Building manager was witness to raid (Sidebar)

KEARNY – At around 7:30 p.m. last Monday, landlord Len Rosenberg started getting nervous calls from tenants at a rooming house he owns at 348 Kearny Ave.

“They were scared,” he said. “They were seeing men dressed in protective suits going in and out of the building next door (344 Kearny Ave.) carrying plastic bags.”

“They wanted to know if they were safe,” Rosenberg said.

The landlord said he immediately phoned the local police department who reportedly told him they weren’t involved and really couldn’t tell him anything.

Turns out that various federal and state law enforcement agencies had the two-story rooming house at 344 Kearny staked out for the better part of the day on the suspicion that an alleged drug distribution suspect – Chukwuemeka Okparaeke – was at that location. That suspect was, eventually, arrested.

But to civilians on the outside, it was all a mystery.

A local crossing guard stationed at the corner of Kearny and Halstead St. told The Observer that after she reported for work Monday morning, she saw several vans parked outside 344 Kearny and men she believed were cops of some kind standing nearby, apparently keeping watch.

“They were there all day,” she said.

When she approached one of the men and asked if he was a detective or a lawman of some kind, she said the man replied: “Why would you think I’m a cop?”

To which she said she answered: “Because I can see your badge.” The man smiled and shrugged, she said.

Joe Markowitz, the building manager for 348 Kearny told The Observer that sometime in the early evening he saw three “hazmat guys” – one in an orange suit and two in white – going in and out of the building.

After a while, Markowitz said, “they stopped going in. When they came out, they got sprayed. Then four other guys, also in suits, came inside with big plastic bags.” Eventually, they came out, too, he said.

Markowitz said he saw the initials DEA on the men’s suits.

The N.J. State Police reported they were on hand to assist agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Postal Service investigators.

At some point during the day, Markowitz said, “one of the tenants told me he saw one guy running [from 344] and being chased up Halstead where he was caught.”

Markowitz said he tried to elicit information from several of the men in suits, to no avail, until finally, one of them reportedly told him that no one in his building was in harm’s way.

By about 9:30 p.m., everyone had gone, he said.

Some of the mystery is unraveled in a document filed with U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith C. McCarthy, Southern District of N.Y., by U.S. Postal Inspector Brad Ruggieri, a member of the Prohibited Mail-Narcotics Team, on March 17, presumably in support of an application of a warrant to search 344 Kearny.

Ruggieri says Okparaeke’s name came up during a federal investigation into the use of a darknet website AlphaBay Marketplace – one of a series of “online black markets” used for the sale of items like drugs, guns, fake passports and child pornography – which “can only be accessed through The Onion Router, a software program that was originally developed by the U.S. Navy ….”

Ruggieri alleges that Okparaeke was using certain applications on his cellphone to “exchange encrypted messages” with illegal narcotics customers and was using USPS envelopes to illegally receive narcotics – some from Hong Kong – and transport them to customers.

Ruggieri alleges that Okparaeke was observed placing large plastic bags – later found to contain used rubber gloves, digital scales, backing from stamps, along with white powder residue believed to be a fentanyl analogue – in trash receptacles in Kearny.

As for the building at 344 Kearny, records in the Kearny construction office show that in November 2015, the building owner, listed as J.R. Verona LLC of Alpine Place, Kearny, was granted a variance by the local zoning board to convert a first-floor space then used as a tanning salon to six apartments, thereby making the entire building a rooming house. Building permits to do so were issued in April 2016. There has been no allegation of any wrongdoing by the owner.

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