When it comes to the growing use of heroin in America, Utica and Oneida County are not exempt.
Heroin-related arrests doubled in Utica from 2013 to 2014. In Utica Drug Court, which handles cases from across Oneida County, more than 90 percent of the offenders are younger than 27 and white. And drug treatment centers across the county have seen the number of heroin and opiate treatment-center admissions triple since 2007.
But across the country, these statistics are similar in scale for usage, incarceration and deaths, leading health professionals, lawmakers and state and federal agencies to label heroin use an epidemic.
What is being done to combat the use of heroin in Utica and Oneida County and what does the data tell us about the past and present in terms of opiate use in the region? The following stories and statistics explore these questions.
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SMALL-TOWN KID, BIG-TIME PROBLEM
Before And After A Heroin Addiction Spins Out Of Control
Pictures of heroin addicts are often painted with broad strokes - lonesome, poor or always strung-out. The scene in Utica Drug Court on Oriskany Street is very different. In the drug-rehabilitation program the faces are young - some with families, others with friends.
They wait to check in with Judge John Balzano. A few report their upcoming graduation or steps they have taken in rehab. The remaining await sentencing to begin the program.
Sitting, waiting for his name to be called among 50 others this day, is Ryan Eaton, 24.
Growing up in Sherill, N.Y., just 25 minutes outside of Utica, Eaton was using drugs at the age of 12, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. In high school, pills were the drugs of choice. He identifies himself as an underachieving student, which led to him eventually dropping out.
Hanging out with the wrong crowd often landed Eaton in trouble, first with probation in 10th grade and eventually resulting to trips to treatment facilities for marijuana and alcohol.
“I just stayed in school and was selling pot, so really I would go to school, make some money, leave and go do what I wanted to do for the rest of the day,” Eaton said.
By 2009, Eaton quit school and that is when matters began to get complicated. At 18, Eaton began taking pills until they eventually became hard to find in his neighborhood. A friend introduced him to heroin, convincing Eaton that Oxycontin was merely a synthetic version of the drug. So Eaton began using.
Heroin was no stranger to Eaton’s household. His brother was also a heroin user and would often threaten Eaton that if he began using the drug there would be consequences. Neither brother knew about the other’s addiction but bought their drugs from the same dealer, who was also a friend of Eaton’s.
“One day I walked out of the front of the store to meet him and my brother came out of the passenger side of the truck,” Eaton remembered, “and we both kind of looked at each other like deer caught in headlights.”
As he struggled with his addiction, Eaton often woke up in the morning anxious, wondering about where he would find his next fix.
“I would not wish that feeling upon my worst enemy,” Eaton said.
The side effects of drugs addiction can be different with each case but with Eaton, he would experience cold sweats and spikes in anxiety, which he compared to feeling as if he was crawling out of his own skin. At this point he imagined that he was too far into his addiction to seek help and did not see a way out.
Although he used drugs heavily, while his friends would run the streets burglarizing the neighborhood, Eaton convinced himself that because he had a steady job and was able to take care of his daughter that he did not have a drug problem.
Still, Eaton eventually lost his job because of his drug problem, finding himself in a $1,000-per-day drug addiction with no way of paying for his habit.
So he turned to burglary with his friends and brother.
After a year in and out of courtrooms, Eaton was charged with petty larceny in Utica on July 25, 2014, where Judge Balzano presented him the opportunity to enroll in Utica Drug Court. He accepted the opportunity to avoid jail time.
Few are lucky enough to receive an opportunity to enter the program.
“Drug court is here to restore participants to become an active member of society again,” said Kathleen Spatuzzi, resource coordinator for the Utica Drug Court. “Folks that have abused drugs and alcohol but are nonviolent offenders, getting them back on track, getting them clean and sober so that they can go back to work, school and families. They can become productive members of society.”
After receiving two sanctions at the earlier stages of the program, Eaton came to the realization that this was not going to be an easily traveled road.
“While I was in jail on my last sanction, I called my mom and found out that one of my best friends from high school had died from an overdose,” he said. “That was the end for me. I was waiting to be placed in a halfway house and that was the best thing that could have happened.”
