RIDGWAY — The tone at Wednesday’s press conference announcing that charges were filed against the sister and cousin of a 24-year-old overdose victim was a somber one.
At times, officials made it known that the answer to solving the national, statewide, and regional opioid epidemic are not yet known. However, they did affirm that they weren’t about to stop trying.
“We’re working on trying to fix these individuals and that can present a challenge at times,” Elk County District Attorney Shawn McMahon said. “This has been attributed to being a disease. How do you effectively address that disease, in particular in the criminal justice system? There are no other diseases that we necessarily treat in the criminal justice system.”
At one point, an exasperated McMahon said he wasn’t certain that periods of incarceration even impacted the problem or spurred many to change their lifestyle.
McMahon added that the cases of Theresa Sample and Allison Miller, who were charged this week with selling their relative Kaitlyn Buerk carfentanyl laced heroin upon which she ultimately overdosed, show why the stakes of what law enforcement and the courts do are so high.
“It’s like Russian roulette,” said McMahon of buying drugs on the streets.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is similar to morphine which is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery, but is 50 to 100 times more potent. However, now that fentanyl has increased in popularity among drug users, it has begun to be formulated by drug dealers in clandestine labs.
While finding carfentanyl, an even more potent version of the drug is rare in Elk County, McMahon said fentanyl is being found more frequently each year.
In 2017 in Elk County, there were six overdose deaths reported by the coroner’s office, three of which were a combination of fentanyl and heroin. There was also one homicide last year, which was a drug delivery resulting in death. It also involved fentanyl.
At least two overdose deaths have already been reported in 2018.
As for Buerk, her official autopsy showed that she died from fentanyl toxicity.
Troop Commander Bernard Petrovsky of Troop C Punxsutawney said regionally, overdose deaths have been on the rise.
Petrovsky said in 2012 Troop C, which covers Jefferson, McKean, Elk, Clearfield, Clarion, and Forest counties, saw an average number of about four overdose deaths. By 2015, it had spiked to 48 and has held steady since with about 40 annually.
“A lot of time people equate drug overdoses to the big metropolitan areas, but here is a case of a small rural area where we’re seeing all of these overdoses,” Petrovsky said.
The case of Sample and Miller will be the first time the charge of drug delivery resulting in death has been prosecuted in Elk County. Petrovsky said Troop C made seven of these arrests in 2017. The year before it had four.
The felony charge falls under the PA Crimes Code which holds anyone who administers, dispenses, delivers, gives, prescribes, sells, or distributes a controlled substance which causes someone to die as a result of its use.
“It’s something we can use in the war against opioids and if we can continue to use it we will on a case by case basis,” Petrovsky added. “Drug abuse fuels everything.”
McMahon urged residents to continue to use the medicine drop boxes located at all municipal police stations in Elk County and the sheriff’s office, as well as at all of the stations in the Troop C region.
Petrovsky urged the public to continue to call with tips and information, adding that is where most of the successful cases start.
“The public is a critical component and we value the trust they have in us,” McMahon said.