New Castle News

January 30, 2014

Local police on alert for tainted heroin

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — A rash of Fentanyl-tainted heroin deaths in the Pittsburgh area has put local law enforcement on alert.

New Castle Police Chief Bobby Salem said the tainted heroin is evident by stamp bags with a different appearance. Stamp bags are how the heroin typically is packaged for sale.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said the heroin, linked to nearly two dozen deaths, has been seen in Lawrence County.

“We’ve had overdoses, but don’t know yet if it was some of that heroin,” Salem said Wednesday.

The city of New Castle has had one confirmed heroin death this year and about 10 to 15 overdose cases. In many of those, the people survived, he said, adding police are waiting for lab results on other overdoses cases.

Salem said he does not know if the one confirmed heroin death is related to the tainted heroin in circulation, and he was awaiting more information from the state attorney general’s office regarding how much has reached the county’s borders.

Lawrence County Coroner Russell S. Noga said Fentanyl had not been something that normally would have been tested in overdose autopsies.

But since Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner, has called the outbreak of overdoses “a major public health crisis,” local investigators are on alert.

The heroin overdoses largely have been tainted with Fentanyl, a narcotic painkiller that comes in patches and in liquid, the latter of which most likely would have been stolen from a medical clinic or hospital, Noga said.

A normal drug panel conducted in an autopsy screening covers 106 drugs, but Fentanyl is an independent test that costs more money and is not normally tested unless it is suspected, he explained.

Noga said that recently, he received six pathology reports of local deaths, five of which were related to drug overdoses in the panels. Most of those involved heroin combined with other drugs, he said, but Fentanyl was not covered in those panels.

“We went back to see what deaths were related to heroin, and we can do expanded panels, which are $45 to $65,” he said, but local officials just learned about the tainted heroin within the past few days.

He said he was alerted by the local state police, who received a bulletin from the state police in Butler regarding heroin laced with Fentanyl.

Reports said Williams’ office is investigating the possibility that heroin sold in bags marked “Theraflu” might be connected to several overdose deaths.

They also have found stamp bags called “Bud Ice” and “Income Tax” that are suspected in some of the deaths, according to reports.

David J. Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, commented Tuesday that the recent dramatic increase in the number of heroin overdoses in the region has quickly become the most pressing crime problem for law enforcement.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is working closely with federal, state and local investigators to uncover the source of the highly dangerous drugs.

“Ingesting this form of heroin obviously carries a far greater risk than is typical, although overdoses are common with any form of heroin,” Hickton said.

Noga reported to the county last year that the number of autopsies from drug overdoses had dramatically increased and, as of November, had topped 22 for last year. That was up from the normal seven to 10, he said.

Wednesday he said there already have been several this year in the county, but numbers were not readily available.

Anyone who has any information about the source or suspicion of the lethal drugs is asked to contact the federal Drug Enforcement Administration at (412) 287-3829, or send a text message to the DEA’s text tip line at TIP411 with the keyword “PGHOD,” followed by the tip information.

Hickton also urged people to contact their local police departments.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)