Eaton’s family was unaware of his drug problem for a long time as he hid it very carefully. As his mother confided in him about his brother’s drug addiction, he often felt disappointed in himself when he agreed with his mother’s comments on how stupid his brother was for doing drugs. When his secret came to light, it disappointed his father, younger brother and mother, but his mother never left his side.
“My mother is a saint,” Eaton said. “She’s always stood by us. Right, wrong, good, bad, or indifferent. Honestly, if I did not have my mom and my daughter, or people like them, I would not have done any of this. I would have just gone to jail. I would not have accepted drug court because I would not have had a reason to.”
Bria Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NARCAN - LIFESAVER OR ENABLER?
The Drug Has Helped Law Enforcement And First Responders, But Questions Remain
The call comes into dispatch at Kunkel Ambulance in Utica on Catherine Street. It’s an unresponsive person, possible drug overdose. The dispatcher asks the typical questions: Are they breathing? Do they have a pulse? Could there be drugs involved?
Paramedics are dispatched with police and fire, depending on the situation, according to Kunkel Paramedic Dan Gigliotti. If the situation is potentially dangerous, they have to “stage” for law enforcement, meaning hold back from entering until they arrive. This usually means waiting around the block for the “all clear” to go ahead.
This is to ensure security for emergency services, Gigliotti said, so that they can deliver care to the person who needs it most - in this case, the overdose.
When Gigliotti and his partner, Dan Roback, enter the scene, they scan the room. They look for overdose indicators - paraphernalia or a chaotic atmosphere. Symptoms of a heroin overdose include shallow breathing, pinpoint pupils, bluish-colored skin, fingernails and/or lips and a weak pulse.
The paramedics check the person’s eyes and breathing. When someone overdoses on opioid drugs, such as heroin, their pupils will appear tiny, about the size of a pencil lead. Breathing is shallow. They determine the patient is in immediate respiratory distress and “it’s time to Narcan them.”
For heroin overdoses, the antidote has emerged as the go-to for paramedics to curb what is now deemed an epidemic by local, regional and federal agencies.
Heroin use has increased across the United States among men and women, most age groups and all income levels, according to the Center for Disease Control. Overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled in the last 10 years. Also in the last decade, heroin use among young adults age 18- 25 in the United States has more than doubled.
Demographics that had historically low rates of heroin use, such as women, the privately insured and people with higher incomes, are seeing sharp spikes in use. Often the heroin addiction exists concurrently with abuse of other substances, such as prescription pain medicines.
The Utica area has seen an increase in heroin and opioid addiction and heroin-related deaths in recent years.
This means Gigliotti and Roback have been busy.
NALOXONE SAVES LIVES
Naloxone (brand name Narcan) is an opioid antagonist, meaning it neutralizes the pharmacological effects of an opioid in the body. Heroin is an opioid, as are hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and codeine. Naloxone reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, most significantly, respiratory depression, which is the most common cause of death after drug overdose.
“Basically, the way it works is it will depress your respiratory drive,” Roback said. “It will make you breathe slower and shallower until eventually you stop breathing. That’s what kills you.”
Naloxone is effective at reversing the acute effects of heroin overdose without posing any risk to patients, even if they have not overdosed on an opioid. There are no known ill effects of Naloxone, other than the intended symptoms of the withdrawal, according to the paramedics. There are, however, other risks related to oxygen deprivation from a drug overdose other than death. These include pulmonary edema and arrhythmia.
There are multiple ways to administer Narcan. The life-saving drug can be given intra-nasally, intramuscular or intravenous. The different methods can be used based on the situation. For example, in a secluded space with limited mobility, such as a public restroom stall, the intranasal option would be the easiest to administer.
Intranasal administration is gaining popularity among first responders because Narcan can be atomized, meaning it can be dispersed into a very fine mist. It is easily absorbed across nasal walls and no needle is required. This eliminates the risk for emergency responders to suffer a needle-puncture injury, which can result in transfer of blood-borne illnesses, such as HIV.
Naloxone comes in two-milligram packages. Not the entire antidote has to be administered at once. It can be given in smaller increments until the desired effect. The less Naloxone administered, the gentler the withdrawal effect will be when the person comes out of the overdose. Depending on the severity of the overdose will determine how much Naloxone is needed to revive the person.
