Federal drug investigators offer help to locate source of tainted heroin

The overdoses have stopped, but the investigation is continuing.

Law-enforcement agencies are working to determine how heroin may have contributed to the death of a North Vernon woman and caused as many as 17 people to overdose in Jennings and Jackson counties.

No new overdoses were reported in either of the two counties from Wednesday through Thursday, leading investigators to believe that the initial crisis may be over.

“I hope that’s the end of it,” said Jennings County Sheriff Gary Driver of the marathon effort in two south central Indiana counties to save lives over a six-hour period Tuesday night.

Samples of the drug taken by those who overdosed have been sent to a state lab to determine its makeup, with results expected back in a month to six weeks. Driver and Jackson County Sheriff Mike Carothers said until those test results are back, it’s only speculation on what substances may have been added to what was sold as heroin.

A full toxicology screen was performed Wednesday on the 52-year-old woman who died after overdosing at her Country Squire Lakes home, but it will take three to six weeks before the results of that screen are returned from the lab, Jennings County Coroner Eugene Rudicel said Thursday. An autopsy on the woman was not performed, he said.

While waiting for test results, the investigation into how the heroin got into both counties is continuing, with Driver saying more arrests could be coming as soon as next week.

Four adults in Jennings County were arrested Tuesday night on charges of possession of a controlled substance and a Seymour man was arrested for dealing a controlled substance after all of them were revived by deputies using multiple doses of the heroin antidote Narcan.

Both sheriff’s departments are revising their practice on the number of Narcan doses deputies carry with them while patrolling. Deputies in both counties will now carry two or more doses, rather than one, after Tuesday night’s incidents proved that the substances now being circulated are much more lethal and potent than previously experienced.

Nearly all of those who overdosed Tuesday night required more than one dose of Narcan to be revived, with one overdose victim requiring four doses, Driver said. Deputies and emergency personnel did run out of the antidote drug out in the field but were replenished with the help of other police agencies.

Both departments are using Narcan provided through donations or a grant, the sheriffs said.

Working with the DEA

Both sheriffs say they will continue to work with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which has offered assistance in the investigation to track whether the drugs may have come through Cincinnati, where as many as 34 overdoses also were reported Tuesday.

Investigators have speculated that someone from this area may have gone to Cincinnati to pick up the heroin and then distributed it in the two counties, resulting in the multiple overdoses timed so closely in both counties.

An overdose was also reported in Bartholomew County Tuesday, but it is unknown whether it is related to the overdoses in Jennings and Jackson counties. Another possible overdose was reported in Columbus at about 3 p.m. Thursday, but it was unknown what type of substance was involved or whether Narcan was administered.

Detectives from Bartholomew County’s Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team arrested 16 people in a warrant sweep on Aug. 15 and 16, including six individuals with Columbus and North Vernon addresses charged with dealing in heroin.

Columbus Police Department spokesman Lt. Matt Harris said no one could say for certain that those arrests helped prevent subsequent overdoses locally, but it probably had some effect.

“We believe the arrests that were made locally had an impact,” Harris said. “That’s not to say someone couldn’t be going down to Jennings County to buy drugs.”

Detectives in Columbus continue to believe that much of the heroin coming into Bartholomew County is from Indianapolis, but Columbus is still close enough to Cincinnati that sources there can’t be discounted, he said.

Greg Westfall, special agent in charge of the DEA’s office in Indianapolis, said the agency cannot go into details about how the overdose incidents are being investigated, but his agency’s focus is on the source of the supply of heroin — and every case could help investigators get closer to the bigger picture about how the drugs are being distributed.

Westfall said federal investigators have seen the synthetic drug fentanyl becoming more of a threat, with those selling it not just cutting heroin with the powerful anesthetic drug but instead selling fentanyl as heroin.

The federal agent said he could not confirm whether fentanyl — 50 times stronger than heroin commonly found on the street — was the culprit in what happened in south central Indiana on Tuesday —  as lab reports aren’t back yet.

But based on other clusters of heroin overdoses in Indiana and around the country, more often than not it is heroin cut with fentanyl, or fentanyl being sold as heroin that is the culprit, Westfall said.

The fentanyl that is being sold is particularly dangerous in that it is not the same drug that is sent to pharmacies, he said. Instead, it’s being manufactured in clandestine labs and its often unknown what substances are in it, Westfall said.

“You never know what you’re getting,” Westfall said of users who are buying heroin on the street. “They (the dealers) are poisoning your streets.”

Helping law enforcement

Westfall said what is needed now is the help of the community for law enforcement — with tips on drug activity that can lead to removing the dangerous substances from the hands of users.

The U.S. is in an opioid crisis and heroin and fentanyl are the No. 1 focus of the DEA in Indiana, Westfall said.

“The bottom line is that we have to start with human intelligence off the street,” he said. “Help us find out who that dealer is.”

An event to try to thwart more overdose incidents is set for Monday in Seymour, where Overdose Lifeline Inc. will distribute a limited supply of free doses of naloxone — the generic version of the drug — and provide training on how to use the drug.

Overdose Lifeline Inc. focuses on prevention, education and support for communities battling the opioid epidemic and addiction.

The distribution is planned at 6 p.m. at Brooklyn Pizza Co., 753 W. Second St., Seymour, where donations to fund the distribution of naloxone will be accepted.

Mentioning the give-away, Carothers said he thought needing such an event was sad for the Seymour community and a little bit scary.

“I’m afraid some people are using it (Narcan) as a crutch,” he said, pointing out that using whatever is being purported to be heroin may result in a single dose of the antidote being enough to save someone having an overdose.

Available at pharmacies

Effective July 1, naloxone could be purchased at pharmacies through a statewide standing order from the Indiana Department of Health, according to Overdose Lifeline.

Each dose costs about $75 and is usually covered by an individual’s health insurance plan, said Phil Caruso, a Walgreens spokesman at the company headquarters in Deerfield, Illinois.

Walgreens began offering naloxone through its pharmacies in February in all its Indiana stores, although it’s technically not considered an over-the-counter drug, Caruso said.

Customers need to go to the pharmacy, where the company has provided a general prescription form that is used to dispense the drug, with the pharmacist providing information about how it is used and the importance of calling 911 to get emergency help immediately if it is used, Caruso said.

The company doesn’t break out individual demand for any particular medication, but Caruso said the naloxone offering is part of a national roll-out that will reach 35 states this year. He said the company’s program to distribute the medication has been well-received by police, health care providers and the general public.

Kroger pharmacists are receiving training and planning to roll out naloxone availability by mid-September, said Eric Halvorson, public affairs manager and spokesman for the company’s central division. After the training is completed, naloxone will be available in all Kroger pharmacies, he said.

Naloxone distribution

What: Naloxone distribution and training provided by Overdose Lifeline Inc.

When: 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Brooklyn Pizza Company, 753 W. Second St., Seymour

How much: Naloxone and taining are free, but donations will be accepted

For more information: overdose-lifeline.org

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.