Yesterday, Harrison David began serving his prison sentence at Rikers. The other defendants in the case have yet another hearing in Manhattan Criminal Court on September 23rd. It looks like the long saga of Operation Ivy League may be drawing to a close. Upperclassmen may be relieved it’s finally over, but members of the Class of 2015 probably have no idea what happened on campus while they were still finishing up their applications. And they thought Moodygate was a big deal! As a public service, Bwog presents this primer on Operation Ivy League.
What does “Operation Ivy League” mean?
Operation Ivy League was the name of a months-long NYPD investigation into drug-dealing that resulted in the arrests of five Columbia students last year. The students were Harrison David (SEAS ’12 and a member of the fraternity AEPi), Adam Klein (CC ’12 and Psi U) Chris Coles (SEAS ’11 and Intercultural House, or ICH), Michael Wymbs (CC ’12 and unaffiliated, living in East Campus), and Joseph Stephen Perez, better known as Stephan Vincenzo (CC ’12 and Pike). They were arrested early on the morning of December 7, 2010 when NYPD officers with guns drawn raided the students’ frat houses and dorm rooms.
What were the students accused of?
The students were accused of dealing a variety of drugs, and early reports stated that each student “specialized” in a different kind of drug, though this conspiracy argument was eventually dropped. Coles was accused of selling a pound and a half of marijuana; Wymbs of LSD and MDMA (ecstasy); Perez of Adderall and amphetamines; Klein of marijuana, MDMA, and LSD; and David of marijuana and cocaine.
And what happened to them?
After they were arrested, the students were taken to prison on Rikers Island. Within days, most of the students had been bailed out, and their families had hired high-flying defense attorneys. The exception was Harrison David, who remained at Rikers for nearly two weeks before his father, Dr. David David, bailed him out and sent him to live with a family friend and former corrections officer in Florida.
Did they go to trial?
Not yet. Instead of a trial, the students faced a series of hearings at Manhattan Criminal Court (down by Chinatown) in the months following the arrests. The defendants were charged with a variety of felonies (including “criminal sale of a controlled substance” and “criminal sale of marijuana”) in different degrees. If convicted, they would had had to face years of jail time. All students initially pled “not guilty” to the charges, and were later offered plea deals.
What kind of deals were struck?
David was first offered the opportunity to plead guilty to a class-C felony and receive one year of jail time and two years of probation. Although David’s lawyer insisted that his client “didn’t attend Columbia University to become a cocaine dealer,” and only dealt coke when asked to by an undercover officer, he knew David would have to take a plea. In July, David pled guilty to a class-C felony with six months in prison and five years of probation. That can be reduced to four months for good behavior and since he already spent two weeks in jail before being bailed out, he’ll probably only serve three-and-a-half months at Rikers.
Klein, Coles, Perez, and Wymbs were offered more lenient plea deals, since they were not accused of selling cocaine. The prosecution allowed them to plea guilty to a class-D felony and receive only six months of probation. The defendants, though, refused the plea deals they were offered. Instead, their lawyers motioned for them to be “diverted to treatment.”
Diversion to what?
“Diversion to treatment” allows a defendant to submit to a rehab program and emerge without a felony conviction. That’s significant because felony convictions can make it impossible to get into college or get a good job. But diversion is only intended for defendants who are addicted to drugs who sold in order to support their addiction. It’s not meant for drug dealers who sold to make a profit.
At a hearing in June, lawyers for Klein, Coles, Wymb, and Perez argued that their clients were only selling to support their addictions and should therefore be diverted to treatment, while the prosecution argued that all the evidence (including text messages sent by the students to their customers) showed they were selling drugs to make a profit. Their case is still ongoing, and the next hearing is scheduled for September 23rd.
What happened to the fraternities?
They lost their housing and were temporarily suspended immediately after the arrests. In March, Student Affairs announced that the three fraternities would be stripped of their brownstones and placed on “extended social probation” until Fall 2011. Starting in 2013, the brownstones will likely be filled by different Greek organizations, but in the mean time, students—reportedly transfers—will occupy the rooms. Unfortunately, the fraternities were not added to the lottery in 2011, which caused major housing issues last year.
How did Columbia students react?
Though many Columbia students had little sympathy for the suspects, most were critical of the NYPD. Some believed the name of the sting, “Operation: Ivy League,” first used in a press release from the Office of Narcotics, hinted that the police saw the sting not only as an indictment of the five arrested students, but the Ivy League as a whole. Students were also disturbed to learn that the NYPD forced Vincenzo to wear a “Columbia” sweatshirt when they arrested him and held an innocent student at gunpoint when they raided the wrong room at Psi U.
The drug bust soon became part of Columbia lore. It was prominently mocked in the Fall 2010 Orgo Night, and the Varsity Show a few months later featured a fictional undercover operation to catch Columbia 4loko dealers.
Is this why my parents were worried when I said I was applying to Columbia?
Probably. The drug bust was covered widely in both the local and national media. While the New York Times and DNAinfo provided relatively unbiased coverage, the New York Post played up the class warfare angle. Both Gawker and Gothamist commented on the story, and New York magazine published an in-depth feature story on Harrison David. Tons of local news stations and newspapers picked up the story from the Associated Press.
Wasn’t there a “dirty cop” involved?
It seems so. In June, DNAinfo revealed that one of the undercover officers involved in the operation had been busted by the feds for running an illegal gambling ring in Staten Island. Although the prosecution insisted that the corrupt undercover officer played only a “peripheral” role in the case, they soon offered generous plea deals to the Columbia students. Evidently, they wanted to avoid making the officer testify at trial before a jury.
Was this totally unprecedented?
Actually no. Something very similar happened in 1973, when another group of five Columbia fraternity brothers was arrested for dealing marijuana and cocaine. A few months before their arrest, New York State passed a series of very harsh drug laws (known as the “Rockefeller Drug Laws”), which mandated minimum sentences for most drug crimes and did not allow “diversion to treatment.” All the students arrested in 1973 were convicted under these harsh laws ended up serving time in the dangerous upstate Sing Sing prison. Columbia alum Chris Beam pointed out in Slate that the students arrested last year are very lucky the Rockefeller Drug Laws were repealed in 2009.
Were Columbia students the only ones arrested?
Nope. Roberto Lagares and Miron Sarzynski, said by the NYPD to be suppliers to the Columbia students, along with Sarzynski’s girlfriend Megan Asper, were also arrested. Sarzynski may have done more than just sell drugs; the NYPD claims that he asked an undercover officer posing as a drug buyer to help him kidnap and torture a rival dealer. In March, Sarzynski pled guilty to both criminal sale of a controlled substance and attempted kidnapping; he was sentenced to six years in prison. Asper pled guilty to possession of a controlled substance and received 45 days in prison. Charges against Lagares are still pending.