BINGHAMTON — A journey that started one year ago — when Lake George lost in the 2017 state title game — came full circle Saturday night at Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena.
Seven of the 13 Warriors from last year’s team, including starters Alex Jones, Mason Flatley, Chris Becker and Caleb Scrime, returned this season with one goal in mind — redemption.
In front of more than 50 Lake George students who did not sit for the entire game, and a sea of passionate friends and family, Lake George defeated Northstar Christian Academy 66-65. For the first time since 2015 and the third time in six seasons, the Lake George boys basketball team is Class C state champion.
Lake George wins 66-65 and are 2018 Class C state champions. pic.twitter.com/fKxDJecZiF— Ellis L. Williams (@BookofEllis) March 18, 2018
“We made a group chat named Redemption,” said Flatlely, who scored 15 points. “We stayed in touch with each other the whole off-season. We worked out together, played together and it paid off.”
Lake George led for 31 of the game’s 32 minutes, but a late Knights’ rally nearly cost the Warriors the game. Nursing a 64-62 lead with 13 seconds to play, the Warriors needed to get the ball inbounds cleanly and prepare for a quick Northstar foul.
No one was open at first, but then Scrime broke free deep, caught a three-quarter-court pass and had a wide-open layup.
A miss meant the Knights would have a chance at a go-head shot. But Scrime calmly finished the lay in, pushing Lake George’s lead to four. The Knights went down to hit a 3-pointer, but it did not matter as time had expired.
Lake George is the only Class C school with multiple state titles in the past decade, and completed its first perfect season (28-0) in school history. The Warriors join Westhill, a Class B school, as the only programs with three state championships since 2013.
Caleb Scrime led Lake George with 20 points, including four 3-pointers. Alex Jones added 13 and Becker was named tournament MVP scoring six points and pulling down 12 rebounds.
“Twenty-eight and oh, who would’ve thought?” Warriors coach Dave Jones said. “I am kind of speechless but it was such a grind for these guys. I think they did feel the pressure at times, especially at regionals, but they came here to win.”
They came to Fort Edward from law enforcement agencies around the Northeast that day in late 2014, spurred by a dramatic increase in heroin use around the region that spurred the regional Hometown vs. Heroin Coalition.The goal was to open lines of communication and figure out how they could better work together to combat the movement of deadly opioids and other narcotics to their communities.
“That first meeting we had over 100 people from local agencies, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, all over New York, the FBI and DEA,” Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said. “It really kicked off what has become a regular thing every month, and we’re still getting 50 to 60 people.”
Those who have been involved in the local law enforcement system for decades say the meetings are a prime example of the improved cooperation between agencies on the local, state and federal levels, which has been the key to an increase in major drug seizures in recent years.
The effort may get an additional bump in the coming months, as Washington County authorities await word on new federal funding that could dramatically aid the narcotics battle.
Local agencies network with State Police (local state troopers as well as the agency’s Community Narcotics Enforcement Team), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, contacts in other states and have even gotten recent assistance in Washington County from the military.
That cooperation, combined with improvements to police technology that make criminal cases all but airtight, has resulted in some of the biggest convictions in the region’s history as police focus more on major dealers, particularly those selling
opiates and cocaine, and the region’s place on the transportation routes between major cities.
Multi-ounce seizures of heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs that were once rare in rural upstate New York have become somewhat commonplace, with four locally in about a year.
To wit, over the past 13 months:
The push to counter the heroin epidemic helped bring the agencies together, with assistance from the New York City area, Vermont and on the federal level.
“The cooperation has never been better,” Murphy said. “If someone moves into this area to sell drugs, our guys know about it within a couple of days.”
The agencies have not come together in a formal task force, as is seen in other regions or states. Instead, they work in a loosely knit organization in which agencies have contact people within other agencies.
Many of the recent major arrests have come during controlled traffic stops by police on local highways — traffic stops that stem from a sharing of intelligence around the Northeast as to the moving of narcotics.
Washington County District Attorney Tony Jordan and Glens Falls Police Detective Lt. Peter Casertino said Washington County Undersheriff John Winchell deserves much of the credit for bringing agencies from the region together and keeping them well-organized in recent years.
Winchell was a longtime Glens Falls Police sergeant, known for his efforts in Glens Falls to investigate drug crimes and drunken driving before he became undersheriff for Murphy when he took office in 2012.
