Michael K. Williams at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo credit: David Shankbone on Creative Commons

Four men charged with the overdose death of actor, producer Michael K. Williams

6 mins read

Arrests hope to provide some justice in the tragic ending of beloved entertainer, but open up the possibility of more drug peddlers being charged with homicide in America’s fractured “War on Crime.”

On February 2, Manhattan federal prosecutors and New York Police Department (NYPD) announced four men will be charged for the overdose death of thespian, Michael K. Williams five months after being found by family members in his Brooklyn apartment. Williams tragically overdosed on fentanyl-laced heroin, according to the US Attorney Southern District of New York, Damian Williams.

Although in Puerto Rico, Irvin Cartagena was arrested on February 2 after NBC News reported his sale to Williams was caught on tape. On the same day, his three alleged co-conspirators– Hector Robles, Luis Cruz, and Carlos Macci–were arrested in New York City. 

“This is a public health crisis, and it has to stop,” Williams asserted in a Twitter statement regarding the matter. “Deadly opioids like fentanyl and heroin don’t care about who you are or what you’ve accomplished. They just feed addiction and lead to tragedy. The Southern District of New York and our law enforcement partners will not give up… we will continue to hold accountable the dealers who push this poison, exploit addiction, and cause senseless death.”

The Latino drug dealing crew are accused of conspiracy. Cartagena is being charged with narcotics conspiracy, while the others are being charged with fentanyl and heroin conspiracy. If found guilty, they could face up to 40 years. Since he was caught on candid camera, only Cartagena is being charged with actually selling Williams the dope that allegedly killed him. For his extra charges, Cartagena faces an additional two decades if found guilty. 

Drug addiction is seen as a “victimless crime,” or a consensus amongst parties to commit an illegal act with no identifiable victim. Yet, neither the law nor every jurisdiction has clear, universal measures in handling them.  

“Is there such a thing as a victimless crime? Yes,” argued attorney John Devendorf, Esq wrote for LawInfo. “Criminal justice laws are created by the government to restrict unwanted behavior and actions. Many of these criminal laws are meant to protect others, such as laws against assault or abuse. However, a number of laws criminalize consensual behavior or actions where there are no victims. This may include laws against recreational drug use or prostitution.”

Some say since addiction is a self-inflicted disease. The situation may be seen as akin to suicide–where responsibility lies on the deceased party. Others think enabling such dangerous behavior is assisted manslaughter at the very least. Ultimately, race along with ethnicity and status may be the deciding factors in the distinction.

Michael Kenneth Williams at the premiere of The Public, 2018 Toronto Film Festival. Photo credit: Gabbo T on Creative Commons

BK’s native son, Newark’s second-born

The famous actor had a plethora of lauded roles in his repertoire, including Albert “Chalky” White in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire from 2010 to 2014. Arguably, his most notable portrayal was of Omar Little in the former’s gritty smash hit about Balitomore drug and street culture, The Wire from 2002 to 2008. It is said that here is where Williams developed a cocaine habit. 

“I was playing with fire,” Williams recounted in a 2012 Newark Star-Ledger interview when he was filming The Wire while playing the role of Omar. “It was just a matter of time before I got caught [using drugs] and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead. When I look back on it now, I don’t know how I didn’t end up in a body bag.”

While filming, Williams resided part time in Newark, New Jersey, which was also the place where he said he would purchase most of his drugs. He credited a church, Christian Love Baptist, in the nearby city of Irvington for helping him with addiction issues. He admits that he “became a man” when he immersed himself in religion and rehabilitation. In his recovery, Williams volunteered in charity and prison re-entry campaigns in Newark and New York


Before his darkest days in Newark, Williams told in an interview with Vanity Fair that he was teenage friends with Dana Owens, mostly noted as Queen Latifah. They both said they partied together as youth in New York before Owens skyrocketed into the music industry then movie and TV. Williams said he was related to the late hip hop emcee, Sean Price, member of the Boot Camp Clik. Price passed away in his sleep in 2015.

