Lethal form of heroin takes steep toll here

Three deaths, 35 overdoses are blamed on the lethal form of drug plaguing the city. And the mixture has caused at least 100 deaths from Philadelphia to Chicago

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City police detectives were working overtime to scoop up drug dealers and lean on users for information as a lethal batch of heroin snaked its way through city neighborhoods and beyond, causing at least 35 overdoses and as many as three deaths.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
A man who had used the tainted heroin lost consciousness and drove his minivan over the curb and into a tree on Flowers Avenue in Hazelwood yesterday. Firefighters revived the man, who had a strong pulse but was having difficulty breathing.
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The heroin, which has cropped up in at least eight Pittsburgh neighborhoods since Saturday, is likely laced with the potent painkiller fentanyl, about 80 times stronger than morphine.

As authorities tried to make a dent locally in the heroin trade, the federal government announced yesterday that it had worked with Mexico to close a lab across the border that might be the source of the fentanyl that has killed heroin users in Pennsylvania and seven other states.

John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said it was still not clear whether the fentanyl was mixed with heroin at the lab in Mexico or after it entered the United States.

Mr. Walters, speaking to reporters in Chicago yesterday, warned drug users that millions of deadly doses of fentanyl-laced heroin might still be on the streets. The mixture has caused at least 100 confirmed deaths from Philadelphia to Chicago in recent months. Fentanyl might also be coming from other sources, he said.

"There may be more than one source," Mr. Walters said. "We think this is the principal source."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is testing samples of fentanyl seized in a May 28 raid of a suspected fentanyl manufacturing operation near the western Mexico city of Guadalajara but does not yet have confirmation that the drug is linked to the U.S. deaths, DEA spokesman Steve Robertson said.

City police said they have arrested five people since the outbreak began Saturday, but they declined to release any details, saying that the investigation was ongoing.

Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki cautioned that even if officers bust the source of the bad heroin that has flooded Pittsburgh, it will take time for the batch on the streets to dwindle and finally disappear. It is not known how much of the heroin came into Pittsburgh or how it was divvied up among dealers.

"We're going to see it for a while until the supply is diminished," Cmdr. Stangrecki said yesterday during a news conference. "It's going to take more than one arrest to stop this."

Overdoses believed to be connected to the heroin, which has been found in small packets called stamp bags marked "Get High or Die Trying," have occurred in Beechview, Greenfield, Hazelwood, the Hill District, Lincoln Place, the North Side, the South Side and Squirrel Hill.

Other name brands are thought to be involved, but police have been unable to confirm that, Cmdr. Stangrecki said.

The heroin also has shown up in Bethel Park, Brentwood, Tarentum and West Mifflin. It sells for $10 to $15 a packet. Users range from 16 to 56 years old, cross socioeconomic lines, and are white. Most are men.

West Mifflin Police Chief Joseph Popovich said his department's encounter with the drug happened Sunday around 4:15 p.m. A man in his 30s who had taken heroin was found turning blue in a car parked on Lebanon Road near Miller Road.

The heroin came from Hazelwood, the man shot up in West Mifflin, and the case was turned over to Pittsburgh, Chief Popovich said.

Some arrests were made Friday involving the "Get High or Die Trying" stamp bags, but it was not until Saturday afternoon that Pittsburgh police first noticed something amiss when four overdoses were reported.

On Sunday, the number of incidents multiplied and included a fatality, Joseph Zielinski, 45, of Penn Hills, who was found in an apartment on Greenfield Avenue.

Yesterday, anyone listening to a police scanner would have heard numerous calls throughout the day for overdoses, including two fatalities in Hazelwood.

At 9:13 a.m., Lynn A. Margavo, 30, was found dead in her home in the 5200 block of Gertrude Street. And at 10:11 a.m., Dorothy Iannone, 56, of the 5100 block of Roma Way, was found dead. The cause and manner of both deaths were pending toxicology results.

A sampling of yesterday's overdoses followed the same pattern as Sunday's, with some cases involving motorists. Just after 10 a.m. yesterday, for instance, a man who had used the heroin lost consciousness and drove his Mercury Villager minivan over the curb and into a tree in the 100 block of Flowers Avenue in Hazelwood.

The driver, who was wearing his seat belt, was leaning back in his seat, unconscious. Firefighters from a nearby station house ran to the scene and began working to revive the man, who had a strong pulse but was having difficulty breathing, according to Capt. Greg Lowman.

The man regained consciousness in about five minutes, after firefighters and paramedics administered rescue breathing and a reversal agent, Capt. Lowman said.

"He claimed to be sleeping, but it was an obvious overdose," Capt. Lowman said.

About 3 p.m., the driver of a dump truck parked at a CoGo's in the 2400 block of East Carson Street was found unconscious, slumped over the truck's steering wheel.

A store employee, who would not give her name, said paramedics pulled the man from the truck's cab and laid him on a stretcher while attempting to revive him. The man had a pulse but was struggling to breathe and appeared to be completely incoherent, with his arms flapping lifelessly at his sides, the employee said.

It could not be determined whether those incidents were linked to the potent heroin because police were unable to provide a breakdown of where and when the overdoses took place.

Late yesterday afternoon, Allegheny County's crime lab had analyzed one of three samples of heroin residue from stamp bags seized by police and determined that fentanyl was present.

Test results on the blood of the three people who died after apparently using the heroin would likely take until the end of the week, said Dr. Frederick Fochtman, director of the forensic science laboratory division and chief toxicologist of the county medical examiner's office.

"It's so very potent that it only takes a very small amount to have a toxic event," Dr. Fochtman said of fentanyl. "If somebody has this in a powdered form, how are they weighing it? How are they putting it in these packets? All you have to do is make a very little mistake and you have an overdose."

Authorities walk a thin line between the potential good of publicizing information about a heroin-fentanyl mixture and warning users of the danger, and tantalizing hard-core addicts who might seek out the bad dope for a powerful high.

"A hard-core addict, when they're using the heroin, sometimes they're only getting enough to prevent them from going into withdrawal," Dr. Fochtman said. "If they feel there is something out there they can take that will also make them high, they'll seek it out."

Small packets of heroin called stamp bags marked "Get High or Die Trying."

Post-Gazette staff writer Ryan Haggerty and The Associated Press contributed. Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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