The short, scarce breaths had all but stopped by the time the paramedics arrived.
On August 21, EMS workers in Springfield, Ohio, found a heroin user passed out behind the wheel of a car. Having watched the drug spread across the state, they quickly administered naloxone, an opioid blocker, to the overdose victim.
In saving a life, paramedics unknowingly forced the user to reassess heroin’s impact. The patient’s brother and the brother’s girlfriend had also overdosed the night before. According to court documents, the person soon reached out to authorities about becoming a confidential informant — one that would help build a case against two Cincinnati drug dealers who sold heroin laced with carfentanil, a synthetic opioid primarily used to sedate elephants. It’s a drug that’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
The partnership between authorities and the addict spurred an undercover operation leading to two big arrests this month. Through that unlikely alliance, prosecutors say they notched an unexpected victory in a war on heroin that’s wreaked havoc on Ohio: the first federal carfentanil trafficking indictment ever in the US.
Carfentanil comes to town
Of the 3,000 Ohioans who fatally overdosed in 2015, more than a third died because of heroin, according to a report from Ohio health officials. The number of heroin deaths, which doubled from the previous year according to the same report, skyrocketed largely because the heroin that flooded the state was increasingly laced with either fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, or carfentanil, which is up to 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
Indeed, carfentanil is so potent that just two milligrams — the weight of a pair of paperclips — can be lethal, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
“It is crazy dangerous,” DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said in a recent warning. “[It] can kill you.”
Ohio authorities have watched heroin overdoses soar in recent months due to the rise of carfentanil. They suspect the drug first originated in China and crossed the US border through Mexico.
This past summer, Ohio’s largest cities each experienced strings of heroin overdoses: 21 died in Akron over three weeks in July, and 15 died in Cleveland over three days in August.
In mid-August, Cincinnati witnessed upwards of 200 heroin overdoses in a single week, grabbing national headlines.
The cause, Cincinnati-area authorities suspect, is carfentanil.
Addict turned informant
Initially, the spread of carfentanil blindsided local authorities who were already trying to clamp down on fentanyl. It didn’t help that the DEA had yet to start tracking data on those cases separately from pure heroin ones.
In the Cincinnati area, the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition — a collaborative of law enforcement officials, public health experts, addiction counselors and other community groups — formed to pool resources as they tried to curb the growing epidemic on all fronts.
“If we are going to combat the opioid problem in [southern] Ohio, it requires prevention, enforcement and treatment,” Benjamin C. Glassman, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said at a recent news conference.
Emphasizing enforcement, Glassman said the indictments of the first two people charged with carfentanil trafficking in the US could help authorities find those responsible for bringing the opioid to Ohio.
Two days after the Springfield overdose, court documents say the informant called 31-year-old Phillip Watkins and 26-year-old Jeanetta Crawford to buy heroin, doing so at the behest of the Hamilton County Heroin Task Force, a group of police agencies focused on drug enforcement.
After receiving a wire and $20 in marked currency, the informant drove to Watkins’ two-story residence in Cincinnati’s Elwood place neighborhood to buy a plastic baggie of heroin, according to the documents.
Three more $20 deals went down that week. Every time the informant would buy, the drug would be turned over afterward to authorities, the documents allege. When testing the drugs, analysts with the Hamilton County Crime Lab ultimately found both heroin and carfentanil, court documents said. On August 31, SWAT officers arrested Watkins and Crawford after executing a search warrant.
It didn’t take long for Watkins and Crawford to be released from custody. About a week later, the documents say, Watkins called the informant to let the informant know they were back in business, and they sold one more $20 baggie to the informant. They were both arrested again September 15. They are both now being held without bond.
The search for the source
With Crawford and Watkins in custody, DEA Agent Tim Reagan told CNN affiliate WCPO he hopes to glean information from them regarding where they got the carfentanil.
“They’re high enough up to definitely obtain it,” Reagan said. “…We’re looking for evidence we can pull fingerprints off of, DNA off of, we’re going through cell records. We’re talking to witnesses.”
Building carfentanil cases, though, isn’t easy. Tom Synan, Newtown’s police chief and leader of the heroin task force, said heroin addicts are typically unwilling to turn on dealers who are a source for their next dose. It’s akin to biting the hand that feeds them.
Given those difficulties, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has recently had to ask a judge for permission to offer immunity to anyone that could provide information leading to the arrest of suspects tied to the string of overdoses that plagued Cincinnati last month.
“If a terrorist came to Cincinnati and blew up a building with that many people, the outrage would be out of control,” Deters told CNN affiliate WKRC.
It’s for that reason that Synan has urged Ohio officials to declare a public health emergency following the August overdoses.
First, but not the last
On Thursday afternoon, Watkins and Crawford are expected to be arraigned at a federal courthouse in downtown Cincinnati.
The hearing comes a week after Glassman announced both alleged dealers would face seven counts for heroin, fentanyl, and cartenfanil trafficking that “resulted in serious physical injury,” including nonfatal overdoses.
If convicted, Watkins and Crawford will face mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years in prison, Glassman said.
Ed McTigue, an attorney representing Crawford, declined comment to CNN. Scott Rubenstein, Watkins’ lawyer, also declined to comment on the case’s specifics, given that it is still in its early stages.
Rubenstein, however, called the federal indictment a “game changer” for heroin cases.
“Charging the offense in federal court, with a 20-year mandatory minimum, certainly sends a message,” Rubenstein told CNN. “That far exceeds the exposure that Watkins would have had in state court. Is going after a low-level dealer in this manner going to have an effect on the problem? That remains to be seen.”
Synan, the police chief, told WCPO that stiffer federal prosecution will deter dealers from “putting this poison on the street” in their continuing fight against heroin.
“This is the first,” Glassman said at a news conference. “It’s probably not going to be the last.”