Sheriff: 'Heroin problem is an epidemic'
YATES COUNTY (11/25/15)--Following two recent heroin overdose cases in Yates County, Sheriff Ron Spike expressed his concern with what he describes as "an epidemic" and "a scourge."
The most recent overdose involved a female heroin user in her 30s who was passed out behind the wheel of her car at the Penn Yan Central School District parking lot Wednesday, Nov. 18. According to Penn Yan Police, they were called to the school around 10:27 p.m.where she was found unconscious. Ambulance personnel administered Narcan to the overdose victim, who was then taken to Soldiers and Sailors Hospital for treatment.
"Just to have it on school grounds is kind of unsettling," Spike said.
However, a heroin overdose turned tragic just 10 days earlier, after a 17-year-old Dundee student died due to a heroin overdose. According to the state police, they responded to a call Sunday, Nov. 8 at approximately 11 p.m. in the town of Starkey. Upon arrival, the troopers located the female victim, administered Naloxone and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). She was transported to Soldiers and Sailors Hospital in Penn Yan by Dundee Ambulance and then airlifted to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester where she died. She was confirmed to be a member of the class of 2016.
Spike described these recent overdoses as very concerning, adding there is still an ongoing investigation by the state police to see what charges can be made in regards to the fatal incident in Starkey. Spike noted the Dundee student was the youngest person to die from an overdose in the county to date, noting the oldest was a 45-year-old Jerusalem woman last year. He noted in the Jerusalem case, she was first addicted to pain pills and turned to heroin because it is so cheap. In the past few years, the sheriff said there have been seven deaths as a result of a heroin overdose in Yates County, noting 2014 was a big year for heroin-related arrests.
Concerned Penn Yan resident Tim Hansen also held a rally Sunday, Nov. 22, in an effort to bring the community together to learn what they can do to help combat heroin and other drugs in the county. More than 80 people attended the afternoon rally, where Hansen and Spike both expressed their concerns on the issue.
"This drug is an animal that I don't think people really understand how serious this is and how deadly, and how it affects everybody," Hansen said.
Hansen claimed "it will probably get a heck of a lot worse before it gets better," adding residents have to quit looking the other way. Hansen also stated he feels strongly about a neighborhood watch and will be getting some more information about them in the coming weeks. He said the community has to come together to help each other and it starts by sending a strong message to area children to not get involved with drugs. Penn Yan Mayor Leigh MacKerchar agreed, adding, "we need to try to do something before it gets to a law enforcement point."
Spike described the drug as having a strong pull that can cause major medical problems regarding addiction. He said there are several people currently in the Yates County jail, both dealers and users, who are ill because of their addiction. Spike noted while addiction is treatable, heroin has such a strong hold over its users that it is a long road to recovery.
"It's almost poison," Spike said.
Of the heroin coming into Yates County, the sheriff noted most of what they are seeing is called "Mexican Brown," adding 80 percent of it is brought in from Rochester, with the rest coming from Elmira and Ithaca. District Attorney Valerie Gardner said so far in Yates the addicts stay in small circles, taking turns to make the runs to and from Rochester to bring back enough heroin for them and their friends. Spike claimed most people start off by snorting heroin, but "once they go to the needle, they don't go back."
Both Gardner and Spike said the Yates County jail is currently full beyond regular occupancy levels, with many of those cases being substance abuse related. Spike said the arrest of females has risen disproportionately to males due to heroin use, noting the 21 women they had in the jail in August was the highest on record. He added the county normally only has four cells for women. The sheriff added many of those who are addicted in the jail are going through withdrawal symptoms and it costs the county high medical costs in order to treat it.
"If you are an addict and you are not sick, you are high," Yates County Criminal Investigator Scott Backer added.
The sheriff and district attorney both noted there has also been an increase in synthetic drug use in the county. Spike noted the current state laws make it tough to combat synthetics because a chemist can change just one molecule to make the drug legal again. He added the federal law has more general language, but the state law needs to be changed.
While Yates County struggles with its heroin problem, the sheriff claims it is not unique to the area, adding it is an epidemic across the state and country as well. While officials ask residents not to put themselves in danger, they did say there is an anonymous tip line they can use to report suspicious activity by calling 315-536-5558. Spike noted while the police may not be able to immediately go out and make an arrest, the information is helpful to investigators as they tie it in with other information they have gathered in order to take action on a particular case.