Prosecutors ask public for help to confront drug overdose epidemic
Case targets distribution of fentanyl-laced heroin that caused 27 overdoses in two-day span
February 16, 2016 1:24 PM
Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Attorney David Hickton
By J. Brady McCollough / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The further U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton and Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone get into their ongoing investigation of the heroin and opioid epidemic that has plagued Western Pennsylvania for years now, the more they are learning.
Discovering the best way to fight this growing national public health crisis has been a process for even the most seasoned law enforcement officials. On Tuesday morning, Mr. Hickton and Mr. Vittone decided to reveal some of their newly acquired knowledge in the form of an impassioned plea to those who are personally affected by this monster of an addiction.
“Part of my message today,” Mr. Hickton said, “is if you are a loved one of a person who is in the throes of opioid addiction, and you can help by giving us evidence — the cell phone number, the name of the dealer who is heartlessly taking care of your sick loved one, or any other information — we want to receive that information.”
Mr. Hickton and Mr. Vittone’s plea for trust and cooperation from the public came Tuesday as they hosted a news conference at Washington County’s Courthouse Square to announce the Feb. 9 indictment of Ronald McMillian, of Washington, by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of trafficking in heroin and fentanyl. The four-count indictment charged Mr. McMillian with conspiring to distribute and distributing heroin and fentanyl, which resulted in serious bodily injury to at least two people back in August.
This announcement came six months to the day that fentanyl-laced heroin hit the streets of Washington County, leading to a remarkable 27 overdoses over a two-day period. From Aug. 16-22 in Washington County, there were at least four known deaths due to overdose by heroin laced with fentanyl, a narcotic that can cause life-threatening respiratory distress when taken in high doses and combined with other powerful substances.
One of the prominent stamp bags associated with the August overdoses was labeled “MADE IN COLOMBIA,” and Mr. Vittone said that Mr. McMillian was involved with the distribution of those bags.
“The fentanyl cases are so crucial because the ingestion of a small amount can cause the complete disabling of your central nervous system and you basically die,” Mr. Hickton said.
“We want this message to go out as a matter of public safety. When fentanyl hits the street, you need to get your loved one into treatment however you can. There is no basis to delay. Frequently in the recovery world, people talk about letting a person find their own bottom. When you’re talking about fentanyl-laced heroin, you can’t wait. You cannot wait.
“And part of the reason for our aggressive approach to a public health announcement like this is because of that fact, and, further, the hijacked brain that’s in the throws of opioid addiction will counter-intuitively run toward the fentanyl.”
Mr. Hickton said he expects there will be more indictments related to the August fentanyl outbreak, which was the first to happen in Washington County, according to Mr. Vittone. There was another in February, and Mr. Vittone said they were more prepared the second time around to react in real time to the overdoses that occurred.
One reason, he said, was the increased use of Narcan (Nalaxone), a drug which immediately reverses the effects of a heroin overdose, by first-responders. Mr. Vittone said 36 lives have been saved since June by the use of Narcan on the scene of an overdose.
The second reason is that law enforcement officials have begun investigating every overdose as a way of compiling information on dealer and distributor patterns. They have created a form that is to be filled out after each overdose, and the data is being sent to a “fusion center” based in Cranberry where the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation can combine to build a “web” to show how heroin is moving throughout Western Pennsylvania.
“We need to marry public health and public safety,” Mr. Hickton said. “We felt that the former days where overdoses would either go unreported or unattended to was depriving us of the ability to understand the full magnitude of the problems and the vital information that we need to solve it.”
This problem will not just go away because Mr. Hickton and his team have indicted 10 individuals now across Western Pennsylvania since July. He said there have been 222 overdoses — 33 of them fatal — in Washington County alone since August.
Mr. Hickton and Mr. Vittone both stressed that people should feel comfortable giving them information. Mr. Vittone cited “good samaritan” legislation that protects those who are in possession of narcotics or paraphernalia from being prosecuted if they are providing information.
They ended the news conference by giving the public details on how to report: OverdoseFreePA.org is a Web site one can use without contacting police directly. The phone number for the DEA is 412-287-3829, and, to text a tip, send it to 847411 with keyword “PGHOD” and that information will go to the police.
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.
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