Overdoses From ‘Dangerous Batch’ of K2 Grows to 56 in Brooklyn


The small, shiny packets that claim to hold only scented potpourri look harmless. One, a bubble gum variety of Scooby Doo Snax, bears a classically goofy image of the clue-sniffing dog. Another, Barely Legal, hints at naughtiness with a cartoon rendering of a woman’s torso.

But the police and city health officials say that the contents, drugs known loosely as synthetic marijuana, or K2, is wholly illegal and dangerous. A particularly toxic batch was responsible for a mass overdose in Brooklyn over the weekend, sickening at least 56 people and leading to at least 15 arrests since Saturday.

Investigators are working to determine the source of the drugs involved in the overdoses, and officials warned the public to exercise caution.

“K2 in and of itself is very dangerous,” Terence A. Monahan, the chief of department, said at a news conference at Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan. “But what we’re seeing over the last couple of days — 56 confirmed overdoses — there is a very dangerous batch circulating right now in Brooklyn.”

Doctors at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center have treated 51 people believed to have been sickened by the toxic batch of K2 since Saturday. Dr. Edward Fishkin, the chief medical officer, said most of the patients were older men who live in shelters and typically battle drug addiction. For them, K2 provides an inexpensive high.

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A dangerous batch of the synthetic drug K2, sold in small, shiny packets bearing the likenesses of cartoon characters, has been circulating in Brooklyn.CreditNew York Police Department

“It’s like $5 for a bag of this stuff and the vast majority don’t get sick from this,” he said. “They get the high that they want. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

The city has been struggling to stamp out drugs like K2 for years in a quiet battle even as it contends with the vast, deadly opioid epidemic.

“We’ve kind of curtailed a lot of the K2 in the city,” Chief Monahan said. “There seems to be something uprising right now.”

K2 belongs to a class of drugs called synthetic cannabinoids that consist of plant matter sprayed or soaked with hallucinatory substances that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. In many cases, the drugs recovered in the city arrived from China, Chief Monahan said.

Lab tests are expected to determine the specific compound involved in the recent overdoses, a key step in determining the drug’s origin. Some of the packets bear a similar marking, and the police believe it means that they came from the same source.

The patient count from the overdose appeared to climb on Tuesday evening, when a middle-aged man collapsed on the curb at Ralph Avenue and Union Street, two blocks from the Renaissance Men’s Shelter, where the police said there were seven overdoses over the weekend.

As the man lay on his back grimacing with hands clenched, Lemuel Ayudtud, 42, a home care nurse, called 911 and turned the stricken man on his side as he began coughing and then spitting up bile and blood.

A few people stopped to look, but just as many kept walking. “What, another one?” said a man exiting a deli at the corner.

Jody Rudin, the interim president and chief executive of Project Renewal, a nonprofit shelter provider, said K2 can have a destabilizing effect in shelters, where it usually causes one of two reactions in users: They either become aggressive and provoke fights, or they pass out and require an ambulance.

None of Project Renewal’s shelters were involved in the recent overdoses, and Ms. Rudin said K2 has not been a problem for them since the city’s crackdown. That has allowed the organization to focus on the six to 12 cases of opioid overdoses that it deals with each month, she said.

“But with that said,” she added, “this recent news about K2 is a reminder that we need to be constantly vigilant and adaptable to keep our clients safe.”

Editorial Observer: Gimme Shelters, Manhattan


Editorial observer

Midtown residents mount shameful battle against a city homeless shelter.

Mara Gay

The plan to turn the Park Savoy Hotel in Midtown Manhattan into a men’s homeless shelter has drawn a range of reactions.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

In the August heat two years ago, residents of Maspeth, Queens, learned of a homeless shelter planned for their neighborhood and erupted in fury, unleashing a campaign of vulgar, racially tinged protests. Maspeth residents picketed the hotel that the city hoped to convert into a permanent shelter, spewing hate as homeless children sat inside.

They voted the local councilwoman, Elizabeth Crowley, out of office, replacing her with the man who had led their crusade.

They shouted down Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, as he appealed to their sense of compassion during a community meeting, then took their protest to the doorstep of his Brooklyn home.

