Heroin attack

Lycoming County and Williamsport’s problems with heroin, such as dramatic rises in burglaries and violence, isn’t unique in a nation that is dealing with the same public health and law enforcement crisis.

“It’s not totally unique,” said Tony Sassano, a spokesman for the state Attorney General Kathleen Kane during a two-hour heroin summit at City Hall Friday.

Mayor Gabriel J. Campana invited Sassano and a host of other experts in their fields to share statistics and their solutions to the crisis.

Sassano, who became a police officer in 1979, working specifically on drug-related cases since 1989, said Pennsylvania is third highest in the nation in terms of heroin addicts, lagging behind California and Illinois.

“We’re 14th in the number of fatal overdoses,” he said. “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” Sassano said.

Sassano said one solution is to get to students as early as fifth and sixth grades, warning them of the dangerous gateway drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana, which has lead many to become hooked on cocaine, pills and to try heroin.

Once that happens, it’s nearly impossible to stay away, he said. “Heroin is the most addictive drug known to man.”

County Coroner Charles E. Kiessling Jr. said his office and staff are witnesses to the results of the dealers murdering their clients. “You sell drugs and they die – you kill them,” he said, basically equating heroin to a deadly weapon.

Lycoming County Judge Marc F. Lovecchio, one of two judges handling criminal cases in court, said the caseload of users has become prolific.

“If anybody wants to see the extent of heroin come to my courtroom Thursday,” Lovecchio said of the day probation and parol violators appear before him.

“Ninety-percent are using heroin or opiates,” he said. And, Lovecchio said, none say they didn’t start with pills, cocaine or other drugs.

Lovecchio became emotional sharing a story of a woman 7-months-pregnant who went before him after using heroin for a third time. “She’s sitting in jail,” Lovecchio said. “That is the only way we can ensure she won’t kill herself or her baby.”

Judge Nancy L. Butts, whose been overseeing drug court for 17 years, said the Lycoming Heroin Task Force has multiple subcommittees and is branching out with meetings in the community. Recently, a meeting was held in Muncy dealing with the effects of heroin on businesses.

Dr. Vincent Matteo, president and CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce said while unemployment remains the lowest its been in years, he is hearing stories of jobs not filled due to people unable to pass drug tests.

Williamsport has become a market city for users and dealers, alike, according to city Assistant Police Chief Timothy Miller.

A crew of six drug dealers, selling $10 bags of heroin, can earn as much as $230,400 a year, splitting it six ways each make $38,000 a year tax-free, Miller said.

If the city has 100 dealers, that’s $5.7 million a year for selling one “rack” a week, he said. In law enforcement drug lingo, 10 bags make a bundle and 14 bundles a rack.

Miller’s contention is the market for heroin is directly related to the amount of rental properties versus those owned. Calls for police service at rental properties far exceeds calls for problems at owner-occupied properties.

Of the 15,000 calls police responded to last year, such as burglaries, thefts, disturbances of peace and drug complaints, 70 percent were related to rental properties, Miller said.

City Police Capt. Michael Orwig said he wants to “drive the market indoors,” then go after the dealers of narcotics using undercover agents and confidential informants who buy the drugs, so that police can obtain search warrants and shut down drug houses.

Orwig said a local district judge told him more than 60 percent of those coming before his bench for drug-related offenses hadn’t signed a lease.

Often, Orwig said, as arrests are made, if they make bail, they return to the same rental.

“Take the roof from over them,” he said.

Bob Shaffer, a landlord, said he hadn’t a clue dealers had set up shop at one of his apartments where police eventually seized more than $10,000 in cash, $13,000 worth of heroin and three stolen firearms.

“Would you as a landlord want to be knocking on that door?” Shaffer asked.

Shaffer lauded the rental ordinance that allows police and codes officers to shut down properties immediately for up to six months for suspected drug or firearms activities.

The effects are taking a toll on the medical community, as well. Charles Santangilo, of Susquehanna Health, said last year 1,372 drug patients were treated at one of the three hospitals in the health care network.

In total, it cost $4.3 million to treat these patients, with the healthcare system paying $2.9 million and writing off $1.2 million, he said.

Among the patients, most went through outpatient service or emergency room. Half of those were receiving medical assistance, while 15 percent had no insurance, 20 percent were insured and 10 percent were getting Medicare, or were age 65 and older.

Among the patients treated, 30 percent were considered inpatient, which meant they stayed five days. Of those about half were receiving medical assistance.

“About 1,000 patients cost $500,000 to treat,” Santangilo said.

Dr. Rene Rigal, the director of the city Board of Health and a pain specialist, is discouraged by what he called “happy pens,” doctors who regularly prescribe narcotics, which he calls the “portal of entry” to heroin use.

“Four percent of the physicians are responsible for 40 percent of the drug abuse,” he said.

Chief County Det. William Weber, speaking on behalf of District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt and his staff, praised the results of the drug prescription return program.

He said boxes are set up across the city and county where people can drop off old and unused prescription medicines, preventing them from misuse and possible addiction.

“We have 12 boxes filled with nothing but prescription drugs,” Weber said. More than 600 pounds of the pills have been turned in, with 400 pounds since April, he said.

Weber said the county has seven officers actively pursuing drug sales and recently hired a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent who has wealth of experience.

The county has a new drug hotline that permits anonymous tips and an email site enabling users to post pictures and some video footage, all in a confidential manner, Weber said.

The toll-free tipline is 1-866-688-8477 and the email is drugtips@lyco.org. The county also will have a presence and a booth at the Lycoming County Fair.