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Dozens of people have been charged with delivering fatal drugs in Lancaster County since 2012. Is it a solution to the opioid crisis?

Bobola Stash

Tyler S. Bobola, 21, of South Market Street, was charged with felony drug delivery resulting in death in 2017. Bobola's apartment was searched and police located numerous bundles of heroin and fentanyl and substantial amounts of drug-packaging materials, as well as eight cell phones.

Cody Yancey’s mom did all she could do to help her son fight his drug addiction.

In what she calls an “unraveling spiral,” Yancey was arrested for marijuana possession in 2015. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation.

“We were doing everything,” Ricci Poole said, including probation visits twice a week and regular counseling sessions.

But on March 27, 2016, Poole found her son — a math whiz and technology guru who always had a sweet smile and strong hug for her — dead in their Mount Joy Township home.

The 19-year-old died after taking a combination of Xanax and morphine, a building block of heroin.

Within two months, police charged 21-year-old Jarrid Baker with giving the drugs to Yancey. The two grew up together as neighbors and classmates.

Cody Yancey

Cody Yancey died of a fatal drug overdose March 27, 2016. He was 19. A few days before his death, his cat Leo got stuck in a tree. This picture was taken after the rescue.

Baker pleaded guilty to a felony count of drug delivery resulting in death. He currently is serving the third year of a four- to eight-year prison sentence at SCI Camp Hill in Cumberland County.

Poole said she was satisfied with the jail time given to the man who would sometimes call her “mom.”

“He’s still young enough hopefully he can turn his life around. I feel bad for him, too,” she said. “But he gets to come home.

“My son doesn’t.”

Supporters of the drug delivery resulting in death charge say it puts dealers in jail and has helped to curb the number of fatal overdoses in Lancaster County, which dropped from 168 in 2017 to 105 in 2018.

But critics maintain the charge penalizes people who need help recovering from addiction.

In Lancaster County, which has been rattled by skyrocketing numbers of opioid overdoses over the past few years, the tension between the two is evident.

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Greg Arntz, a paramedic supervisor at Lancaster EMS, holds a single dosage of intranasal naloxone, or Narcan, used to treat heroin overdoses.

The law

Drug delivery resulting in death previously had been classified as third-degree murder, meaning prosecutors had to prove malice. In 2011 the statute was changed to a first-degree felony, meaning that prosecutors had to prove someone acted “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” when selling or providing drugs that caused a death.

The first few years after the change, the charge was only filed in a handful of cases in Lancaster County. Both a 2012 and 2013 case led to guilty pleas in which the charge was replaced by involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree misdemeanor.

But then the opioid crisis hit Pennsylvania in 2015, and the number of fatal overdoses skyrocketed. More than 80 people died of overdoses that year in Lancaster County, a number that climbed to 117 in 2016 and peaked at 168 in 2017.

In the face of the epidemic, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said he made it a priority to treat fatal overdoses as homicide investigations.

County law enforcement filed nearly 60 drug delivery resulting in death charges from 2015-18, according to an LNP analysis. Since 2012 it’s been filed 62 times.

Investigators want to capture dealers “up and down the supply chain,” Stedman said.

“We’re following the law,” he said.

“Someone’s loved one has died as a result of what’s been defined as a crime. There’s been an aspect of justice and accountability in that,” he said.

Joining Forces billboard

This Joining Forces billboard recently went up on Route 30 near the Greenfield Road exit. More will be coming, as part of the coalition's effort to reduce deaths from opioids and heroin. 

A deterrent

The number of fatal overdoses in Lancaster County dropped from 168 in 2017 to 105 in 2018, according to county coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni.

Stedman said the overdose reversal drug naloxone is likely the main reason for the decline.

But “some of it has to do with enforcement as well,” he said.

In an interview, Stedman shared something a longtime heroin dealer told detectives on the county’s drug task force after being arrested for having methamphetamine and cocaine.

“(The detectives) said to him, ‘What are you doing selling meth and cocaine?’ His response was something to the effect of, ‘I don’t want to catch a body in Lancaster County,’” Stedman said. While the drugs can be dangerous and even fatal, heroin is more likely to be laced with deadly synthetic opioids.

Drug dealers are all about business, he said.

Elizabethtown police Detective Dustin Ryan said he’s seen how manipulative dealers can be.

“I’ve talked to a lot of addicts. I’ve had some describe how the addiction takes over. … You have people that know that and are going to capitalize on that and make as much money as possible,” he said.

The point of prosecution is to go after predatory dealers, the ones who would never use heroin but just want to make money, he said.

