HARTFORD >> When news broke in late June that a rash of drug overdoses in New Haven had been caused by a bad batch of cocaine laced with fentanyl, Jerome Clay, Sr., brought his supply of the suspected batch back to whom he had gotten it from.
This, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Avi Perry, along with Clay’s swift acceptance of responsibility, is why the federal government did not seek a strict prison sentence for Clay, one of the four men convicted in connection with selling the drugs that led to the overdoses.
Tuesday, Clay, 55, of New Haven, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison followed by three years of supervised release by U.S. District Judge Michael Shea. Clay was also ordered to complete 80 hours of community service. Clay pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute and distribution of cocaine on Aug. 5.
On June 23, 17 people in New Haven overdosed from a batch of cocaine that had been laced with fentanyl, according to local authorities. There were three fatalities that night, two of whom had bought their cocaine from Clay, Perry said.
Perry said if the overdoses had not occurred, it is unlikely the federal government would have been involved in this case, but targeting dealers connected to overdoses has been a priority for the office for the last year.
“One of the unfortunate truths about the opioid epidemic is the risk of overdose is largely born by the users,” Perry said. “One of the goals of these prosecutions is shifting the responsibility to the dealers.”
In November, Frank Pina was sentenced by Shea to more than seven years in prison for selling cocaine in connection to this case. Shea said at Pina’s sentencing proceedings that he had chosen to add one year of prison time for every life lost because of the bad batch of drugs Pina sold. It was also discussed that Pina had overdosed himself on the batch and then decided to sell some of the supply after he recovered.
Shea said he believed that Clay did not know that the cocaine had been laced with fentanyl — a potent synthetic opioid — and commended Clay on working to deal with his own substance abuse issues since his arrest.
“Nevertheless, it was not a freak accident,” Shea said, adding that there is a risk anytime anyone sells drugs, and in the case, two people died. “On some level, you have some responsibility for that,” he said.
Cocaine was a factor in 273 of the 917 state accidental intoxication deaths reported by the state medical examiner’s office for 2016.
A combination of cocaine and fentanyl accounted for 142 deaths in 2016, according to the data. Perry said it’s a combination federal prosecutors are seeing more of and compared it to the high users might attempt to receive from combining an opioid and a benzodiazepine, a depressant and a stimulant, respectively.
Clay made a brief statement to the court prior to Shea imposing a sentence, standing in front of a courtroom full of his supporters. His lawyer, Robert Golger, said the incident had shaken and horrified Clay and he was committed to turning his life around.
“First, I want to apologize to the (victims’) families,” Clay said. “I want to apologize publicly to my family.”
Clay has been ordered to surrender to the federal Bureau of Prisons on April 12.
In addition to Clay and Pina, Steven Whaley, 48, and Emeth Soloman, 43, both of New Haven have been convicted of drug distribution charges in connection with this incident. Both await sentencing.