crime Bureau and Detective Brian Christensen of the Specialized Crimes Bureau. They were assisted by Sgt. Mike Rasar and worked under the supervision of Deputy Chief of Detectives Christopher Donohue and Lt. Lisa Cawley. They received extensive assistance from detectives of the Gangs & Organized Crime and Specialized Crimes Bureaus, North, South, and Central Units. The New Jersey State Police Intelligence Section also provided valuable assistance. Other partners that were critical to the success of the investigation were the Atlantic City Task Force, Bayonne Police Department, Galloway Police Department, North Bergen Police Department, New York City Police Department, Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and New Jersey National Guard.
Edward C. Logan, Esq., Princeton, N.J.
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