Meetings that once drew 10 officers from around the region now bring 40, typically organized by Winchell, Jordan said. His memory for a face and name and his ability to connect the dots between people are legendary in police circles.
“If they have lived around here and John doesn’t know them, chances are they have lived a quiet, law-abiding life,” Jordan said.
Casertino also credited the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Queensbury for its efforts to get state resources for drug cases, and assistance to Glens Falls Police.
Warren County Sheriff Bud York, who created his agency’s first dedicated narcotics unit when elected in 2008, said his officers routinely work with virtually every agency in the region, as drug dealers and users don’t just stay in one county.
Murphy said the regional effort has also gotten federal assistance from the Army National Guard’s counter-drug unit, with a data analyst from the agency working from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to compile narcotics information and funnel it to local police. He said the National Guard officer has greatly enhanced the ability to share information and make sure officers on the street have detailed reports on people, vehicles, drug packaging and other aspects of their investigations.
Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo, a criminal investigator for decades before being elected sheriff, said interagency cooperation is the key to success in drug investigations.
“You need to be one big team if you really want to accomplish anything,” Zurlo said.
They don’t just focus on the law enforcement portion of the equation, Jordan said.
Jordan said the investigators also work to get the drug users with whom they work to the right rehabilitation and assistance programs, as they know their jobs will only get harder if the addiction crisis worsens.
“They are as concerned about the users as they are with aggressively going after the dealers,” he said.
Technological advances have been a boon to police as well, and they have made it so that few drug dealers challenge the charges against them once they make it to court.
Felony drug trials are a rarity, as police and prosecutors generally bring cases against dealers when they have at least two sales from them, to counteract claims that a sale may have been a one-time favor for a friend or action as an intermediary. The sales are typically made to undercover officers, as opposed to police informants who were commonly used years ago.
While police are hesitant to talk about the hidden technology now used in these cases, GPS, hidden cameras and other surveillance measures play a part in tracking who moves where and when. Police also use a new location at an industrial building in Queensbury, away from prying eyes at police stations, to meet and go over tactics and equipment.
Warren County District Attorney Jason Carusone specialized in drug prosecutions for most of his career before replacing longtime District Attorney Kate Hogan on Jan. 1, and said much has changed for the better over the years in terms of building drug cases.
“We are in a different world in terms of evidence and technology,” Carusone said. “Twenty years ago we would have a bad recording of a cassette. Now we have HD video. That is a powerful piece of evidence.”
While arrests have risen, trials are now rare. Procedures have changed over the years to make most drug sale cases almost unbeatable, with high-definition video and undercover officers used to make purchases instead of confidential informants.
Making sure that dealers are held accountable for selling drugs like Fentanyl and heroin that have killed dozens locally is as important as removing the narcotics from the street, Sheriff York said.
And while many argue the so-called “war on drugs” is not winnable, police say unless the law changes, they are duty-bound to enforce it.
“We are not going to arrest it away, but we still have to stay on it,” York said.
FORT EDWARD — Washington County officials are hoping that the extent of the drug problem in the county will help qualify the county for additional federal funding if it is deemed a “high-intensity drug trafficking area.”
Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy said the Sheriff’s Office has applied to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for certification through the HIDTA program, which would open up extensive new funding and resources. There was no timetable for a decision, but he said he was optimistic the county would qualify, as police chiefs in the county and regional state legislators were advocating for it as well.
“If it comes through, it will be extremely helpful,” the sheriff said. “It would open up more funding, equipment and personnel for us.”
According to the DEA, there are 28 HIDTAs in the U.S., which include approximately 18 percent of all counties in the nation and 66 percent of the U.S. population. HIDTA-designated counties are located in 49 states, as well as in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. The DEA has nearly 600 authorized special agent positions dedicated to the program, according to the DEA website.
In New York, counties in northern New York along the Canadian border and Albany and Schenectady counties are part of HIDTAs. Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Poughkeepsie and New York City are also included.
Murphy said the region’s place on one of the main routes to and from Vermont, and the ongoing opioid crisis among people in the area, would seem to help it qualify. Local police have made dozens of major drug seizures on routes 4 and 149 and the Northway involving traffickers headed to or from Vermont.
Murphy said a determination that the county is an HIDTA would be a big boon for enforcement.
“It’s gotten tougher for people around here to deal drugs, but it’s about to get a whole lot tougher,” Murphy said.