This story was originally published in the New Haven Register and was written by Anna Bisaro
NEW HAVEN >> First responders on the scene of a drug overdose in Connecticut no longer are dealing simply with a medical emergency. The site of a suspected drug overdose in the state now is a crime scene.
More than 80 people believed to have sold drugs to victims of overdoses have been arrested on federal charges since February 2016, as the result of an initiative started by the U.S. attorney’s office. All of those investigations into the alleged dealers began after an overdose caused by an opioid, cocaine, benzodiazepine, or combination thereof. Not all of the overdoses were fatal.
U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly’s office has worked to convict approximately 60 individuals that were charged with federal drug crimes as a result of an overdose in the last 19 months. Each of those defendants pleaded guilty. The rest of the cases still are working their way through the process, Daly said.
When asked whether the number of arrests, prosecutions and convictions since the initiative began have made a significant impact on the drug trade in the state, Daly said, “I’m not arrogant or naive enough to say yes.”
“But, we are in a new place now,” Daly said, referring to the importance of continuing to try these cases. “Death is different.”
In 2016, more than 900 people died as a result of accidental drug intoxications, or overdoses, according to the medical examiner. Heroin was a factor in more than 500 of those deaths, and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, was a factor in 273, according to the data.
Updated statistics for 2017 have not been released by the state medical examiner’s office.
Daly often has said she does not believe her office can arrest the state out of an opioid crisis, and there has been a big push of educational outreach in schools by her office to bring the message about the dangers of prescription opioids and heroin to students and their parents.
Traditionally, her office focuses more on violent crime, but the initiative targeting dealers is one way to target those who are distributing lethal drugs on Connecticut streets, and the ripple effects are there as federal prosecutors look beyond the courtroom to bring awareness to the community, she said.
“This was a very conscious decision,” Daly said. “If this many people are dying we need specific attention to these cases.”
Working up the chain
On Jan. 3, 2016, first responders found a 20-year-old male in a friend’s house in Weston unresponsive as a result of an overdose of oxycodone and Xanax. While the victim remains in a vegetative state even more than one year later, the U.S. attorney’s office tracked down not only the direct supplier of the oxycodone involved in the overdose, but two dealers up the supply chain.
Tahir Farid, 22, of Hamden was sentenced to six months in prison after it was found that he sold 30 oxycodone pills to the victim for $900. Farid’s supplier, Ryan Looney, 19, also of Hamden, was convicted of one count of possession with intent to distribute, and distribution of, oxycodone and is scheduled to be sentenced in September.
Looney’s supplier, Wayne Bradbury, 32, also of Hamden, pleaded guilty in July to one count of distributing oxycodone and marijuana to an individual under 21 years of age and faces up to 40 years in federal prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Spector said this Hamden case is one of the best examples of how the initiative the office has taken of targeting dealers directly related to overdoses has helped law enforcement work up the chain to prosecute more prominent dealers in the state.
Bradbury, the top dog in this case, also was convicted of money laundering charges, according to court documents.
“We’re doing both big and small,” Daly said.
Daly said that, like in the Bradbury case, dealers often also are convicted of other charges, not just drug distribution charges.
In a case prosecuted this year, Ramon Gomez of Uncasville was convicted of sex trafficking of a minor and drug distribution charges after a 17-year-old girl died from an overdose in a motel room in Groton. Gomez faces at least 10 years in prison for the offenses.
Most defendants are charged with possession with intent to distribute or conspiracy to distribute, rather than a charge that indicates the dealer was responsible for the death of the victim in the case. Daly said because so many of the overdoses are caused by a combination of substances, it’s hard to show direct causation between a heroin dealer and a death.
In addition, if such charges were brought where the defendant was charged with causing the death of an individual, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison, Daly said. She said that seems too “Draconian.”
Spector, who has taken on a large quantity of these overdose cases, said he has been happy to see the initiative targeting dealers to victims of overdoses span outside of the federal courts and more overdose cases being taken up by state prosecutors.
“There’s no reason they can’t do state cases, as well,” Spector said. “For us, that’s what our ultimate goal is. Everybody working on the same sheet of music.”
Spector also said he doesn’t measure the success of the initiative on the number of convictions the office is able to get.
“My measure of success is to think in terms of lives saved,” Spector said. “If we can teach a generation not to smoke, we can teach kids not to use pills.”
More convictions leads to potentially more inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and more people tasked with readjusting to society after a period of incarceration.
Warren Maxwell, chief U.S. probation officer in New Haven, said at the federal level there is a wealth of resources for those leaving prison on supervised release, from support court to Reentry Court. For those looking for jobs, having a probation officer is a good selling point, he said.
“We do work with our people to help them navigate the conversation about their conviction,” Maxwell said. “There’s a lot of great reasons to hire somebody on supervision. … They have people working with them to ensure their success.”
The prison time for those convicted of the drug distribution crimes due to this initiative have varied between probationary sentences and several years behind bars — even in a case in which it came to distributing the same batch of drugs.
For example, four men were charged with distribution offenses after a batch of cocaine was sold in New Haven in June 2016 that was laced with pure fentanyl. Three fatalities resulted from the sale of that particular batch of cocaine, and more than a dozen other people overdosed and were hospitalized from it.
While Frank Pina, the supposed leader of a conspiracy, will be in prison for the next seven years and Emeth Soloman, the bottom of the distribution chain in that case, only received a sentence of probation, both men have federal convictions on their record.
A period of incarceration, no matter how long, may have damaging effects, said Maxwell, citing new research about the topic. Maxwell said some research suggests that even if someone is only incarcerated for a couple of days while they wait for a bond hearing, the person may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
So, even a short sentence of only a couple of months because of a relatively minor drug crime can take its toll, he said.
“Even short-term periods of incarceration can have negative impacts,” Maxwell said.