“I personally prefer the I.V. way,” Roback said. “I can start a line on somebody, and give them smaller increments. I won’t give them all of it right away. If I was to do that, they would come up off the stretcher and start puking everywhere and start swinging and be generally pissed off that I just ruined their high.”
Because the Naloxone sends the addict into an immediate withdrawal, they are often aggressive upon wakening from the heroin reversal, which poses the chance of injury to the health-care provider.
“They will go from their high to sober and very angry within five minutes,” Edwards Ambulance Paramedic John Walter said. “It’s often safer for everyone involved to keep them unresponsive. If they are still breathing but they are unresponsive, they are still alive.”
Keeping the person subdued by administering the lowest possible dose of the Naloxone creates a safer environment for emergency workers. Previously, the full two-milligram dose was recommended to treat heroin overdose. Now, less is recommended. This is to maintain control of the situation. As long as the patient is breathing independently, it is not always in the best interest for all involved to fully wake them.
“They cut it (the first recommended dose) because there were so many first responders getting hurt from these people waking up,” Walter said. “I’ve had them come up swinging at me. And that’s why the cops are always there. You never know what’s going to happen when they wake up.”
Each person will respond differently to realizing that his or her overdose has been reversed.
“You never judge a book by its cover,” Gigliotti said. “You could have the tiniest 18-year-old female come out of it and it takes four people to hold her down with the withdrawals. Or you could have the biggest of people, who are very well fit come out of it, hug you, and say ‘thank you for saving my life.’”
“THIS WILL AFFECT EVERYBODY”
Heroin’s reach in Utica has infiltrated all income levels and types of residential communities.
“Whether it’s the upper class, lower class, or working class, any kind of drug epidemic affects everybody,” Roback said. “It has no age bias, it has no financial bias. This will affect everybody.”
Another problem, in addition to straight heroin addiction, is that sometimes heroin is laced with other drugs, such as Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate analgesic similar to but more potent than morphine.
It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, or to manage pain after surgery, which make it an appealing drug to abuse. The combination can create amplified euphoria because of its increased potency. It can also lead to respiratory failure so quickly that people die before they even finish shooting up. This is evident when people are found dead with the needle still jabbed in their flesh.
If discovered quickly, a Fentanyl overdose can be treated with Narcan, but due to the rapid consequences of this particular drug, it is difficult to reverse before the person dies.
“IT’S LIKE A BAND-AID”
Naloxone works quickly but wears off quickly. It is not intended as a long-term solution. It saves people who are in danger of dying by opioid overdose. Addicts must seek additional care in order to change their lives, Roback said. Sometimes being revived by Narcan is enough to inspire addicts to get clean. Sometimes it’s not.
“Some people genuinely don’t want to get better, but some people do,” Roback said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that that person’s son or that person’s mother doesn’t deserve to live because they’re hooked.”
One argument is that Narcan is an enabler that allows people to continue their addiction without consequences.
“I’ve given Narcan two or three times to the same person,” Walter said. “I think the issue with the Narcan being so widely spread is that it’s making it so these people will just keep doing it. They realize that if they overdose, ‘someone can give me Narcan and save my life.’”
Many people make the switch from prescription opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, to heroin because it’s easily accessible, cheaper and offers a comparable high.
“There are really two ways it (heroin use) starts,” Roback said. “Either someone is out partying and someone suggests trying it, and the euphoria hits and then you’re always trying to get back to that. The other way, and we see it all the time, is when people are prescribed something. They take a narcotic. It’s a controlled substance, and it’s for a certain amount of time. Once they’re on it, they become addicted to it. There is a dependency.”
As their physicians stop writing them prescriptions, pill addicts turn to the streets.
“They get down to the point where it’s a need, they have to have some kind of fix,” Gigliotti said. “Some people may even chronically hurt themselves to continue getting a prescription.”
Purchasing prescription painkillers on the street is expensive. Heroin offers a similar experience but for a cheaper price, Family Nurse Practitioner and Associate Professor of Nursing at Utica College Libby Gleasman said. Gleasman practices at Delta Medical in Rome.