“Leave Maspeth Alone!” some of their signs read. “Maspeth Lives Matter!” The city ultimately surrendered.

Now, a similar battle is unfolding in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, as residents fight a men’s shelter the city plans to open in the now-shuttered Park Savoy Hotel. The site, on West 58th Street, is one of 90 that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he will open as part of a yearslong plan.

In Maspeth, a mostly white, blue-collar area of Queens, the news of a homeless shelter was met with something barely short of a riot. On West 58th Street, a block from Central Park, residents have taken a more urbane approach: They formed a committee, the West 58th Street Coalition, to fight the shelter, built a sleek website and hired a public relations expert to make their case. Curiously, they also sought the help of Robert Holden, who beat Ms. Crowley in the Maspeth council race.

Diane Cahill, the public relations consultant, told me recently that the shelter was just as bad for the homeless men as it was for the community because the neighborhood was so expensive. Plus, she said, there had been those stories about homeless men masturbating in public. “That’s what you want tourists and children and families to have to walk by?” Ms. Cahill asked.

Opponents of the West 58th Street shelter speak in more polite and polished tones than their counterparts in Queens. But when it comes to homeless New Yorkers, the message is often the same from Midtown to Maspeth: Not on my block. Not in my backyard.

“I’m concerned about how people we serve who are homeless are being stigmatized,” said Mr. Banks, who oversees the city’s homelessness initiatives.

It isn’t only white, or wealthy, neighborhoods that are rejecting shelters. In Crown Heights, a diverse, fast-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, many residents reacted angrily to the news that the city planned to open three new shelters. At a community meeting, some accused city officials of brushing aside their concerns after they had been cowed by the opposition in Maspeth.

Still, it’s become clear that the city would open the shelter on West 58th Street over residents’ objections.

“I’m worried about the safety of my family,” Helen Ohw Kim, who lives on the block, said at a news conference the group held last month outside the hotel. Ms. Ohw Kim said the site would be better served as a shelter for women and young children, so “my 3-year-old daughter won’t get punched in the face.” Other residents said they were also willing to accept a shelter for single women with young children. How young? Under 10 years old, they said, leaving unclear what would happen on a child’s 11th birthday.

City officials have said they were forced to abandon the Maspeth shelter when the owner of the hotel they had hoped to use backed out. But even in an administration that has at times shown little backbone when it needs to stand up for its liberal principles, some de Blasio aides privately talk about the episode as a shameful retreat. They say they are likely to site a shelter in Maspeth in the coming years. And administration officials say that from here on, they are determined to open the shelters, regardless of community opposition.

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Suzanne Silverstein heads the coalition opposed to the proposal for the West 58th Street shelter.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

City officials say they are open to compromises. One proposal for a men’s shelter in Crown Heights, for example, was changed to serve senior men at the request of the community.

About 60,000 New Yorkers are living in the city’s shelter system, a crisis created by soaring rents that have pushed housing out of reach for those living in poverty. About 22,000 of those people are children. Roughly one-third of families in shelters are working, but are homeless anyway, according to city officials. Thousands of others are simply people in need, and that is reason enough to help them.

Mr. Banks said the city planned to move forward with the men’s shelter on West 58th Street and open it by early summer. He said the space in the former hotel wasn’t set up to serve families. And he said the city’s shelter system was in desperate need of a facility where working men could have easy access to jobs in Midtown. “These are men that need a helping hand — not the back of the hand,” he said.

That includes men like 27-year-old Ronnie Jones, a communications manager for a security company in Manhattan who is living in a shelter until he can get back on his feet. Mr. Jones said he was renting a room for $600 a month in Queens a couple of years ago when he lost his job at a cleaning company and was homeless within a month. Mr. Jones told me that he grew up in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, one of the poorest areas of the city, but had big dreams despite getting little support from family or friends.

“It’s just me,” he said. “But I refuse to be anything other than great. It’s about your mentality. You gotta be ambitious, have blind ambition.”

Community resistance to shelters for men slows the process.CreditTodd Heisler/The New York Times

He Called Out Sick, Then Apologized for Leaving This World


“He touched a lot of people,” Mr. Morales said. “We didn’t come from privilege, we came from the projects. He was a light in a lot of our lives.”

