Bail reduced for two Wildwood men charged in drug raid

Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

Prosecutor links heroin ‘brand’ to overdoses

WILDWOOD - Two Wildwood men accused of being co-conspirators in a major heroin operation in Cape May County have had their bail reduced, just a week after they were arrested in a the largest narcotics sweep in the county’s history.

Juan Lopez, 56, and Miguel Claudio, 29, are two of nine people charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess heroin. They asked Cape May County Superior Court Judge Patricia Wild to reduce their bail on Thursday, June 26.

Both men entered court Thursday in handcuffs and shackles, wearing orange jumpsuits from Cape May County jail.

Hector Ramos, who is charged with being a leader of a narcotics trafficking network, was also scheduled for a bail hearing in front of Wild, but an attorney representing Ramos withdrew that motion in court Thursday.

The three men were arrested last week during a coordinated raid that included sites in Cape May and Cumberland counties, resulting in the seizure of $3.6 million worth of heroin, thousands of bags of the drug that had been prepackaged for street sale, $200,000 in cash, and a handgun.

Another 30 vehicles were searched after the June 18 raid as a part of the investigation, Meghan Hoerner, an assistant prosecutor with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office said.

According to Hoerner, Lopez and Claudio are accused of working under Ramos in a drug trafficking network. In court, she testified that the state has evidence Lopez had “multiple observed meetings” with Ramos, while communications records show that Claudio had also been in contact with Ramos.

Hoerner said that during the investigation, which is still ongoing, several properties, residences, and vehicles had been searched in this county and Cumberland. Ramos’s vehicle allegedly contained 7,700 bags of heroin prepackaged for street sale, all marked with the brand “White House.”

“At this point, the magnitude of this case can not be overstated,” Hoerner said.

The brand, Hoerner said, was what had turned investigators onto the case. She said that since January, there had been 52 overdoses in the county, 11 of which had been tied to bags stamped with the “White House” brand. Two of those 11 overdoses were fatal, she said.

The drug is laced with fentanyl, a pain reliever that is reportedly 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and law enforcement have warned that in combination with heroin it can be deadly.

The White House brand has also been tied to Ramos in the past, Hoerner testified. In 2006, a fatal heroin overdose was tied to the brand.

“Mr. Ramos went off the radar for a while,” Hoerner said. “And then when he was back on the radar the White House heroin again resurfaced.”

Attorneys for Lopez and Claudio argued that the two men are employed, and drugs were not found on them or at their residences. Both attorneys also claimed that their clients did not know some of the individuals named as co-defendants in the case.

Lopez is employed as a maintainer of tram cars on the Wildwoods Boardwalk, and has held the position for 13 years, his attorney, Thomas Rossell, said. While he did have five prior arrests and three convictions, some of which involved drug possession and disorderly conduct, the latest conviction was from 1992. He has been a Wildwood resident for 24 years.

“My client has been a law abiding citizen and clean and sober for 22 years,” Rossell said.

Wild reduced Lopez’s bail from $200,000 to $100,000 full cash or bond, despite the state arguing that while Lopez is charged with a second degree crime of conspiracy to distribute heroin, and third degree conspiracy to possess heroin, the amount involved is a first-degree weight.

The state had also asked Rossell and David Stefankiewicz, the attorney for Claudio, to delay the bail hearings to next Thursday, when they hoped to have more information about the involvement of various individuals in the alleged drug trafficking network.

“It is still in the early stages of determining everyone’s role,” Hoerner said of the investigation.

Wild said that she was persuaded to lower the bail because Lopez could lose his job if he was not released, which would impact his ability to pay for a defense attorney, should he want to hire a private defense attorney, and pay for bail. His time out of work is also a hardship to his family, she determined.

“Perhaps at some point in his life he said he had enough with his involvement in narcotics,” Wild said.

Claudio’s bail was also reduced from $200,000 to $150,000 full cash or bond on similar reasoning. Claudio is a self-employed auto mechanic in Wildwood. On Thursday, his attorney testified that Claudio’s business, storage facilities used for the business, residence, and car had been searched by law enforcement and no drugs were found. Hoerner testified that the search did not turn up any drugs in those locations.

Stefankiewicz said that as a mechanic, Claudio has gotten the reputation that he is good at his work and several people now bring their cars to him to fix and that he is an active member of the local Puerto Rican community, as are his wife and children.

But, Hoerner testified that several of the vehicles searched as a result of the investigation were found to have various “traps” custom built into them, which could be Claudio’s work. However, Stefankiewicz argued that Claudio is not an auto-body mechanic.

Neither man is permitted to leave New Jersey as a condition of the bail, and would have been required to turn over their passports, if either man had one. After the hearing, both men were escorted back to Cape May County jail.

Email Christie Rotondo at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or comment on this story at 

blog comments powered by Disqus