Feds: 3 arrests made in connection with New Haven opioid overdoses

This story originally appeared on the New Haven Register website and was written by  Register reporter, Juliemar Ortiz. The photo was taken by Register photographer Arnold Gold. 

OverdoseKit

NEW HAVEN >> Three men were arrested Monday in connection with the recent rash of overdoses in the city.

Frank Pina, 57, Jerome “Romie” Clay Sr., 55, and Steven Whaley, 48, were charged with possession with intent to distribute and distribution of controlled substances. Clay and Pina face an additional charge of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. All three men appeared Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah A. L. Merriam in New Haven to be arraigned.

New Haven Police and the The Deputy Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are conducting an ongoing investigation on thedrug overdoses of 17 individuals that occurred Thursday, where three people died and four remain hospitalized.

The prosecuting attorney Avi M. Perry said the three defendants have been linked to at least 12 of the overdoses and two of the deaths that occurred last week.

According to the affidavit, written by DEA Task Force Officer Allyn Wright, victims that were interviewed by police said they believed they were purchasing and consuming cocaine. However, when the DEA tested a white powdery substance found on a state lottery ticket in one of the overdose locations, they found it was “pure fentanyl” instead.

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that can be 50 times more powerful than heroin. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill said that because the drug is so potent, it is very difficult to measure accurately.

“There is a very small window between the dose for the intended effect and the a dose that can cause death. There is no FDA on the street so one never know what they are getting or how much,” Gill said. “It appears that some of these overdoses were from intranasal use (snorting) as opposed to injection. This shows the danger with high potency drugs like fentanyl is not just with injecting but with other routes of administration as well—again related to its potency.”

An overdose reversal medication called Naxalone, or Narcan, used to treat opioid overdoses, was effective in treating some of the victims. This also indicated that the substance was an opioid and not cocaine. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, analysis of the substance involved in the overdoses is not yet completed.

Police interviewed several sources in the days leading up the arrests. Multiple people identified the three defendants as known drug dealers.

According to the affidavit, a source who remains anonymous to the public told police Thursday that “people who had overdosed had received illegal drugs from Frank Pina” and that Pina usually sells $20 and $50 amounts of cocaine near a Reliable Package liquor store in the area of Brewster Street and Dixwell Avenue. The source also told police that Pina had to be hospitalized recently after trying his own product. The DEA investigator, Wright said he confirmed with Yale-New Haven Hospital that Pina was admitted for a suspected drug overdose on June 19 and was released on June 22.

The source also gave police the names of three individuals who the source said became sick after using drug that were supplied by Pina. They names were among the 17 people who overdosed last week, one of which who died.

According to the affidavit, another person, a “confidential informant” told police that “Frank” was the person selling “tainted powder cocaine” that had caused several overdoses. The informant also told police that “Frank” packages cocaine in wrapped up lottery tickets.

Investigators are also looking into four cellphones used by the defendants. Police interviewed a male victim who overdosed on Crescent Street while they were receiving treatment at Yale-New Haven Hospital on Friday. During the interview, “Victim 1” gave the police access to his cellphone, which had the phone number of the person he purchased the drugs he had taken and overdosed on. The phone number is linked to a phone used by Clay, according to the affidavit.

“Victim 1” also told police that he had purchased the drugs from “Romie” who he had bought cocaine from at least 20 or 30 times before, typically in $20 quantities either on the street or at Bowen Field, close to where the victim overdosed on Thursday. The victim also gave police cellphone numbers he called to purchase drugs, which investigators believe to belong to the defendants.

Another overdose patient, “Victim 4” told police he purchased the drug from “Steve” or Steven Whaley, and gave police the alleged dealer’s address on Bassett Street. Investigators used surveillance and other means to confirm that Whlay reside in the home, according to the affidavit.

The rash of overdoses in the past week was labeled as a “public health emergency” as Yale-New Haven Hospital treated patients and the state sent 700 doses of the life-saving opiate antidote Narcan.

Deirdre M. Daly, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, said the crisis could have been much worse without the combined efforts of city officials, local law enforcement, and medical personnel.

“We promised that we would act swiftly and that is exactly what our DEA agents, New Haven Police officers and federal prosecutors have done. I thank our partners at the DEA, particularly members of its Tactical Diversion Squad, and the New Haven Police Department for their excellent work in quickly and expertly tracking down the source of these deadly drugs. Now it is our job to bring those responsible for these overdoses to justice,” Daly said in a statement.

Daly also stressed that a complaint is only a charge and is not evidence of guilt and that charges are only allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Anyone with any information about the sale of illegal drugs is asked to call the city’s Narcotics Anonymous Tip-line at 203-946-6098.

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