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Mahwah man charged in fatal heroin overdose wants statements to detective excluded

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

EXCLUSIVE REPORT: The lawyer for one of the first people charged in Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinell’s heroin enforcement initiative tried to convince a judge today to exclude statements made to investigators who accused him of putting what turned out to be a fatal dose of heroin into the hands of a 20-year-old Rockland County man.

Uldis Mende, 21, is charged with getting the heroin in Paterson that caused the death of Harris Apfelbaum of Suffern last Oct. 2.

Mende ( above, left ), a Latvian national who lives in Mahwah, was indicted by a Bergen County grand jury in March after being arrested as part of a large-scale, multi-jurisdictional operation intended to reduce the number of skyrocketing heroin overdose deaths in North Jersey.

Public defender Jacklyn Medina argued today that Mende’s statements to investigators from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office the night of his Oct. 27 arrest should be excluded from evidence that jurors hear because he twice told Detective James Costello: “I think I want a lawyer because I think you’re gonna screw me.”

At that point, Costello had an obligation to stop questioning him, Medina ( above, right ) told Superior Court Judge Donald R. Venezia.

Costello was the only witness today in Hackensack, as two videos of his interviews with Mende were played for the judge.

On them, Costello can be heard telling Mende several times that he could stop at any time. He also told Mende that his decision to waive his right to remain silent wasn’t final. He could always change his mind, the detective said.

Mende told him he “got up at 5 p.m. that day,” and wasn’t tired during the interview, which began around 2 a.m., Costello testified.

“He kept engaging me in conversation,” the detective said. “Every time we shut it down, he would re-engage in conversation.”

Mende could be heard telling Costello: “I want to get this over, and I want to speak to you about the events.” He also is heard expressing a familiarity with the criminal justice system, relating experiences in which he claimed that police “screwed” him.

In a long and at times rambling statement in heavily accented English, Mende told Costello that Apfelbaum contacted him by phone that fateful night, saying he wanted to “get something.”

He identified a series of text messages to Costello — most made in truncated English to avoid using the terms “heroin” or “drugs” — in which the two eventually planned to go to Paterson.

Mende, who Costello said was training in martial arts and was “clean and fit,” insisted he wasn’t using drugs himself.

“I didn’t even touch it. I didn’t know how much he had,” he tells the detective on the videotaped interview. “I had nothing to do with it; he gave me $20 just to show him where to go.

“I didn’t take him there. He drove. He didn’t need directions, he knew were to go,” Mende says. “[He] just wanted me to come as a safety net. I didn’t even want to go.”

After copping the drugs, he said, the two drove to the Palisades Center Mall in West Nyack and then the Garden State Plaza in Paramus before returning to Mende’s home in Mahwah.

Apfelbaum shot up at least twice and used somewhere between “two bags” and “10 decks” of heroin that night, Mende says in the interview. He said Apfelbaum promised to text him when he got home.

When he didn’t hear back, Mende tells Costello, he texted him but didn’t get an answer. He didn’t try to alert Apfelbaum’s family or authorities that his friend was missing and under the influence.

Three weeks after Harris Apfelbaum was found dead in Park Ridge, a Mahwah patrol officer stopped Mende for a traffic violation and found him carrying 70 decks of heroin intended for sale, records show.

Under Molinelli’s new anti-heroin initiative, detectives from the prosecutor’s office followed up.

Mende’s father, sister and mother attended today’s hearing, as did Apfelbaum’s father and sister, who sat on the other side of the courtroom from them.

Venezia continued the proceeding to Oct. 22.

Mende, who already was on probation for a disorderly persons offense that was downgraded from a more serious, drug-related charge, remained held without bail in the Bergen County Jail on a detainer filed by federal immigration authorities.

The likelihood is that he’ll be deported once the case against him in Apfelbaum’s death is concluded.

Mende is charged with five counts of activities that led to Apfelbaum’s death from narcotics activity, including distributing heroin to him; manslaughter by causing his death; possession of heroin and distribution of heroin, and possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

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