Around this time, Williams was a backup dancer for R&B and hip hop acts before segueing into acting. Tragically, one night while in a New York bar he was attacked. The assault ended up with a lifelong scar across his face, which caught the eyes of film directors. However, the fun-loving Williams was seen as having a great face for more noir-esk characters. Eventually, his dancing career bloomed into acting.

On September 6, 2021, the actor died of an acute combined drug intoxication in his hometown, Brooklyn, NY. Four drugs– fentanyl, parafluorofentanyl, heroin and cocaine– were found in his system. He was 54 years old.  

Williams’ misuse joined over two million Americans and 15 million people globally in each year of the long-standing drug epidemic. With intoxicants like Fentanyol making the likelihood of  overdose and death all the more high. 

The spoils of the war on drugs

In a June 18, 1971 press conference, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” Subsequently, initiating a war on drugs spanning nearly five decades. The 37th POTUS substantially augmented federal drug control agencies, pushed mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants. 

However, minority populations were not given as much grace as white counterparts as evidenced by imprisonment demographics. To the contrary, they were targeted.

“You want to know what [the war on drugs] was really all about[?] The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and [B]lack people,” recounted Nixon political aide John Ehrlichman. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or [B]lack, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and [B]lacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” 

“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” 

Ultimately, Dick’s war failed. Nonetheless, his mission was accomplished as Black families and communities were broken, with increased numbers of imprisoned minorities left in its wake. Best of all, drug use got worse. Today, Fentanyl is king. The 1990s saw the initial wave of the epidemic begin. The second wave was heroin, the third being fentanyl in 2010 and 2013, respectively. Cumulatively, the CDC reports over 500,000 people have died from overdoses of the aforementioned.

Akin to morphine, the synthetic prescription is used as treatment for severe pain, especially after surgery. That said, it is upwards of 100 times stronger than the former according to the National Center on Drug (NIDA), and approximately up to 50 times stronger than heroin, says the CDC. Presently, there are two types of fentanyl: pharmaceutical and illegally manufactured.  

Now, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death in U.S. adults under 50 years old, with opioids accounting for more than 50 percent of all drug overdose fatalities. In 2019, almost 50,000 Americans died from them as per NIDA.

According to NIDA, “The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”  

They estimate the summed economic burden of misuse costs the superpower a whopping $1.02 trillion in 2017, up from $78.5 billion in 2013. The majority of the burden stemming from a reduced quality of life from use disorder and the value of lives lost. NIDA adds the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement as possible costs as well.

Currently, millions of Americans are addicted to synthetic heroin. Fervent use is seen more in rural communities where employment opportunities are slim and isolation is pervasive. Between 1999 and 2015, deaths in rural areas have quadrupled among 18 to 25 year olds. The number tripled for women. The non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation’s KFF statistics state that of the 49,860 of the U.S. opioid deaths in 2019, the largest demographic were white people at 35,977. Hispanics represented 5,264 of the total, while 7,464 were Black and 853 accounted for others.  

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) statistics show drug offenses makeup 45.3 percent or 64,328 inmates, the largest percentage of crimes for those incarcerated. A little over 30 percent of inmates are Hispanic.  

. . . .

In the past, drug users do not legally blame the dealers for bad trip, much less murder. Unless, they want to explain the narcotics-related grievance to the police. Nevertheless, the tides are swaying. 

On January 25, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office arrested a 16-year-old Californian teenager. The minor was charged with murder after a 12-year-old bought and subsequently ingested three quarters of a lone “M-30” oxycodone pain relieve pill in November 2020. Ultimately, the girl died of an overdose. 

This case makes the second time a Santa Clara teenager has been charged with murder in an overdose case. Moreover, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California brought 11 cases against street pharmacists that sold opioids that caused fatal overdoses in May of last year. 

With the arrest of Williams’ alleged suppliers to narcotics leading to his death, alas, a Pandora’s box of legalities is unleashed; and it looks like no one is exempt.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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