Police hunting for the source of deadly fentanyl-laced heroin have made a series of busts in recent days, ranging from small ones in Pittsburgh and Zelienople to a large seizure Thursday in Clairton of more than 2,400 stamp bags believed to be connected to the tainted drug.
What remains to be seen is how crucial any of the arrests are to law enforcement's efforts to flush out major dealers and, ultimately, the supplier.
One of the places investigators appear to be exploring as a pipeline for the heroin is New Jersey, specifically the city of Paterson about 20 miles outside New York City, according to information in a Pennsylvania State Police bulletin.
State police declined to discuss the alert, and a top narcotics prosecutor at the Passaic County, N.J. prosecutor's office said he was not aware of any outreach from authorities in Pennsylvania, much less the presence of any fentanyl-laced heroin in Paterson.
But Gary Davis, assistant special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said, "I've seen that bulletin. ... All I can say is we've received numerous leads and we're exploring all of them."
Locally, investigators have been working under the assumption that the heroin believed to be responsible for as many as 22 deaths in a four-county area contained fentanyl, an ultra-potent painkiller typically used for cancer patients and others with chronic ailments.
On Thursday there was finally proof of the fentanyl connection. Allegheny County medical examiner Karl Williams said laboratory tests showed that both heroin and fentanyl were present in 14 suspected overdose deaths this month, and he anticipated at least one more positive test.
Dr. Williams also said, based on testing of drug samples found at death scenes, that the heroin and fentanyl are mixed in equal measure, producing a distinctive white powder rather than the typical tannish or yellowish color of pure heroin.
Dr. Williams said his office's testing might show one more overdose fatality associated with the current tainted batch of heroin that has flooded Western Pennsylvania.
"It's kind of a moving target," Dr. Williams said.
As forensic investigators worked backward, they scoured reports back to the end of 2013, but it does not appear likely that any deaths associated with the current batch of laced heroin will be earlier than Jan. 20.
Dr. Williams added that fentanyl has been found so far only in stamp bags marked "Theraflu" and "Bud Ice."
Another stamp bag, "Income Tax," that had been mentioned as possibly being linked to overdoses has not tested positive for fentanyl.
Dr. Williams said he was awaiting results showing whether fentanyl was in about 1,500 stamp bags of "Bud Ice" seized Sunday in a Homestead raid. Two arrest warrants for suspects in that case have been obtained.
Other stamp bags that have been found at overdose death scenes in Allegheny County and elsewhere -- including "Coors Light," "Diesel" and "Magic City" -- have not yet been tested for fentanyl.
The medical examiner's office gets roughly 250 overdose deaths a year. Fentanyl overdose deaths are rare -- there were only seven in 2013.
As a result, Dr. Williams took notice when three suspected overdose deaths occurred Friday. "That catches your attention for sure," he said.
He asked his office's drug chemistry section if fentanyl was present. "They told me right away that there was. Already last Friday I had some idea something different was happening," Dr. Williams said.
Four more suspected heroin overdoses occurred Saturday and another three Sunday.
The stamp bags confiscated in Clairton were marked "Sky High."
For reasons that the Pennsylvania attorney general's office did not explain, investigators believe that "Sky High" is "related to other recent heroin stamps containing a mixture of heroin and the narcotic fentanyl," according to a statement.
"Investigators believe that drug dealers may be 'rebranding' the heroin now that the stamps, including 'Theraflu' and 'Bud Ice,' have been widely reported to be highly dangerous," the statement said.
Dr. Williams believes that the fentanyl in the heroin his lab has tested is not pharmaceutical but is being made.
"I think that somebody's probably synthesizing it themselves," he said.
Whether that is occurring locally, out of state or in another country is an open question, as is where the fentanyl is being added to the heroin.
That is a question the DEA is trying to answer, Agent Davis said. "We are aggressively coordinating efforts with our federal, state and local counterparts here in Pittsburgh. We're also checking into reports about where the heroin came from. Obviously, it was sourced here from somewhere else, so we're tracking down all those leads."
The Clairton raid occurred Thursday morning and led to drug charges against Tywon L. Newby, 39, of North State Street. Stamp bags were confiscated from a home in the 600 block of Third Street by Clairton police and agents from the attorney general's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation who executed a search warrant.
Agents twice bought heroin from Newby, the attorney general's office said. Police found him asleep in the master bedroom on the second floor. There were 25 stamp bags of heroin inside the pocket of a vest hanging on the back of the door and about 2,400 more stamp bags in a shoebox inside the closet, according to an affidavit of probable cause. Police also found more than $8,500 in cash.
Newby is being held in the Allegheny County Jail on $250,000 bond.
Newby has a criminal record, online court records show. He has been found or pleaded guilty to felonies in cases from the late 1990s, including aggravated assault, a firearms violation and drug possession with intent to deliver.
In Pittsburgh, police arrested a 21-year-old man Wednesday on charges that he sold 51 stamp bags of "Theraflu" to an undercover officer for $300 at a Circle K store on Brighton Road in Marshall-Shadeland.
After Christopher Howard, no address listed, was arrested, police searched his apartment, where they found an assault rifle and about 250 more stamp bags of suspected heroin, according to the complaint.
Jonathan D. Silver: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1962. Liz Navratil contributed.
Jonathan D. Silver: email@example.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. First Published January 30, 2014 2:30 PM