Connecticut opioid crisis: Federal sentences a complex web, even after overdose deaths

This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register and was written by Anna Bisaro.

DERBY >> Within a week of Louis Ahearn’s death from an accidental overdose, the man who sold him his last bag of heroin was arrested on federal drug-distribution charges.

Ahearn, 23, was not a known heroin abuser. According to his mother, Gina Mattei, he had admitted to trying heroin for the first time two weeks before his death as a way to deal with an ongoing battle with depression. Someone named “Brad” had been selling it to him cheap, he told her.

“What happened to my son could have happened to anyone,” Mattei wrote in a letter to the U.S. District Court. “Louis was not a drug addict. He was an innocent victim.”

On Thursday, Bradley Commerford, 20, of Derby, will appear before a federal judge for sentencing in connection with this case. He ultimately pleaded guilty in May to one count of heroin distribution to an individual under 21 years of age. The federal investigation found him to be the heroin supplier for his 16-year-old girlfriend, according to court records. He was also linked to two nonfatal heroin overdoses in February.

The rapid response to tracking down, arresting and prosecuting suspected opioid dealers connected to overdoses has been a focus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Connecticut since January. It’s one of the ways the office is hoping to help combat the opioid epidemic facing the state, according to U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly.

So far this year, 21 individuals have been arrested as the result of an investigation following an opioid overdose and 11 of those individuals have been convicted. The most recent convictions were of Frank Pina and Steven Whaley, both of New Haven, who were charged as a result of an investigation into a string of 17 overdoses in New Haven in late June, three of which were fatal.

The defendants in these cases linked to overdoses will not face federal murder charges, even if there were fatalities, because homicide charges come at the state level, said William Dunlap, a law professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Law.

If, in these cases, state prosecutors found that the defendants were reckless in selling the drugs or intended to cause death, a homicide case could be made.

“(But) that is highly unlikely because why lose a customer?” Dunlap said.

Ultimately, federal judges are tasked with determining what sentence is appropriate based on the charges brought forth by prosecutors that the defendants were ultimately convicted of, whether by admission or by jury. Sentences imposed are up to the discretion of the judges and their interpretation of the law and federal statutes accompanying the crime in question, though judges regularly take a number of factors into account when making a decision. During sentencing hearings, judges are presented with the criminal history of the defendant, recommendations and arguments of both defense lawyers and prosecutors, and a guideline range for a sentence determined by the U.S. Probation Office.

In the recent sentencing hearing for Christopher Fogler, 30, of West Haven, U.S. District Judge Janet Hall said she could not ignore the fact that Fogler’s actions resulted in the death of an individual. Fogler was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin in April in connection with an accidental fatal overdose in January 2015.

“I can’t usually say to a defendant, ‘Your conduct killed somebody,’” Hall said in the sentencing hearing in July. “And that weighs heavily on my mind today.”

Fogler ultimately was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison, which was at the higher end of the guideline range of months of imprisonment recommended to the court by the U.S. Probation Office.

While Fogler was not one of the defendants arrested this year in connection with overdoses, prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office are committed to arguing for strict penalties for the defendants, who, like Fogler, were charged after they were determined to be connected with accidental overdoses, Daly said.

“There are many factors that the government considers in determining what sentence recommendation to make to the Court, especially in cases involving victims,” Daly said in an emailed statement. “In every case, the government reviews the personal characteristics of the defendant, including his or her age, criminal record, drug dependency history, education and employment, as well as the seriousness of the facts underlying the case, which encompasses the quantity of drugs sold and whether serious physical injury has resulted from a customer’s use of those drugs.”

Of all of the defendants that have been arrested this year, Commerford is the first to be scheduled before a sentencing judge.

Mattei said she plans to attend the sentencing hearing for Commerford on Thursday. She plans to stand before the judge and ask for the maximum penalty — 20 years — to be given to Commerford, she said.

She has said she hopes sharing her son’s story will prevent other lives from being lost and other parents’ hearts from being broken because of the tragedy that comes from opioid overdoses.

“Individuals like Louis are dying every day because of the poison that is being distributed freely in our communities,” Mattei continued in her letter to the court regarding Commerford’s upcoming sentencing. “My son was not a low life to society. He deserved to be here and live out his life. He deserved to walk down the aisle with the woman of his dreams. He deserved the chance to raise a child and he would have been an amazing father.”

“I am now on a journey to honor my son and perhaps fight against a broken system that killed us both,” Mattei wrote.

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