Columbia University Drug Bust Stuns Prestigious Campus

Students say Columbia University has long been a haven for casual drug sales. Then an anonymous complaint brought New York City police to campus, resulting in a major bust.

Columbia University students Adam Klein, center, and Jose Perez, right are walked from the New York Police Department's 25th Precinct in Manhattan after they were arrested with three other students on Tuesday Dec. 7, 2010 in New York. (Tina Fineberg / AP

Like Captain Renault reacting to gambling at Rick’s Café, Columbia University officialdom was shocked, shocked by Tuesday morning’s police raid on three fraternities accused of dealing illegal drugs to the privileged student body.

Columbia authorities offered a chagrined open letter a few hours after the New York Police Department announced one of the biggest campus drug busts in memory—the arrest of five students and three alleged off-campus dealers in an undercover sting popularly dubbed “Operation Ivy League.”

“The alleged behavior of the students involved in this incident goes against not only state and federal law, but also University policy and the principles we have set—and strive together to maintain—for our community,” the letter insisted. “Please rest assured we are taking this matter very seriously.”

Maybe they will now—especially since one of the accused suppliers, according to law enforcement authorities, tried to hire a youthful undercover cop to kidnap a rival dealer, and possibly torture and murder the miscreant. In other words, Columbia’s cosseted undergrads were allegedly involved with some truly dangerous thugs.

But, in fact, the prestigious institution on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has long been “ripe” for drug trafficking, a knowledgeable 2009 Columbia graduate told The Daily Beast. “I think the permissive environment of Public Safety”—as Columbia’s campus police force is known—“makes it a no-brainer proposition,” said this former student, who described himself as a recreational drug user who dabbled in selling. “I always felt safe.”

Another recent grad and former residential adviser confirmed these observations. “It is permissive,” the former student adviser told The Daily Beast. “I got the sense that it wasn’t a priority…When you suspected illegal drug use—which means pot, because it’s the only one you’d be able to tell from the hall—you’d have to call Public Safety. Of course, there was the understanding that Public Safety would take so long to respond that there would be no evidence still apparent. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but after 45 minutes or an hour, you’d have to be a moron to get caught. You’d have to be still holding a joint.”

The headline-making bust came after a five-month investigation in which undercover officers purchased nearly $11,000 worth of various controlled and illegal substances—including marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, prescription stimulants such as Adderall, and liquid LSD swabbed on Altoids and SweeTarts—from the accused students and their alleged off-campus connections in Manhattan’s East Village and Brooklyn.

“I always felt safe,” said one former Columbia student who dabbled in selling, calling the campus a “permissive environment.”

In an exclusive interview, New York’s top cop, Commissioner Ray Kelly, said the investigation was prompted by an anonymous complaint.

“We treated this as we would any other illegal activity,” Kelly said. “This surfaced as a complaint from someone in that community. So we did the investigation just as would do in an apartment house or a business establishment…These cases are largely driven by complaints of residents or people who see themselves as somehow victimized by it.”

Kelly declined to comment on the specifics of the sting operation, in which a narcotics officer reportedly made 31 purchases. “We never get into that,” he said. “But we call it a ‘module.’ A module usually consists of a couple of undercovers, a sergeant, and five investigators. But they do a series of cases. They’re not only focused on one case. They were doing other things” besides running the Columbia sting.

The scene of the crime is a strip of brownstones along West 114th Street known as “Frat Row.” The fraternities involved in the alleged drug sales were Alpha Epsilon Pi, Pi Kappa Alpha and Psi Upsilon. Late Tuesday afternoon, as reporters and television crews converged on the block, Columbia officials attempted to control the damage, stationing a Public Safety cop in an idling sedan to keep the unwelcome journalists at bay.

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Students emerging from the frat houses immediately responded with, “No comment,” as if they had been instructed not to talk to the press. And some were even hostile. One student, sitting on the stoop of one of the brownstones, yelled, “Can you please leave!” when The Daily Beast tried to speak to someone else on the public sidewalk.

In interviews, a few students admitted to dabbling in drugs on campus, but said they never heard about thuggish dealers. They said they were getting marijuana from “friends of friends” and were also hearing about other kids going downtown to New York University.

The knowledgeable Columbia University alum and erstwhile “dabbler” estimated that about 30 percent of the undergraduate population is somehow involved with drugs, mostly as buyers. “You have your people who are into weed,” he said. “You have your people who are really into coke. And then I had the kids who had never done drugs in their life and wanted to study for finals.”

He added: “I had some really awkward, really shy kids come to me and say, ‘I want to buy some Adderall.’ I’d say, ‘Do you drink?’ No. ‘Do you smoke?’ No. ‘And you want to get fucked up on speed?’ That, to me, was really kind of shocking.”

He said the fraternities sell primarily to freshmen and casual users, using a single disposable cell phone with all the customers’ information stored on it.

"AEP [Alpha Epsilon Pi] is the first phone number that any freshman at Columbia is going to get,” he said, adding that AEP was known for its door-to-door delivery service in the dorms, selling “cubes” of marijuana. These usually came in sizes between 2.8 grams and 3.5 grams and sold for $50 to $60 apiece. Unless you bought on Mondays, the frat’s re-up day, when you got a $15 discount. (The local AEP chapter president did not respond to a request for comment).

The most prevalent drugs on campus are marijuana, cocaine, DMT, mushrooms, LSD, and Adderall, the recent grad said, adding that there is no particular supplier for on-campus sales. “In my experience, the people who are actually distributing have their own connect.”

The arrested students were collared at dawn and later appeared in court shackled together and sporting Columbia and fraternity sweat shirts. They were identified as Chris Coles, Harrison David, Adam Klein, Jose Stephan Perez, and Michael Wymbs and charged with a litany of offenses. One of the accused, a senior, is on the Columbia University student council, and another, a sophomore, was the salutatorian of his high school, authorities said. One of them allegedly was selling drugs to help pay for Columbia’s $50,000-plus annual tuition—prompting Ray Kelly to say at Tuesday’s press conference: "This is no way to work your way through college.” (The students have been held pending bail).

The alleged off-campus suppliers, who were arrested earlier, were identified as Miron Sarzynski—also accused of trying to hire a kidnapper—and his girlfriend, Megan Asper, who were collared October 27 in Sarzynski’s East Village apartment, and Roberto Lagares, who was arrested in Bedford-Stuyvesant, on Sunday.

In his interview with The Daily Beast, Commissioner Kelly noted dryly that the cops didn’t even plan to announce the bust on Tuesday. “It came up in a press conference about something else,” Kelly said, adding that a reporter asked a question apparently prompted by a press release issued by a special narcotics prosecutor without his knowledge. And until Tuesday, Kelly revealed, he had never even heard the tabloid-ready term, “Operation Ivy League,” with its frisson of class warfare between future hedge fund managers and cops on the beat.

“I think that was a media conception,” Kelly said. “Nobody referred to it with me using that name internally.” Kelly insisted, rather, that he still thinks of the sting, prosaically, as “the most recent arrest that was made by a particular module in Manhattan North Narcotics.”

As for the illegal drug problem in New York generally, “It’s hard to quantify,” Kelly said. “It’s much less than it was years ago, but it’s still an issue.”

The Daily Beast's Denver Nicks contributed to this story.

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Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.