The act of self-immolation was so shocking, the loss so sudden, that friends and family of Mr. Buckel struggled on Sunday to make sense of his legacy, if not his death.

“He was very much someone who felt like he always wanted to make sure that while he was alive that he was doing more to make the world a better place,” his partner of nearly 34 years, Terry Kaelber said. “And he wanted to give more than he was taking from it.”

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Mr. Buckel, 60, was a nationally known civil rights lawyer and, in his final decade, a master composter at the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn.

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Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Suicide is, ultimately, ineffable, and experts caution that there is a rarely a single reason people take their own lives; they say there are often underlying issues, such as mental illness.

His family and friends acknowledged that Mr. Buckel had become distraught recently over the national politics of climate change — “all that’s going on with the Trump administration and the rollback by Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency,” Mr. Kaelber said, referring to agency’s embattled administrator, Scott Pruitt.

In retrospect, Mr. Morales said he knew Mr. Buckel had been upset as recently as February when he began discussing articles about the environment, for instance one about how 96 percent of human beings breathe polluted air and another about the Arctic Circle experiencing record breaking temperatures.

Mr. Morales said two weeks ago Mr. Buckel sent him an email with all his contacts for the compost site, showing him how to complete paperwork, annual reports and other documents that would need to be turned over to city agencies.

With a back injury that limited his work, Mr. Buckel was struggling over what he could do next. Mr. Kaelber said he interpreted this “dramatic act” as “what can a person at age 60 do that people would pay attention to.”

Mr. Buckel started his career as a Legal Aid lawyer, and gained national prominence by arguing cases with Lambda Legal, an organization that fights for the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Mr. Buckel was the lead lawyer in the case in which a Nebraska sheriff was found liable for failing to protect a transgender man who was murdered in Falls City, and was the strategist behind same-sex marriage cases in New Jersey and Iowa.

He retired from Lambda Legal in November 2008, and was a grant writer before starting at the composting site at the farm, across from an Ikea store. He felt composting was something that community members could do together to bring about a more sustainable world.

Mr. Buckel lived his message. He took showers with a minimum use of water, and walked one hour to work and back from his home at the edge of Prospect Park, rather than use fossil fuels. He refused even to use machines at the composting site, evidence of a passion that friends say was his true fuel.

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Mr. Buckel’s death was, according to his suicide letter, to make a statement about actively protecting the environment.

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Yana Paskova for The New York Times

“I think he had a purity of spirit that was not a possibility in this world and that pained him very much,” said Marisa DeDominicis, the executive director of Earth Matter, which composts on Governors Island.

Erik Martig went to YouTube to remember his mentor, who had made a series of instructional videos for the tight-knit community of urban composters. In his typical calm and methodical manner, Mr. Buckel explained how to make neat, rat-proof compost piles with pitchforks, shovels and teamwork.

“This is the David Buckel that I knew,” said Mr. Martig, 34, who worked with Mr. Buckel at the farm.

“I struggle to believe that this is a protest suicide. I think that, underneath, he’s got to be in a very dark place, it’s not characteristic of David,” he added.

On a grim Sunday, neighbors gathered at Mr. Buckel’s home.

George Bachman, a retired firefighter, would greet him tending his garden on a quiet stretch south of Prospect Park. His 16-year-old daughter knew Mr. Buckel’s college-age daughter, Hannah.

He knew the history of Mr. Buckel’s kind of suicide, but was perplexed. “I’m a Vietnam veteran so I’m well aware,” Mr. Bachman said. “Buddhist monks used to light themselves up in protest of the war.”

Mr. Buckel alluded in his letter to the self-immolation of Tibetans as protest against China’s government.

Tom and Isa Cucinotta of Lefferts Gardens spent a few minutes in silence at the site in Prospect Park where Mr. Buckel died. They did not know him, but they felt a kinship with him and his despair with the current state of the world.

“It feels important because he was one of the people able to do something about these injustices. He was successful, whereas we can only do little things,” Ms. Cucinotta said. “It feels like he has given up. What does that mean for the rest of us?”

