Cause of wave of overdoses remains shrouded in mystery

On the afternoon of June 29, a 47-year-old woman and her 29-year-old son both overdosed at a convenience store in Old Lycoming Township. The mother collapsed in a bathroom and the son went unconscious in a truck moments after the two pulled into the store. Both recovered and were later charged with drug offenses.

These two overdoses occurred during a two-day period when local emergency responders were called to at least 51 overdoses, three of which turned out to be fatal. Initial reports at the time were that only one person died.

What caused the overdoses? A bad batch of heroin? Heroin mixed with fentanyl or some other synthetic drug? Whatever caused them remains a mystery for now. If investigators know, they’re not saying.

“What I can tell you is that it is an ongoing multi-agency investigation, and that we are making good progress,” District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt said.

“Each of the overdoses where we were able to recover evidence, bags (of drugs) or empty bags, have all been sent to a lab (for analysis). At this time, that is all part of the investigation,” Linhardt said.

“At some point, we will be comfortable talking more about this, but not now,” he added.

The sudden flood of overdose calls that occurred at the end June “took a real toll on our paramedics and county EMS (emergency medical services) workers,” Chief County Detective William Weber said.

“They were often the first ones on the scene for these overdoses. Paramedics told me they were frazzled by it; not just by the high volume of calls, but what they were seeing “ he said. “They saw these lives were torn. It was constant,” Weber said, adding that emergency responders shared with him a sense of “helplessness and frustration.”

“Many of the first responders were asking themselves, ‘Why was this happening,'” Weber said.

Among those investigating the rash of overdoses are members of the county’s Narcotics Enforcement Unit, a team of nine officers started by Linhardt in 2014 to combat the heroin epidemic that was ravaging the region.

Since its inception, the unit has initiated nearly 500 drug cases, resulting in 344 arrests and the seizure of 75 illegal firearms and $177,642 in illegal drug proceeds as of late October, Linhardt said.

The unit has seized “30,000 bags of heroin, about two pounds, with a street value of $294,000; 765 grams of cocaine — powder and crack, mostly crack — with a street value of $76,000,” Linhardt said, adding that the unit has executed 115 search warrants at various residential properties throughout the county.

“We’re making progress, and we know the work we’re doing every day is making a difference,” Linhardt said.

“The drugs we’re seeing most are heroin and fentanyl, then marijuana and then cocaine,” he added.

Most, if not all the drugs coming into Lycoming County, are coming from Philadelphia, Linhardt said.

“Philadelphia is not only the drug-source city for Williamsport, but for the entire mid-Atlantic region,” he said.

“Up until a few years ago, it was New York City,” Weber said.

“The most disturbing trend we’ve seen in the last year is an increase in the use of fentanyl being mixed with heroin. In some cases, we’ve seen pure fentanyl delivered as heroin. Fentanyl is much more deadly,” Linhardt said.

In many instances, local drug investigators have altogether stopped testing seized drug substances here, opting instead to send the material directly to a lab where it can be safely analyzed.

“An overwhelming amount of heroin in the commonwealth includes much more substances than just heroin,” an undercover member of the state police vice unit wrote in an affidavit in late October following a controlled buy.

“A large number of incidents involving deaths and overdoses that were believed to be heroin were (actually) a mixture of heroin and fentanyl or pure fentanyl,” the trooper wrote.

“Fentanyl is an extremely dangerous drug if consumed, and is a potential airborne hazard,” he added.

Just last month, a city police officer became ill suddenly during a drug investigation that involved a woman’s purse that contained 250 packets of suspected heroin or other controlled substances. The officer was treated at a local hospital and was back on the job in a matter of days.

To understand the impact of fentanyl in this region, a person only needs to speak with Lycoming County Coroner Charles E. Kiessling Jr.

As of Dec. 7, a record 36 people had died this year of drug overdoses in the county, and about 17 of those deaths were attributed to fentanyl, Kiessling said.

“Toxicology reports on all the cases are coming back with a variety of drugs, but the big ones are fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and combinations of drugs,” he said.

“The whole opioid epidemic is out of control everywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s downtown in big cities or in Lycoming County. It’s running rampant. There is not a county in the state that is not being impacted by this,” Kiessling said.

Thirty-five fatal drug overdoses occurred last year in the county, Kiessling said, setting a new record at that time.

“I’ve talked to coroners throughout the state, and no one is seeing a let up in the number of drug deaths. A few coroners have seen the numbers stabilize,” he added.

Statistics compiled by Deputy County Coroner Jennifer Nolan revealed that the number of drug overdoses in the county jumped from 14 in 2014, to 25 in 2015 to the current number this year.

Kiessling said the heroin and fentanyl epidemic is ripping families apart.

“These people (addicts) will do any anything to get their drugs. They will steal from parents and other family members to support their habit. The cost of treatment can be thousands and thousands of dollars. Some parents are stripping out their life savings to get treatment for a loved one because a lot of treatment programs aren’t covered by insurance,” he added.

William Solomon, a former Old Lycoming Township police chief and now a district judge, said: “Once you’re hooked on heroin, you forget everything you ever knew. Heroin is another world all of its own. For the addict, it’s all about feeding the need for heroin. They live to get high, every day. That’s all that matters. That becomes their sole purpose for living.”

Coroners are often the ones left with the task of notifying loved ones when a death in the family has occurred. That is never easy regardless of the circumstances.

On several occasions in doing death notifications regarding drug overdoses, Nolan said she has spoken with adult children who have lost a mother or father.

“There have been a number of incidents when the children have told me ‘We’ve been expecting this call,’ or ‘We’ve been waiting for this to happen. Our mom or dad has been an addict for a number of years.’ They’re not at all surprised. It’s very sad, very unfortunate. It’s like they were waiting for it to happen,” Nolan added.

“With heroin, you either end up dying the first time you use it or you end up being an addict for the rest of your life,” she added.

“It’s sad, really sad,” Solomon said.

“Drug overdoses are decimating our communities. This problem is taking a lot of people who would be productive members of society – having jobs and doing things – completely out of the picture because of their addictions.”

Drug overdoses are becoming “an every day event” in communities across the country, Solomon said.

“I firmly believe we’re going to lose a whole generation to heroin,” he added.