A Brooklyn man was charged on Wednesday with selling a deadly dose of fentanyl-laced heroin to the actor Michael K. Williams, who was best known for his portrayal of the gay stickup man Omar Little in the television series “The Wire.”
The man who was charged, Irvin Cartagena, and three others were accused of being part of a drug-trafficking crew that continued to sell the drug even after knowing it had killed Mr. Williams — operating in broad daylight amid apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to a criminal complaint.
The sale of the fatal dose to Mr. Williams in a hand-to-hand transaction in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood on Sept. 5, 2021, was captured on security video, the authorities said.
“This is a public health crisis,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement announcing the charges. “And it has to stop. Deadly opioids like fentanyl and heroin don’t care about who you are or what you’ve accomplished.”
Michael K. Williams, 54, was found dead in his apartment on Sept. 6. The medical examiner ruled that his death had been caused by “acute intoxication by the combined effects of fentanyl, p-fluorofentanyl, heroin and cocaine.”
The charges against the four men stem from an investigation that began early last year, before Mr. Williams died, the complaint says. The other men charged along with Mr. Cartagena, 39, were Hector Robles, 57; Luis Cruz, 56; and Carlos Macci, 70. All are from Brooklyn, the government says.
All four were charged with one count of narcotics conspiracy. Mr. Cartagena was also accused of causing Mr. Williams’s death in connection with the conspiracy, the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Remembering Michael K. Williams
The actor, who starred in the pioneering HBO series “The Wire,” was found dead on Sept. 6, 2021, in his home in Brooklyn. He was 54.
A lawyer for Mr. Cartagena could not immediately be identified. He was arrested in Puerto Rico and is expected to be brought to court tomorrow. Mr. Macci’s lawyer declined to comment. Lawyers for the two other men did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Keechant Sewell, New York City’s police commissioner, said the charges reflected the kind of deep investigations that are conducted in cases “where criminals peddle narcotics and prey on the innocent, and where people die from illegal drugs” — a particularly stark problem during the pandemic.
People have died in record numbers from drug overdoses across the United States as the coronavirus has raged, according to preliminary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Health experts believe the increase in fatal overdoses reflects a convergence of an array of issues, including a deepening of mental health challenges for some people and the widening availability of dangerous street drugs.
One such drug, the synthetic opioid fentanyl, can be several dozen times more powerful than opioids derived from natural sources. The drug, which can be prescribed legally to treat pain, is cheap to make and has spread underground as a potent heroin alternative.
There has been a pronounced jump in overdose deaths in New York City, with more than 2,300 in the 12-month period that ended last March, according to the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York; about six people died of overdoses each day in recent months, the office has said. The vast majority of those deaths involved fentanyl, heroin or some combination of the two, according to the office.
Before his death, Mr. Williams had also openly discussed his personal fight to overcome drug addiction.
“The Wire,” which aired on HBO over five seasons in the 2000s, explored the underworld of crime and drugs in Baltimore and how it intersected with institutions like City Hall, the police and schools. The series is widely viewed by critics as among the best in TV history, and Mr. Williams’s character — a vicious killer with a surprising soft side and a strict code of honor — was among the most popular with viewers.
The investigation into Mr. Williams’s death relied on sustained detective work, license-plate readers and surveillance video, the complaint makes clear.
The police, responding to a report of an unresponsive man at Mr. Williams’s apartment on Sept. 6, found him dead, with what were later determined to be narcotics and related paraphernalia on a table, the complaint says.
Using license plate-reader records, as well as GPS data from Mr. Williams’s cellphone, investigators tracked his car’s movements across the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan shortly before 1 p.m. on Sept. 5, and then back across the bridge to Williamsburg, the complaint says.
Security video shows Mr. Williams getting out of his parked car on South Second Street after returning to Brooklyn, and then walking about a block to where Mr. Cartagena and a group of other men were. One of the men places his hand on Mr. Williams’s shoulder, an indication that he recognizes Mr. Williams, according to the complaint.
The footage appears to show Mr. Williams speaking to Mr. Cartagena, and Mr. Cartagena then walking around a row of trash cans, retrieving what appeared to be a plastic bag, reaching inside the bag and removing an item, the complaint says.
He then reaches over the trash cans and makes a hand-to-hand exchange with Mr. Williams, the complaint says. The two then appear to exchange phone numbers, Mr. Williams returns to his car, drives to his apartment building and never comes out, the complaint says.
When he was found the next day, Mr. Williams was wearing the same clothes he had on when he made the drug transaction captured on video, the complaint says.
Mr. Williams, who earned five Emmy Award nominations during his career, was a fierce advocate for criminal justice reform off screen, including as a founder of a local organization where he worked to reimagine what public safety in Brooklyn might look like.
He was raised in the borough’s East Flatbush section and grew up in a working-class housing complex once known as Vanderveer Estates — a setting that he said he had drawn inspiration from for his acting. In the days after his death, longtime Flatbush residents said that even as he found success in Hollywood, Mr. Williams retained a down-to-earth spirit and gave back regularly to the neighborhood where he had grown up.
“There are so many people here — beautiful and beautifully flawed people — and I want all of their stories to be told,” Mr. Williams said of the residents of the housing complex in a 2017 interview with The New York Times.