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A Tiny Elevator, a Haunting Reminder in Brooklyn


And the camera in the 15-square-foot elevator has become a daily reminder for parents to not leave their children unsupervised, even inside the building.

“They’re never by themselves,” Evita Worley, 55, said of her three grandchildren. “I think neighbors are now more secure with their children.”

On a recent visit to the building, a few tenants trickled in and out of the elevator with grocery bags from the mini-market on Stanley Avenue. In the lobby, the frame around the elevator door was plastered with fliers: safety guidelines, city youth employment programs, an outdated winter storm warning.

Opposite the elevator, above the 38 mailboxes, hung a flyer with a picture of P.J. wearing a graduation cap and gown. “Coming Soon,” it read. “Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center.” The two-story building, with a gymnasium and a dance studio named after Mikayla, is scheduled to open across the street in May.

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A memorial for P.J. in the courtyard of the Boulevard Houses.

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Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times

That stretch of Schenk Avenue was renamed Prince Joshua Avitto Way in 2015. Next to the street sign bearing P.J.’s name, a community garden known as the Garden of Peace was built in his honor. And all around the neighborhood, shops and restaurants have pictures of P.J. on their walls.

“This building is his memorial,” said Ms. Worley, who has lived 10 years in the Boulevard Houses. “His spirit will always be here.”

P.J.’s family moved out a month after the attack. But on Palm Sunday, while the trial in her son’s killing was underway, Aricka McClinton paid a visit to the neighborhood for Mass. Outside Building 11, she was joined by P.J.’s godmother, Anabelle Alston, and aunt, Sherri Avitto.

“No matter what, everything comes back to this building,” said Ms. Avitto, 52, who lives down the street.

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With L Train Shutdown a Year Off, the Battle for 14th Street Begins


Some transportation experts argue that even bolder action is necessary. To encourage car-pooling they have called for banning vehicles with fewer than three people from the Williamsburg Bridge for longer than just rush hours as the city envisions and extending the ban to other bridges. And 14th Street, they say, should be restricted primarily to buses 24 hours a day to make it easier on subway riders.

“A lot of people don’t commute 9 to 5 hours,” said Kate Slevin, the vice president of state programs and advocacy at the Regional Plan Association, an urban research group. “A lot of people are traveling down 14th Street all times of the day. The worry here is you’re just going to have an inability to get around.”

For now, the biggest worry on all sides is preparing for the unknown.

“It might look all right on a computer simulation,” said City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown. “But in real life, I just can’t imagine it.”

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During the shut down, 14th Street is expected to become the busiest bus route in the country, carrying as many as 84,000 riders a day.

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Julia Gillard for The New York Times

14th Street: Nation’s Busiest Bus Route

The nucleus of the city and the M.T.A.’s plan is 14th Street, which stretches from the East River to the Hudson River. During the morning and evening rush between Third Avenue and Ninth Avenue, it will be limited to buses with the exception of some vehicles like delivery trucks.

The city has a goal of ensuring that buses can cross the bus corridor along 14th Street in 20 minutes, a speed rate of over 6.5 miles per hour and over 40 percent faster than buses there travel now. But some transit experts are dubious, believing that 14th Street “will saturate with buses,” said Annie Weinstock, the president of BRT International, a company that plans and designs bus rapid transit systems and that helped produce an alternate plan for 14th Street. “Buses will queue up behind one another and become a bus parking lot.”

Ms. Trottenberg said the plan for 14th Street was flexible. “If we don’t get it right from the start we can adjust,’’ she said.

Transit experts have pushed for buses to be free to speed loading and prevent gridlock. “The only way we are going to get near the capacity that the M.T.A. thinks will shift on to buses is if we do everything we can to get people onto those buses as fast as we can,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group.

A spokesman for the M.T.A., Jon Weinstein, said the agency had not made any final decisions about fares.

Businesses have already begun making plans for the shutdown, including shifting deliveries to overnight to avoid the crush, said Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership, the business improvement district for the area. On the other hand, some retailers are looking forward to the flood of new commuters. “There are tens of thousands of people who will experience the ground floor retail on 14th Street who would never come above ground before,” Ms. Falk said.

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