Police: Officer becomes ill during drug bust

There were some very scary moments for city police on Thursday afternoon when one of their own suddenly became ill as she was searching a car that contained a purse that had more than 250 packets of suspected heroin in it.

“It hits home when one of your own officers may have been subjected to secondary exposure to fentanyl, carfentanil, methamphetamine or some other synthetic drug,” Capt. Jody Miller, head of the patrol division, said Friday.

Patrolwoman Brittany Alexander was searching the passenger side of a 2006 Subaru Forester in the 700 block of Washington Boulevard about 3:45 p.m. when she “became sick and began to shake. She stated her body was cold,” Patrolman Andrew Stevens wrote in an affidavit.

“She was immediately removed from the vehicle and set down on the curb,” Stevens said. She was rushed by ambulance to the UPMC Susquehanna Williamsport Regional Medical Center to be treated “for a possible opiate overdose,” Stevens said.

“We’re very pleased the officer is OK, but it was very scary. This is something we’re going to discuss and get better at protecting ourselves when we’re out on the streets,” Miller said.

“I’m very proud of how diligent and professional our officers have been in dealing with this heroin issue from the beginning,” he said.

Alexander, who has been on the department since 2013, was discharged from the hospital and was expected to return to duty in a matter of days.

It is believed that Alexander was the first local emergency responder to become ill on the job as a result of inhaling or coming in contact with some synthetic drug that’s being sold on the street as heroin, fentanyl or some combination of drugs.

The episode started when police and paramedics were dispatched to the parking lot of the Turkey Hill on Washington Boulevard to investigate a report of “a female slumped over the passenger seat” of a car with some sort of “medical issue,” Stevens said in his affidavit. One of those to respond was Alexander.

Upon arriving on the scene, the paramedics began to talk with the front seat passenger, Laura Newhart, a 36-year-old resident from the Monroe County village of Tannersville.

A paramedic told Alexander that it appeared that this “was a drug-related incident and not a medical” issue, Stevens said. Additional officers, including Stevens, were dispatched to the scene.

As Alexander was speaking with Newhart, the driver of the car, Justin James Volino, 22, of Saylorsburg, also Monroe County, exited the store. Both Newhart and Volino appeared to be under the influence of some drug, Stevens said.

A store employee recovered a camera bag that Volino allegedly left behind in his haste, Stevens said. In the bag were 11 packets of heroin, he added.

Newhart admitted that “she had several bundles of heroin in her purse, that was located on the passenger side of the car,” Steven said, adding he saw “two uncapped hypodermic needles and at least three envelopes of suspected heroin” on the floor in the vehicle.

It was at this point that Alexander began to search the vehicle and attempt to get the woman’s purse when she fell ill very quickly, Miller said.

“She became nauseous, suddenly had an increased heart rate and started to perspire,” Miller said. “She was exhibiting symptoms of suffering some kind of second-hand exposure to a synthetic drug. She was at the hospital for a few hours and released,” he added.

The car was secured and towed to the city’s impound lot, where it could be safely searched once officers obtained a search warrant from District Judge William Solomon.

Inside Newhart’s purse, police found 256 bags of suspected heroin, “two plastic bags of a clear crystal substance that field tested positive for methamphetamine” and paraphernalia, Stevens said.

Hours later, Newhart and Volino, both admitted heroin addicts, were taken before Solomon and arraigned on drug charges. Newhart was charged with possession with intent to deliver heroin, possession of heroin, possession of methamphetamine, possession of drug paraphernalia and illegal use of a cellphone. She was committed to the Lycoming County Prison in lieu of $300,000 bail.

Volino was charged with possession of heroin, possession of drug paraphernalia and illegal use of a cellphone, and jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail.

This episode that resulted in Alexander becoming ill during what appeared to be a routine drug investigation, not only reveals another dangerous component to the job, but as Miller said, “this is a very serious concern for all emergency responders.” Being exposed to even a small amount of synthetic drugs can be lethal, he said.