Ryan started working on fatal overdose investigations by chance about a year and a half ago. A colleague was going on vacation and asked him to take a look at a case. Ryan did, and he was eventually promoted to detective and a leading investigator in the county grappling with an overdose crisis.

“A lot of times, nobody knows how to solve (fatal overdose cases). … You didn’t always have an opioid crisis. No one paid attention. Now people are trying to do something about it,” he said.

When you get to a scene, you look at it as a murder scene, Ryan said.

“You’re looking for your weapon: the needle and the heroin. You’re trying to find the suspect: the dealer,” he said.

Then Ryan’s goal is to investigate up the supply chain. In 2018, he filed charges against three men — three tiers of a supply chain — who were allegedly involved in providing a fatal heroin dose to a man.

Every fatal overdose in Elizabethtown has led to an arrest except for one, he said.

Stedman said at the end of 2018 that methamphetamine use was increasing, taking opioids' spot. Ryan said that change is what he’s seeing in Elizabethtown, adding that he can’t be certain there’s a cause and effect.

“The hope is that (the charge) will help people not to use to begin with. You never get to see the results of that, you just hope that it’s there,” Ryan said.

Lancaster County Courthouse

Lancaster County Courthouse

In court

Of the 62 drug delivery resulting in death cases filed in Lancaster County from 2012 to 2018, four were dropped or dismissed, 23 led to guilty pleas and 35 are still in the court system, according to an LNP analysis.

Defense attorney Dennis Dougherty said the cases are tough and emotional to defend.

“It’s tough because nobody wants to believe that they’ve killed their friend,” said Dougherty, who’s handled four drug delivery resulting in death cases.

“I understand the Legislature wants to stop people selling drugs, but the problem is people selling drugs are typically addicted to it as well,” he said.

Guilty plea deals varied widely, from a minimum as low as 18 months on house arrest to a maximum as high as 20 years in jail.

According to Pennsylvania law, 40 years is the maximum sentence. The average range in Lancaster County has been five to 11 years, according to an LNP analysis. No cases have gone to trial.

Craig Stedman

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman comments during a press conference in this August 2017 file photo.

Stedman said the predatory dealer vs. friend-to-friend case difference shows up in plea agreements. Each case is treated differently, he said. Prior records are taken into account, as well as a defendant’s willingness to cooperate and even give information on other dealers.

“We do not treat any of these the same. Each case is different. We are going to target the predator dealer much more severely than two friends,” he said.

The bottom line is following the law.

“They know what they are dealing is dangerous. Somebody’s life is in danger,” Stedman said.

Dougherty said he has seen a difference in sentences in dealer vs. friend cases, but still, “It’s time,” he said.

“It’s a two-fold story. It’s not only, ‘Did I kill my friend,’ it’s ‘I killed my friend, and I am going to jail for two years?’” he said.

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The ambulance entrance at Lancaster General Hospital.

Public health advocates

Critics of the law say that it is a narrow solution to the complexities of drug use and addiction.

“An overdose death is not murder,” was part of a title of a 2017 report from the Drug Policy Alliance. The report says the charge doesn’t have a deterrent effect, that it instills a fear in people calling 911 and that it fosters a misuse of prosecutorial discretion.

Instead, the alliance advocates a public health response.

Adam Lake, a Lancaster County doctor who specializes in addiction medicine, said amplifying criminal charges is not that.

“We’ve been charging folks for drug-related crimes for decades (this is just more intense than previously), and it isn’t fixing things,” Lake said in an email.

Lake pointed to the prevalence of fentanyl in overdose drugs and how dealers or those buying drugs don’t know it’s there. Fentanyl is much more potent and deadly than heroin. Charging someone with selling fentanyl is “not something that makes sense.”

“That person can no longer get a clean slate, and the charges will always mark them as a violent felon,” he said, making getting a job difficult.

He also said he worries that people won’t call 911 for an overdose for fear of punishment.

Lake advocates a public health response to help people who use drugs.

“Needle exchanges and safe syringe access programs need legal protection and local support. Low barrier buprenorphine (medically-assisted treatment) access and even safe consumption sites would be positive moves,” he said. “If we are looking at saving lives, and not esoteric arguments about ‘what message this sends’ these are all evidence-based interventions.”

Gail Groves Scott agrees.

She’s a researcher at the Substance Use Disorder Institute at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia and longtime Lancaster resident.

“We’re ramping up the criminalization of drug overdoses here. That’s the opposite of the public health approach,” she said.

Groves Scott said preventing overdose deaths using naloxone is a vital first step followed by increasing access to treatment.

“The bottom line is getting ... substance users to believe that they can get better and there’s help for them. That’s why a public health approach works better than a criminal justice approach,” she said.