The City of Philadelphia has begun scrutinizing Air Bridge, in which Puerto Rican officials dump heroin addicts into dubious drug-recovery houses in Kensington and Frankford. The Inquirer reported on the controversial practice last week.
"It's sad because people are in need," Mayor Kenney said. "And these are Americans. They're here, and we're going to find a way to help them."
A spokeswoman for the mayor said the city was deeply concerned with the way addicts are given one-way tickets to Philadelphia and deposited into unregulated recovery houses.
"The police are looking at this case to see where intervention would be effective," she said. "They're looking at Air Bridge in terms of what's happening in these recovery houses.
"We're as distraught and upset as everyone else about the story."
Some intervention has already begun.
Police and building inspectors converged Monday on a Kensington drug-recovery house that had been the home of a Puerto Rican man who said he had been duped into coming to Philadelphia for addiction treatment he never received. The man, Kelvin Aldarondo, 21, of Aguadilla, P.R., was profiled in the Nov. 13 article.
Officials found 26 men living in the three-story, four-bedroom house, although occupancy laws allow no more than 20 to sleep there, city inspectors said. It was not clear how many had come from Puerto Rico, police said.
It also appeared the men were locked in, which violates fire laws, police said. And the house, which serves food paid for by the occupants' food stamps, lacks a current food license, inspectors said.
The recovery house, at 2101 Front St., is called Soldiers of the Lord and is run by a Christian minister who goes by the name of Pastor Teo Claudio.
Under another name, Teofilo Santiago, the pastor was convicted of arson for having his 2004 Nissan Quest torched for insurance money in 2013, according to law enforcement officials and public records. Santiago, 60, is in his fourth and final year of probation, officials said.
Santiago would not speak to a reporter who met him at the recovery house. The pastor said any communication would have to come from his attorney, whom he declined to name.
Police and Department of Licenses and Inspections officials said the city will close down Soldiers of the Lord next month if violations are not corrected.
"They need to get their act together," said Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for L&I.
And on Wednesday, Guss said, L&I inspectors went to another house that has been investigated by the Inquirer, Still Saving Lives at 2316 Orthodox St. in Bridesburg. Two Air Bridge victims said they had fled the house because they had been poorly treated there.
Inspectors found, among other problems, that the rooming-house license had expired and that 15 men were living in a space zoned for 12, Guss said. If the house isn't brought up to code, it can be closed next month, Guss said. House operator Willis Osario, 57, who said he has traveled to Puerto Rico to recruit addicts, disputed Guss, saying no violations had been found.
A larger question at the houses is whether the occupants, all men, had their identifications confiscated by house operators and were being kept under false pretenses, said Sgt. John Massi of the 26th Police District.
"Somebody's got to decide if he [Santiago] and others crossed the threshold into human trafficking," he said.
In Puerto Rico, addicts are promised deluxe recovery accommodations in Philadelphia, and sometimes given one-way airline tickets by mayors eager to clear junkies from their public squares. Once here, they wind up in small buildings in Kensington and Frankford, often verbally abused by ministers who blame the men for being weak and falling into addiction.
The men are compelled to apply for food stamps then turn over benefits to house operators. Many times, their IDs are taken from them "as a form of control," Massi said.
He added that he's concerned the IDs are being sold. Puerto Rican birth certificates have great value on the black market because people born on the island are Americans, and undocumented immigrants from a Spanish-speaking country would pay a lot of money for such identification, various attorneys said.
The mayor's spokeswoman said that as early as last spring the city began helping Puerto Ricans without IDs get new ones.
Kenney also said that myriad city agencies were meeting to address a homeless encampment of drug addicts near Conrail tracks in Fairhill, many of them Puerto Rican men who had been living in recovery houses.
The abundance of homeless addicts is vexing police.
"We have enough addicts in Philadelphia and we don't need any more," Massi said. "I'm frustrated. People in the area are overwhelming us with complaints about property crimes by addicts."
Air Bridge, he said, seems "like organized crime, and it may violate federal statutes beyond commonwealth laws."
Massi said that he sent the Inquirer article to the FBI and has reached out to the District Attorney's Office to look into Air Bridge.
The FBI declined to comment.
In an e-mailed response, the District Attorney's Office said: "The story of Kelvin Aldarondo and those like him who have been taken advantage of by the practice of Air Bridge is shameful. The issues of human trafficking [and] holding ID could be [criminal] charges, and if brought to us by police, we could charge accordingly."
Massi said he foresees "a grand jury to solicit information on recovery houses," convened either by the district attorney or the U.S. attorney. The U.S. Attorney's Office would not comment on Air Bridge.
While Soldiers of the Lord was being investigated, Aldarondo was experiencing still more troubles.
The Aguadilla native said that when he was at the recovery house through the winter and part of the spring, he'd been yelled at and badly treated.
Eventually, he was able to go to another recovery house, Hogar Fuera De Las Rejas on West Tioga Street, with the help of Charito Morales, a registered nurse who aids people victimized by Air Bridge.
But after the Inquirer account was published, Aldarondo told Morales that he had been labeled a "snitch" for speaking to the newspaper.
As a result, Morales said, operators of the house withheld his meals, people shoved him, and operators tried to make him take drugs to control him.
Another Air Bridge victim, Eric Pagan, 36, of Caguas, P.R., corroborated what Morales said. He had been getting calls from friends at the Tioga recovery house, where he'd been a resident leader. They were telling him what was happening to Aldarondo as it occurred, he said.
"They were really pushing him around," Pagan said. "They were neglecting him for food, and saying he has problems in his head."
House operators did not respond to phone calls and a letter asking for comment. Operators would not speak to a reporter who knocked on the door.
Morales showed up outside the recovery house Tuesday and demanded operators release Aldarondo. They relented, she said, after she threatened to call police. She took him to a location outside the city. Aldarondo declined to be interviewed.
Morales said she has been getting death threats for speaking out against Air Bridge. Minister Juan Aponte, another person who helps victims, said he has been threatened, too.
Both said they informed police.