Gleasman said that there is a recent movement among providers to reduce the amount of controlled substance prescriptions in an attempt to curb the growing amount of opioid addictions.
“Pain management is a big thing. We are trying to not give out the controlled substances that has been kind of a trend over the past 10 or 15 years,” Gleasman said. “What’s happened is that the population can’t get the medication from a provider, they can get it on the street, and they get heroin.”
Megan Postol can be reached at email@example.com.
LOCATING THE SOURCE
How Law Enforcement Tracks Heroin Dealing
When the heroin epidemic reached Utica, police were unsure how to manage the spread of the drug. When clinics began to notice younger people coming in with drug overdoses, they decided to hand out clean needles to users who bring in dirty ones.
For the police, the approach was to track down the local dealers, which hopefully would lead to the arrest of their suppliers. For the clinics, the needle exchange was to cut down the risk of spreading diseases.
Both wanted similar results - to stop the spread of heroin locally. But finding the source, especially on the law enforcement side, is not so easy.
Utica Police Lieutenant Steve Hauck refers to drug-dealing operations as businesses. Essentially, the top is the CEO, the mid-level guys are the foundation of the company and the street-level dealers are the employees. According to Lt. Hauck, heroin organizations often run like the mafia.
“Street-level dealers might not even know who the real boss is because there are so many layers of people in between, and that’s done on purpose,” Lt. Hauck said. “Plausible deniability. If you don’t know who the boss is, you can’t give him to the police. They basically serve as sacrificial lambs. They get arrested, they do a year in jail and get out.”
The arrest data in Oneida County over the last 10 years corroborates this. In 2005, there were 149 more misdemeanor drug arrests than felony drug arrests. Four years later, there were 229 more. There was a spike in misdemeanor drug arrests in 2012 as 637 people were apprehended, compared to a felony drug arrest total of 241 (a 396-arrest difference). Overall, it is more common for police to detain street-level dealers than the big-time suppliers.
This is law enforcement’s attempt to stop the spread of heroin.
By day, Johnny Diamond’s restaurant in Utica served food and beverages. By night, the venue was used to host after-hours parties which lasted until dawn. Subsequently, the owner sold drugs out of the establishment.
Police uncovered this in 2010. The activity continued for a few years before the business was shut down by a nuisance abatement in 2012. This tactic is commonly used by police on houses, also. The business reopened and remained a magnet for criminal activity. On July 26, 2014, two people were injured in an early-morning shooting.
The first target for police is often the street-level guys who set up shop in a business or an apartment for a short span and use it as a place to sell drugs.
Typically, the apartment is in someone else’s name. According to Lt. Hauck, a large percentage are under the name of young women. Dealers will offer a struggling young woman some extra money on top of the rent to have the apartment in her name.
This helps the dealers remain anonymous and under the radar. As a result, police have difficulty locating these dealers. It could take days, weeks, months, or even years - it all depends on the dealer.
Some guys get too greedy. Some are sloppy with business. Some get caught in traffic stops. Police are at a disadvantage in terms of stopping the distribution until the dealer slips up.
“Some dealers are smart. They don’t talk on phones. They don’t tell anyone their real name. They run things just like a business,” Lt. Hauck said.
The police are at an advantage when it comes to traffic because driving a car is a privilege, not a right. According to Lt. Hauck, police have more leeway than the driver in a lot of cases. Often, police pull a car over and the smell of marijuana is very potent, which instantly gives police probable cause to search the vehicle for guns and drugs.
Customer traffic can also increase the chances of being on police radar. Police may notice excessive traffic in a specific area on a daily basis.
Then, they tie it to a particular street or block. Once the suspicion arises, police will decide to send either an undercover officer or a confidential informant to purchase drugs from the suspected dealers. Further investigations through wire taps, phone conversations and surveillance are essential to the case because it validates the police’s accusations.
The police want all of this evidence as quickly as possible because most dealers don’t stay in an area for long. These steps are vital to the process because the ensuing stage is presenting the evidence to the judge.
