Task force tracing heroin batch that killed 5

WARREN — A two-county drug enforcement task force is working with local police departments and the state’s crime labs in an attempt to identify the people responsible for bringing in a deadly batch of drugs believed to have caused five deaths and countless overdoses last week.

“We are working with the departments in the jurisdiction where the overdoses happened, mostly in Warren and Niles. We are getting tips every day and helping them out with intel, providing them the information we have gathered and assisting them in the other ways they need,” said Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Tony Villanueva, commander of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force.

At least five people died last week from suspected drug overdoses. Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 22, 145 people in Trumbull County accidentally overdosed on opioids.

Samples from some of the scenes are being analyzed at laboratories run by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Villanueva said. The labs will identify exactly what was in the “bad batches,” which could be heroin laced with fentanyl, a synthetic pain reliever much more powerful than heroin or morphine. Small amounts of fentanyl can shut down a person’s respiratory system and lead to death if he or she isn’t revived with an opioid overdose reversal drug such as naloxone, commonly known as Narcan.

Warren police Lt. Greg Hoso said the department’s street crimes unit is investigating the four deaths that happened in Warren last week with “old-fashioned police work,” collecting evidence from the scenes like cell phones and drug paraphernalia, talking to witnesses and following any lead they get.

“There are a lot of detectives working on these overdose deaths. We are treating them as homicides and processing the scene just like any other crime scene,” Villanueva said.

Enzo Cantalamessa, Warren’s safety service director, said the police department is on track to hire 10 more police officers and adding more officers to the street crime unit could help with the case load.

Overdose investigators, recommended by the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board’s action plan, could be a subset of the unit once the new officers come on board, Cantalamessa said.

“We are constantly playing catch up. But the crime lab is getting back to us with results daily, things are moving along,” Villanueva said.

The crime labs can show if drugs found at different scenes are likely to have come from the same source and compare that to findings in other parts of the state and country.

Two of the biggest problems investigators face is witnesses who don’t share what they know and people who “tidy up” the scenes where a friend or family member overdosed in an attempt to protect them from jail.

Hoso said surviving victims who won’t tell police what they know puts a damper on the whole case.

“We can’t stress enough, when people find somebody who has overdosed, don’t mess with the scene. Don’t touch anything. Don’t hide the evidence. A lot of times it is critical we recover that evidence, where it was originally, so we can process the scene. Some are afraid of getting in trouble. That is not the case. But that is valuable evidence to us,” Villanueva said.

Police officers try to convince overdose survivors to seek help and provide them with information on detoxification facilities and other ways to find help, Hoso said. During the onslaught of overdoses last week, many did seek help, said April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Bard.

“Lots of people have entered into treatment and all of the publicity resulted in more calls then ever over those few days. Our detox centers are full, but people discharge daily so we are still getting people in,” Caraway said.

The overwhelming influx of calls can be a burden to police officers, so collaborative solutions to the problem are essential, Cantalamessa said. Police officers are put at risk of exposure to the deadly drugs, and the sometimes violent reaction of people who are revived with Narcan, Cantalamessa said.

Plus, when officers are tied up on the calls, they aren’t patrolling and their response times to other types of calls are affected, Cantalamessa said.

“It could be very dangerous and it places an unfair burden on other 911 callers. When you throw a pebble in the pond, it creates ripples. These ripples go out and disrupt the system. But more officers will help with this,” Cantalamessa said. “We are sympathetic and working with other agencies to collaborate on the best solution.”

rfox@tribtoday.com