The Brooklyn drug dealer who sold actor Michael K. Williams a fatal dose of fentanyl-laced heroin has pleaded guilty to federal charges that could send him to prison for up to 40 years. He initially faced a charge that carried a potential life sentence for supplying drugs that caused an overdose, but his guilty plea will allow for less time behind bars.
“I knew my actions were wrong and against the law,” Irvin Cartagena, also known as “Green Eyes,” said in court through a Spanish interpreter. “I am very sorry for my actions.”
The 39-year-old dealer entered a guilty plea on a charge of conspiring to distribute heroin, fentanyl, and a fentanyl analogue in Manhattan federal court Wednesday. He was arrested early last year along with three others accused of supplying drugs to Williams, who was found dead from an overdose in his apartment in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in September 2021. His decision to avoid a trial could lead to a reduced sentence.
Toxicology results found that Williams, 54, died from a mixture of cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl. A star best known for his role as shotgun-toting stickup artist Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire, Williams’ shocking death was a high-profile case in a year when more than 98,000 Americans died from drugs. Faced with the record-breaking surge in overdoses, prosecutors have started going after dealers with so-called “drug-induced homicide” charges, which treat overdoses like murders and carry lengthy prison sentences.
Dealers can face the equivalent of murder charges even when there is no intent to kill by selling drugs, and prosecutors have filed numerous cases against close friends and loved ones of overdose victims.
Police used license plate readers, surveillance videos, and phone data to trace baggies of drugs marked “AAA Insurance" found in Williams’ apartment back to a street deal with Cartagena the day before the actor’s death. Lab tests showed the mixture sold to Williams contained heroin, fentanyl, and para-fluorofentanyl, along with several diluting agents, including xylazine, a powerful animal sedative. The latter, known as “tranq” when mixed with opioids, has been spreading across the nation’s illicit drug supply and leaves some users with horrific skin wounds.
Cartagena’s offense carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison and a maximum of 40 years. He told Judge Ronnie Abrams, who is scheduled to hand down his sentence in August, that he has received treatment for substance use disorder. Cartagena’s has a record that dates back to 2003 and includes charges for drugs and theft, according to the New York Times. He was arrested last year in Puerto Rico.
Another man charged in the conspiracy along with Cartagena, Carlos “Carlitos” Macci, who is over 70 years old, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and is scheduled to be sentenced in July. Like Cartagena, Macci was also charged with narcotics conspiracy resulting in death, but that charge was dropped with the guilty plea. The others, Hector Robles aka “Oreja,” and another man, Luis Cruz, known as “Mostro,” have pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, whose office is prosecuting the cases, issued a statement that said Cartagena had sold drugs “in broad daylight in New York City feeding addiction and causing tragedy.” He vowed to “continue to hold accountable the dealers who push this poison, exploit addiction, and cause senseless death in our community.”
The federal prosecutor’s drug war rhetoric reflects a broader hardline pivot across the U.S. criminal justice system as the overdose crisis continues to worsen. Drug-induced homicide laws date back to the crack era of the 1980s, but they have seen a resurgence in recent years, and prosecutors have deployed the charges across the federal system and at least 25 states.
The number of drug-induced homicide prosecutions in the U.S. spiked from 109 to 696 in a six-year span, according to researchers from Northeastern University, which found the charges are pursued disproportionately against Black and brown people, who are sentenced, on average, to terms nearly two times as long as those of white people. In one case last year in Mississippi, a Black man received a 124-year sentence for selling fentanyl to a white man who overdosed.
Williams had been open about his struggle with drug addiction, telling the New York Times in a 2017 interview: “It’s an everyday struggle for me, but I’m fighting.”
Williams explored illicit subcultures as the host of VICE TV’s documentary series Black Market and appeared in dozens of films and shows over the years, including Boardwalk Empire, 12 Years a Slave, and Lovecraft Country.
With a striking scar down his face and a raspy voice, his breakout performance was on The Wire, where he played an openly gay character who robbed drug dealers and dispatched pearls of wisdom on the streets of Baltimore. The show is known for its nuanced portrayal of the drug economy and for calling out the futility of arresting and prosecuting street-level dealers.
David Simon, creator of the The Wire, has publicly objected to the prosecution of Williams’ dealers, tweeting last year after Cartagena and the others were charged: “I do not think Mike is honored or properly remembered by more incarceration in his name. Knowing him and his thoughts, I think he would be appalled at this. End the goddam drug war.”
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton
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