“As the police, no matter what the crime is, we cannot get search warrants on a location unless we either believe someone who’s wanted for a crime is in that location or a crime is currently being committed in that location, or has been committed in that location.” Lt. Hauck said. “You can’t just go and say ‘oh that person is no good, we’re going to get a search warrant’ - judge isn’t going to do it. They don’t care. You can suspect them of whatever you want. They’re not going to give you a search warrant.”
Search warrants are the most important aspect of the entire investigation process, which is part of the reason why judges aren’t lenient when it comes to handing them out.
Police have to be absolutely certain that illegal activity is occurring at the residence. Otherwise, judges have no problem turning them away and telling them to bring more evidence. This is the reason why police often try to acquire as much proof as possible before they see the judge to ensure that they will obtain the search warrant.
Judge William M. Virkler, the New Hartford Town Justice and the Executive Director of Economic Crime and Justice Studies at Utica College, says judges have to be strict on search warrants.
“Police will present to the judge probable cause or reasonable cause that something is going on and it is contrary to the law, so here’s my proof,” Virkler said. “If judges hand out search warrants very easily and quickly, then we don’t have a good system. It is to protect the innocent, not the guilty.”
Once police receive the search warrant, they bring a group of officers together to raid the home. Police try to execute the search at a particular time when they believe the suspect is in the apartment. They also tend to do it when the suspect would least expect it, such as early morning hours or late at night, according to Lt. Hauck.
If the officers obtain a no-knock search warrant, they can enter immediately. The officers will then simultaneously search for guns, drugs and money in hopes of finding enough to put the dealer away for years. Judge Virkler points out that no-knocks require a little extra work.
“There has to be an additional demonstration to the court that some bad things will happen if I knock on the door and announce that we’re here with a warrant,” Judge Virkler said. Essentially, he says that evidence can be destroyed or public safety can be at risk.
Dealers often run their operation through two houses. Home A is known as a trap house, where they sell drugs and hang out. Home B is known as a stash house where they keep majority of the drugs. The stash house is never far from the trap house so it’s easy to get from A to B. They never sell drugs out of the stash house. The logic behind this is if no illegal activity happens at this location, police cannot provide the judge with any evidence for a search warrant on the home.
The dealers will keep small amounts of the drug in the home in precaution of a police raid. The reason - when they go to jail they can only be charged with a misdemeanor for possession of an illegal substance and be released the same night.
Officers have one option to counter this tactic, Lt. Hauck said, and that is by tying the two locations together and obtaining the search warrants for both homes concurrently.
Otherwise, they won’t be able to charge the dealers with anything severe.
Lt. Hauck sits at an empty conference table in the back of the Utica Police Department and offers a hypothetical.
Say, for instance, the dealers are sloppy and have all the drugs, money and guns in the home. Police are pleased with the outcome of the search warrant. Confiscation of the drug paraphernalia is a justice to the community, a donation to their department and likely a life-saver.
Yet, it doesn’t end there. Police are not content with taking down street-level dealers. They want to ultimately locate the top level and cut off the supply of the heroin from its highest rank.
The next step is to question the dealer on where he got the drugs. At this moment, the negotiation begins. If the suspect refuses to give up any information, the police can send them to Wyoming or somewhere far away so they cannot see any family or friends or receive any commissary.
R. Bruce McBride, former Assistant Vice Chancellor of University Life and University of Police for the State University of New York system and Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at Utica College, calls it a dirty business.
“A dealer gets caught, and the prosecutor will say ‘OK, so who’s your distributor?’” McBride explained. “So, the defendant will cooperate, give a name, give something up, and accept the charge and pass on trial, and ultimately the agreement is made.”
Often, the dealer has a family and wants to see their children. Depending on the information given, the police will work out a bargain and they can be placed in New York or cut a year or more off the sentencing.
If they give the police information regarding mid-level dealers, they wouldn’t get as much of a bargain as they would if they led police to the top.
Sometimes everything comes together to produce the ideal result.
On Tuesday Aug. 4, 2015, 11 search warrants were executed in Utica and Central New York and 21 suspects were arrested following a three-month investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement. All of the suspects were charged with felony conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin.
It began with an investigation, then the proof from wiretaps and lastly the search warrants.
