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Key figure in heroin bust was freed in wake of Dookhan case

Jose Casellas had returned to the country after his deportation.Lawrence District Court

Jose Casellas had completed roughly half of his five-to-six year prison sentence in 2012 for drug-trafficking when he saw then-Governor Deval Patrick on television discussing the state's vast crime lab scandal.

Chemist Annie Dookhan had been accused — and was later convicted — of tampering with evidence at a state drug lab. Her actions compromised thousands of convictions, including that of Casellas. He was released from jail early.

That was the first time Casellas caught a lucky break in his dealing with the law. The second, harder to explain, came a year later, well after he had taken advantage of his freedom to become what police said was a major player in the region's heroin trade, often hiding in plain sight.


A month after Casellas successfully challenged his drug cases, he was deported to the Dominican Republic, according to state Department of Public Safety and immigration officials.

But he soon slipped back into the United States and returned to Lawrence, setting up his drug operation in a duplex in a residential neighborhood, next door to a city councilor, police said. Casellas didn't arouse suspicion, even when he was caught speeding in June 2014, less than a year after he had been deported.

Court records show that State Police stopped Casellas on Water Street in a Nissan Altima and charged him with speeding, operating without a license, giving a false name, and forging Registry of Motor Vehicles document. As with all bookings, his fingerprints were sent electronically to the FBI and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a background check.

State Police then released Casellas, a move that would prove to be a mistake.

The next day, Customs officials said, they received a notification from their database that Casellas was the aggravated felon they had deported the year before and should not have been in the country. Reentering the United States after deportation is a federal crime.


But by then, Casellas was gone. He failed to appear for an arraignment and "attempts to locate him after his release were unsuccessful," said Customs spokesman Khaalid Walls.

It is unclear why State Police released him before immigration officials had identified him. State Police and Customs did not respond to questions about how the case was handled

Casellas's luck would eventually run out. In late June, just a week shy of his two-year anniversary as a free man, police got a lead on a "significant" heroin-trafficking enterprise and Casellas was arrested. Authorities described Casellas, 37, as a major player whose drug operation extended throughout New England.

Had he not caught his earlier lucky breaks, he would not have had that opportunity.

Casellas — known to immigration officials as Rafael Lopez-Carrasco — first landed on Lawrence police radar in 2009, said Police Chief James X. Fitzpatrick

In August of that year, police in Haverhill spotted the 6-foot, 250-pound Casellas inside the Market Basket supermarket at Westgate Plaza one afternoon, selling heroin to a man from Portland, Maine, according to news reports. Police seized 6.5 grams of heroin with an estimated street value of $650 and more than $2,000 in cash. Both men were ordered held on $20,000 cash bail, which Casellas later posted.

Three months later, while police in Lawrence were investigating a home invasion on Avon Street, officers said they saw heroin and cocaine in plain view during a "protective sweep" of a third-floor apartment.


Casellas, who appeared while police were in the apartment, was later arrested. He pleaded guilty in 2010 and was sentenced to five to six years behind bars.

But two years later, as the Dookhan scandal became public, Casellas saw a way out.

"In light of the startling revelation by my Governor, I now realize that I was duped, and coerced into pleading guilty to a crime I didn't commit, and based on the false allegations of the drug analyst, chemist, Annie Dookhan," Casellas wrote in his appeal to the court in 2012.

A 2013 Globe review found that 613 so-called Dookhan defendants had either their criminal sentences put on hold, were released on bail pending a new trial, or had charges against them dropped altogether. Scores went on to be arrested again.

Prosecutors would not comment on Dookhan's affect on Casellas' case, although Casellas's defense lawyer was blunt: "He got out because of Annie Dookhan," John P. Morris said.

"This case illustrates concretely how seriously her actions are hurting public safety. There are a lot more out there like [Casellas]," said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association.

After Casellas had reentered the country illegally and moved into the duplex on Woodland Street in Lawrence, he introduced himself to City Councilor Sandy Almonte and said in Spanish, "Hi, I'm your neighbor next door."

For Valentine's Day, Casellas bought Almonte's children chocolate, and, another neighbor said, on Halloween children would stop by Casellas's house for treats, all the while, police say he was running a "mill operation where heroin and fentanyl were being mixed and bagged for sale."


"Never, ever, ever did I have a suspicion," Almonte said. "His kids played basketball with my son. . . . He was just a normal person."

Nancy Morin, 57, who has lived on the block for 30 years, said Casellas was a truck driver who often drove his 18-wheeler to Chicago and Georgia. After one trip down South, he returned with a box of Georgia peaches for Morin after she told him they were her favorite, she recalled.

"He fooled us," said Morin.

But Casellas's historic good fortune ended late last month after a home invasion in Manchester, N.H.

Drugs were found in the victim's home, and she agreed to work with police who, in a matter of days, had Casellas in their sights.

On June 25, authorities confiscated as much as 35 pounds of heroin with an estimated street value of at least $2 million from Casellas's Lawrence duplex; three handguns; fentanyl — a chemical additive; cutting agents; mixers; sifters; a scale; and other tools for packaging drugs.

The drug bust was a win for Lawrence, which has long been fighting to keep dealers away, but its proximity to major highways and the borders of Maine and New Hampshire have made the city of just under 80,000 a hub for drug trafficking.

"Lawrence has a different problem than most of the communities in Massachusetts," said Mayor Daniel Rivera, noting that Lawrence has had only a handful of fatal overdoses, while there were more than 1,000 statewide last year. "People come here and buy the drugs here."


"We make the best with the resources we have," said Fitzpatrick, the police chief. "We wouldn't have drug dealers if we didn't have drug users."

Laura Crimaldi and Maria Sacchetti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Jan Ransom can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Jan_Ransom.