Fentanyl and its stronger synthetic cousins — suspected in 99 of the first 100 overdose deaths in Montgomery County this year — are so dangerous police and prosecutors won’t even bring the drugs into the courtroom as evidence.
Even keeping the deadly drugs under glass is seen as too much of a risk for those nearby, including juries. Some synthetic opioids are so potent, an amount smaller than a grain of salt can kill anyone who comes in contact with it.
“We cannot bring those exhibits, the actual physical drugs, into a courtroom,” said Brent Tabacchi, assistant U.S. attorney. “We just can’t do it.”
The fentanyl epidemic that has clogged the streets, filled the Montgomery County morgue and launched hundreds of police investigations has led to more federal prosecutions as law enforcement attempts to disrupt the flow of drugs into the area by targeting dealers.
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The impact on the federal court system, which handles many of the trafficking cases, has been huge.
In 2015, two fentanyl-related cases involving three defendants were handled in Dayton’s U.S. District Court. That rose modestly in 2016 to six cases and six defendants.
But through the first six months of 2017, there are 25 new fentanyl or fentanyl analog-related cases and 40 defendants in the Dayton office of the Southern District of Ohio.
Montgomery County is on pace for more than 800 overdose deaths this year, a record.
“I work in investigations now downtown, and our focus is fentanyl. That’s what’s killing people,” Dayton police Major Brian Johns said. “If you sell fentanyl, our job is to put you in jail.”
Fentanyl has become such a presence on some streets that police caught an alleged dealer when he flagged down a plain clothes officers’ car.
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“You make room for these cases. You just do,” Tabacchi said of the crush of new cases. “That has meant longer hours for a lot of people here in the office. It means a lot of times we’ve been calling our magistrate judges at 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night to get warrants.
“We’ve always had some element of that, but when a week or two goes by and we’re not in here at night doing something, it almost seems unusual now.”
A new concern
The court cases show the progression of drug potency and volume that has occurred over a very short time. Just a few years ago heroin was the main opioid problem in the region. Fentanyl soon emerged, and now its stronger cousins — called analogs — are catching up.
“What you’re seeing is not just fentanyl, you’re seeing a dramatic increase in the fentanyl analogs,” Tabacchi said. “If you can call fentanyl poison, then the fentanyl analogs are super poison. … Almost every other case we take in is a fentanyl analog.”
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Dealers that sell fentanyl analogs risk longer sentences. While it takes 40 grams of fentanyl to trigger a mandatory federal minimum of five years in prison, it takes just 10 grams of a fentanyl analog to bring that same sentence under federal guidelines.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said his office has seized 76 pounds of fentanyl with an estimated street value of $3.5 million since January 2016, stopping more than 345,000 unit doses from hitting the street.
But during that same time span, his office’s task forces have also seized 2.5 pounds of carfentanil — or about $500,000 of the deadly analog.
Opioids have a legitimate place in medicine as a painkiller, but not sold on the street. Carfentanil, which has been used on elephants and other large beasts, can kill a human with an amount smaller than a grain of salt.
“We are definitely concerned about first responders being exposed to this product,” Plummer said. “We all carry Narcan for that reason.”
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Plummer said his office may offer training to postal workers because fentanyl is increasingly being delivered through the mail.
Johns said Dayton officers now use protective gloves, masks and goggles if they suspect fentanyl, and are extra cautious when searching cars and houses and serving warrants.
“These guys that cut it, you know, they’re not chemists or anything,” Johns said. “So they’re playing roulette with people’s lives. We’ve had some risk. An officer kind of felt ill after doing a car search because you can get it in the car so easy. … It’s so small, you don’t know where it’s at.”
Even dealers overdose
Lower level drug dealers often don’t know if they are getting heroin or fentanyl or carfentanil, Tabacchi said.
“It’s usually only after they start selling it to customers they can figure out which it is,” he said. “Law enforcement is aware of instances where individuals likely overdosed as a result of simply handling their own product. They were not users. They were attempting to cut or press their own product and, in handling it, they overdosed.”
Because of the increased potency of the drugs on the street, more nalaxone — often referred to by the brand name Narcan — is needed to counteract the effects when someone is overdosing.
Credit: Spencer Platt
Credit: Spencer Platt
Johns said Dayton police officers started dispensing nalaxone in late 2014. Through May 2017, the department had administered 1,179 doses to 730 people and saved 716 of them, he said.
While one to three doses of nalaxone work to counteract a heroin overdoses, “it can take from five to 20 doses to bring them back to consciousness” from analogs, Johns said.
Plummer said his office is reaching out in the community to spread the word about the dangers from the types of drugs that are now on the street.
“We are starting our town hall meetings in local churches to educate congregations about the danger of it. We have several of those scheduled already,” Plummer said. “We are trying to get Narcan in the hands of families who have loved ones addicted.”
Tabacchi said it may take awhile to see the results from the increasing number of opioid prosecutions.
“They are making a concerted effort,” he said of local law enforcement. “As soon as they get information about a potential fentanyl source or supply, they’re targeting them and going after them.”
Putting a dent in the supply is critical to solving the crisis, the federal prosecutor said.
“Both on the prosecutor side as well as on the law enforcement side, everyone is recognizing this as the greatest danger right now,” he said.
Dayton U.S. District Court estimates
Heroin vs. Fentanyl-related prosecutions
21 heroin cases, 27 defendants
2 fentanyl cases, 3 defendants
23 heroin cases, 30 defendants - 30
6 fentanyl-related cases, 6 defendants
2017 (through June 22)
6 heroin cases, 6 defendants - 6
25 fentanyl cases, 40 defendants
Source: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio
Dayton police calls for service involving overdoses
2017 through May: 1,203
Source: Dayton police department
Current federal cases involving fentanyl:
- Daniel Jones, who called himself "El Chapo Jr." and said he was Dayton's biggest drug dealer, had more than 400 grams of fentanyl. Jones, who had the 400 grams specification removed as part of a plea deal, is scheduled for sentencing in July.
- Emmanuel Sanchez Perez was convicted after he was allegedly found with more than 400 grams of fentanyl. He is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
- Clarence Winn Jr., a Dayton rap musician, and others are alleged to be part of a conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, acryfentanyl and carfentanil. Winn has an evidentiary hearing scheduled for July 5.
- Taylor D. White, who allegedly sold fentanyl to plain clothes police officers who then continued controlled buys, is scheduled to plead guilty and be sentenced later this year.
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