Indictments return suspect in N.O. heroin case to jail on $500,000 bail

After an alleged heroin dealer who police say was operating at one of the Irish Channel’s most notoriously violent corners was arrested recently, he was released from jail a day later. However, he is now back in jail on $500,000 bail following his indictment by a grand jury, documents show.

Ernest Gaskin Jr., 59, is charged with one count of possession of more than 28 grams of heroin and one count of distribution of heroin, according to an indictment filed Wednesday.

His bail was set at $250,000 on each count, and he remained in jail this weekend after being rebooked Wednesday, in contrast to the events that followed his initial arrest July 29.

Based on complaints from concerned residents, New Orleans police Detective Jeff Giroir, of the 6th District, set up surveillance of the 700 block of Washington Avenue around 6 a.m. that morning.

Around 8 a.m., a man arrived in a black Infiniti, and Giroir soon began observing hand-to-hand transactions that he said he believed to be drug sales.

After one such transaction, officers followed the customers for a few blocks then stopped them. They found a bag of heroin in the vehicle, Giroir said. Based on that evidence, police detained the man on Washington Avenue, who was identified as Gaskin.

With the help of a drug-sniffing dog, police searched Gaskin’s car and found more than a dozen individually wrapped bags of heroin and one large bag hidden in various locations, for a total of about 32 grams, Giroir said.

Street prices of heroin can run around $200 for a gram, but when the drug is cut with various other agents and sold to individual users, a gram can lead to $600 in sales for a dealer, Giroir said.

Gaskin also had $934 in cash on him, the detective said.

“His listed address was ‘homeless,’ ” Giroir said. “I don’t know how that’s possible when he’s driving that vehicle and walking around with a little less than $1,000 in his pocket.”

The stretch of Washington between Annunciation and Chippewa streets has long been known as a trouble spot to Irish Channel residents, and NOPD 6th District Cmdr. Bob Bardy touted Gaskin’s arrest as the latest enforcement action in response to residents’ complaints.

Among the shootings near the location in recent years, a teenager was shot in the leg in the 700 block of Washington in December 2010, a dozen rounds were fired between two vehicles at Washington and Chippewa in May 2012, two people were wounded in a shooting at Washington and Annunciation in November 2012, and 18-year-old Nolan Alofipo was shot to death at Washington and Chippewa in February 2013.

In an enforcement sweep following the November 2012 shooting, three men were arrested on drug charges at Washington and Annunciation. One of them was Gaskin, who was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of crack cocaine. In December 2013, he was found not guilty on the cocaine charge but guilty of possession of marijuana, and he was sentenced to 100 days in jail with credit for time served.

Gaskin’s criminal record also includes previous convictions as a multiple offender, court documents show. But when he went to Magistrate Court on the day of the heroin arrest, the magistrate commissioner on duty set his bail at $7,500 on the distribution count and $12,000 on the count of possession with intent to distribute.

The morning after his arrest, 6th District police began receiving calls from nearby residents asking why Gaskin was back on the corner at Washington and Annunciation.

“So nothing has changed,” one Irish Channel resident — whose name is being withheld out of safety concerns — wrote to Uptown Messenger. “This is one of the biggest drug markets in the region, and there has been no systematic action to stop it.”

The police were as frustrated as the residents, Bardy said.

“That bond has absolutely nothing to do with us,” he said.

Seeing suspected criminals arrested one day and back out on the streets the next day discourages residents from cooperating with police, Bardy said — and may even make them fear for their safety. The intersection of Washington and Annunciation was specifically chosen for the drug sting because of the yearslong history of deadly violence there.

“When you look at the totality of the situation, every magistrate should know that is a hot spot,” Giroir said. “A wide variety of crimes take place at that intersection.”

After reviewing the circumstances of the case, Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for DA Leon Cannizzaro, agreed that the $19,500 bond was too low for Gaskin.

“The district attorney definitely believes that, given this guy’s record and his present charges, that it should have been higher,” he said.

Because much of the street violence in New Orleans is fueled by the drug trade, Bowman said, it is critically important for judges to pay attention to cases that involve high volumes of narcotics.

Bowman said the District Attorney’s Office would take steps to raise the bond, and on Wednesday, the indictment was announced — along with Gaskin’s higher new bond.

“The district attorney has said this time in and time out: The criminal justice system is a three-legged stool,” Bowman said. “You’ve got the police, the prosecutors and the judiciary. For the justice system to stand tall, all three have to stand tall.”

Gaskin’s arraignment is set for Monday morning in Criminal District Court Judge Ben Willard’s courtroom.

UptownMessenger.com is an independent online news site serving the Uptown neighborhoods of New Orleans.