By all accounts, Robert Runfola died quickly.
It was late May, and Runfola was at his home on Delaware Avenue using a new heroin-fentanyl cocktail that had recently hit the streets of Western New York.
He was dead within an hour.
The man accused of selling him that deadly new mix of drugs is now accused of causing Runfola’s fatal overdose and, if convicted, could face life in prison.
Investigators say the case against Peter N. Militello represents a first for Western New York – a federal prosecution linking a fatal overdose with a specific drug dealer.
“This is the first time we’ve had sufficient evidence during an investigation to ask for the enhanced penalty,” Dale Kasprzyk, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo, said of the allegations against Militello.
A federal prosecutor outlined the evidence linking Militello to Runfola’s death as part of a bail hearing Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
It includes DNA evidence the government says ties Militello to the bag of drugs found near Runfola’s body, as well as toxicology and autopsy reports matching the drugs in Runfola’s body to the drugs found in the bag.
Even more important perhaps, prosecutors claim Militello, 32, of the Town of Tonawanda, admitted selling Runfola the drugs that killed him.
“He has admitted selling that heroin to Mr. Runfola,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric M. Opanga told McCarthy. “He has, in fact, made admissions that he was the seller.”
The allegations against Militello, who was in court and remains in custody, came just weeks after U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. took the unusual step of holding a news conference to warn addicts and their families about the new fentanyl-laced heroin being found on local streets.
The potent cocktail is popular among heroin addicts in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia but, until recently, was never prevalent here.
The mixture of heroin and the painkiller fentanyl results in a drug significantly more potent than heroin and with a reputation for giving users the extra “pop” so many of them desire.
It also has been linked to several drug overdoses in Erie County, some of them fatal.
Militello’s lawyer argued for his client’s release Tuesday, claiming he was “not a big-time drug dealer.”
Outside the courtroom, he told The Buffalo News that Runfola was ill and bought drugs from many dealers.
“He had a bad heart, and my client was not his only source,” said defense lawyer Frank Falzone.
Falzone said it’s possible that Runfola bought heroin from another dealer after initially buying some from Militello. He also claims his client didn’t know that fentanyl-laced heroin was in the bag he sold Runfola.
Investigators say Militello’s prosecution is the first drug-trafficking case in which they have been able to directly tie a drug dealer to the death of an addict.
Kasprzyk said his office always looks for evidence linking dealers and users, but it’s often impossible to draw that connection because of the wide range of drugs found in overdose victims or the large number of suppliers the users relied on.
McCarthy ordered Militello held without bail.