EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 9, 2014

Dying for a fix

Local police react to threat of fentanyl-laced heroin Potent drug feared to be cause of many overdoses

By Jill Harmacinski

---- — Police watched as a young mother driving a silver Toyota Matrix, pulled into a gas station on the Lawrence/Methuen line. Her 6-month-old child was secured in a carrier in the back of the car. Hypodermic needles were strewn across the passenger seat.

She and two friends were in possession of heroin, prompting a search of her vehicle, police said.

The woman was allowed to call a family member to come get her baby as police investigated. She was issued a summons to appear in court for being present where heroin is kept.

There’s no way of really knowing, but perhaps this was one time police saved someone from becoming another overdose victim.

Reports of heroin overdoses are spiking nationally at an alarming rate.

Law enforcement blames many of the overdoses on heroin laced with fentanyl — a synthetic drug introduced in the 1960s as an intravenous anesthetic. It is stronger than morphine, another painkiller used for extreme pain.

Overdose deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl have been reported along the East Coast, including in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island and New York, police said. Heroin laced with fentanyl is suspected in at least 50 recent fatal overdoses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maryland.

It is packaged in glassine baggies stamped “Ace of Spades” and “Aces of Hearts.” The deadly mix of the drugs has street nicknames of “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice,” and “24K,” according to police. When a user injects fentanyl it affects the central nervous system and brain, and since it is more powerful it leads to trouble breathing or they even stop breathing as the drug sedates the user.

In response to the deadly threat, detectives from the Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts state troopers and an FBI agent, took part in an operation Thursday to try to get some of the drug off the streets. A reporter and photographer from The Eagle-Tribune accompanied some of the officers.

Thirty arrests were made that day in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill. Those charged come from Lawrence and Methuen. Others are from Somerville and Medford, Pelham and North Conway, N.H. and Fryeburg, Maine, police said.

Detectives keeping a lookout on a McDonald’s restaurant parking lot, discovered five people shooting and snorting heroin in two separate cars.

Another time, two men in different cars met on Sunray Street, off Ferry Street in the Lawrence’s Prospect Hill neighborhood, for an early afternoon hand-to-hand exchange of heroin.

“We want them to see a heavy police presence ... We want them to stop coming here to buy drugs,” said Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon.

In Methuen, 33 heroin overdoses were recorded since November, including 14 in January and one already this month, Solomon said. Two weeks ago, a local mother shot up in a gas station bathroom and overdosed. Police found her children in her mini-van parked outside, Solomon said.

“The increase in heroin use is not staggering but the increase in overdoses is,” said Solomon, who was among a group of local chiefs who met on Jan. 30 at the Andover Public Safety Center to discuss the uptick in heroin overdoses locally.

At that meeting, the chiefs decided to arrange the Thursday’s high intensity “displacement” operation in the hopes of slowing down heroin sales and averting the overdoses.

While the tainted heroin is being sold and used, police are uncertain how it arrived in the area and who the top supplier is. Heroin sells in the area for $60 to $80 per gram, with a half gram running at about $40. Detectives said the more heroin you buy often results in a reduction in price.

In addition to Methuen, heroin overdoses were reported recently in Haverhill, Salisbury and Portsmouth. After a Jan. 27 overdose in Salem, N.H., a Haverhill woman, age 20, remains in critical condition.

A Gloucester man died of a heroin overdose Wednesday night.

Last weekend, Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died from an apparent overdose in his Manhattan apartment. A hypodermic needle was hanging from his left arm and some 50 bags of heroin were found in his apartment, according to reports.

Hoffman’s death left investigators trying to figure out if the actor had been a victim of fentanyl-laced heroin. While officials did not find fentanyl in drug residue found at his Manhattan apartment, the autopsy was deemed inconclusive pending toxicology tests.

In Lawrence, Acting Police Chief James Fitzpatrick is aware of the overdose problem, although it’s unclear how many overdoses occurred in that city recently. Fitzpatrick said there was one death in the city in 2013 as a result of the heroin overdose. He’s also spoken with emergency staff at Lawrence General Hospital about it.

“They are definitely picking up,” said Fitzpatrick.

Overdoses underscore diverse user group

Police said users include the unemployed, students, mothers with children in tow and professionals in business attire. Among those arrested Thursday in Haverhill was a 20-year-old college student from Maine who was shooting up in a Dunkin Donuts bathroom, police said.

“There is no face of a heroin user,” said Methuen Police Lt. Kevin Mahoney, who was among the officers involved in Thursday’s operation.

On Thursday, the operation started in the roll call room at the Lawrence Police Department, where 30 police officers, troopers and agents, met and then split into four teams. The teams then headed to “hot areas,” where drug use or sales were reported or seen previously by police.

Mahoney said many of these areas are parking lots in shopping plazas, especially those with quick highway access for heroin buyers and sellers. He pointed out a coffee shop parking lot, with about 14 parking spaces, with speedy access to Routes 110 and 93, were numerous heroin arrests were made recently.

“It’s a convenient place to hide in plain sight,” he said, as he cruised through a parking lot on Haverhill Street checking for suspicious activity.

Some businesses have been forced to close their restrooms to the public after addicts repeatedly used them to shoot up. Some junkies even flush hypodermic needles down toilets at coffee shops and fast food restaurants, resulting in costly plumbing repairs for the business owners, Mahoney said.

Just 40 minutes after the operation started, police came upon a heroin deal at Sunray and Highlawn streets on Prospect Hill in Lawrence. A Rowley man was driving a Mercury Mountaineer slowly on Prospect Street near Ferry Street, raising police suspicions.

A short time later, after the Mountaineer parked on Sunray Street - a Lawrence man driving a Nissan Altima parked across the street. The driver got out and got in the back seat of the Mountaineer. Police soon recovered “several baggie twists of heroin” and placed both drivers, along with a passenger in the Mountaineer under arrest, according to a report by Trooper Jason Conant.

Detectives were also watching as a Somerville man parked at a Lawrence gas station and a man walked up to the passenger’s side of his car and got in. A short distance away, two stopped on Lawrence Street. As the passenger got out, detectives watched as the driver brought a plastic bag to his mouth and bit off the end of the bag. As police swarmed the vehicle, they also noticed the driver had a hypodermic needle and an orange bottle cap - which are both used for heroin consumption.

The driver was placed under arrest and his car towed, police said.

And just before 6 p.m., detectives arrested five people using heroin in two separate cars parked at McDonald’s on Broadway in Lawrence. “It should be noted that this particular area has been a common meeting place for both drug dealers and drug users,’” Lawrence Detective Carmen Purpora wrote in his report.

“Moreover, I have personally been involved in numerous arrests in which the suspect had entered into the McDonald’s lot to either purchase illegal narcotics or shoot up illegal narcotics after having recently scored from a source somewhere in the nearby area,” Purpora added.

Methuen, Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, Haverhill, Salem, N.H. police along with state police, and the Essex County Sheriff’s department participated in Thursday’s operation which Solomon described as a “great success.”

He said police were able to gather intelligence for drug investigations in the future, heighten public perception of the overdose issue and work together with outside departments and agencies. “It’s a win-win everywhere,” he said.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

Police say those seeking a fix head to shopping plazas, especially those with quick highway access for heroin buyers and sellers. Some businesses have been forced to close their restrooms to the public after addicts repeatedly used them to shoot up. Two weeks ago, a local mother shot up in a gas station bathroom and overdosed. Police found her children in her mini-van parked outside, Methuen police Chief Joseph Solomon said.