Ultimately, they located the source in Edmaldo “Po” Figuero-Martinez and Ernesto “Cano” Alequin.
They were leaders of the organization - the top - and their roles in heroin dealing will cost them at least a minimum of 20 years in prison.
Patrick Rivers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Steps Involved In Utica Drug Court
On April 17, 2014, a Waterville man broke into his grandparents’ New Hartford house and stole several antique weapons. Chase Cahoon was 27 years old at the time and he later sold those guns at a nearby sporting goods store and collected the money.
He was charged with two counts of second-degree burglary and two counts of fourth-degree grand larceny.
What compelled him to break into his grandparents’ home - heroin.
The drug court process followed Cahoon’s arrest. The first step that he took was admitting to law enforcement that he was, in fact, the person that broke in and stole the weapons. The second was more difficult - admitting that he had an addiction.
As soon as Cahoon admitted to both he was referred to the Utica Drug Court, where he would start a year-long journey.
In Oneida County, in order for someone to be considered for drug court, they have to be an offender who has committed under a certain number of drug or drug-related crimes. In Cahoon’s case, though, he stole the guns to get money for heroin, making his a drug-related crime.
After a background check, if it shows that the addict has no history of violence, they would then get flagged for the program. The addict’s attorney then speaks with their client about the possibility of drug court. The addict can then either choose to cooperate or not cooperate. If they decided not to, they could face jail time. If they choose to cooperate, the next step would be to meet with the resource coordinator.
At Utica Drug Court, Kathleen Spattuzi is the resource coordinator. Spattuzi then meets with the addict and does a bio-social cycle assessment. Based off the assessment, if the addict agrees to everything, a treatment plan is formed, which may include a halfway house or inpatient facility. A contract is then signed and the process starts when the addict appears in court for the first time.
THIRD STEP - THE FOUR PHASES
According to Robert Fuller, one of two case managers for the Utica Drug Court, the process consists of four phases with each phase lasting three months.
If the addict relapses, they must start again at Phase 1. In Phase 1, the addict receives no overnight privileges and one late night per month. In Phase 2, the addict receives one pass a month, which they can use from Friday-Sunday. In Phases 3-4, the addict is able to receive two passes a month, but it is regulated. These passes are good for weeks if the addict has been cooperating along the way.
Along the way, there are weekly check-ins with case managers, tests and appearances in front of Judge John Balzano. At the same time, the addict attempts to get on with their life, mending fences with friends and family while also trying to find a job.
Fuller said there isn’t much he would change about the program but he wishes that the area offered more local resources. For instance, there is only one female halfway house in the area and minimal male halfway houses, which creates a constant problem when these houses cannot provide the demand.
The entire process takes about a year to complete, but it varies from person to person and how serious they are about finishing.
“The program is designed to work, Fuller said, “if they want it to work.”
The Whitney Morris can be reached at email@example.com.
AN UPWARD TREND
In Oneida County, Heroin Use Among Young Adults Continues to Rise
Treatment centers are a large part of overcoming an addiction. There are many different types of services that cater to whichever program category an addict may fall under.
For instance, an addict may fall under the program category of “crisis” and may be admitted into a “Medically Managed Detoxification” service type.
It’s a maze for treatment, with one classification linked the next, but some bottom-line numbers are apparent.
According to Kathleen Spattuzzi of the Utica Drug Court, more than 90 percent of the drug-court admissions are younger than 27 and white. The data from the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) corroborates this.
The data below gives an overview of the number of people admitted into some sort of treatment center for heroin from 2007-2014 in the Oneida County area. The first data set is a visualization of the 18-24 cohort.
This is the cohort with the largest spike, starting with 94 in 2007. That number then grew to 343 admissions by 2014.
The second data visualization is divided into the other four cohorts: 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, and 55+ and focuses on outpatient treatment. This data set is divided by age groups and years to show the number of admittance into some sort of outpatient treatment center from 2010-2014.
The Whitney Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The project “Spike: Battling The Rise Of Heroin In Oneida County,” was produced as part of Utica College’s Watchdog Reporting journalism course.
The team spent three months reporting the stories you see here. The students interviewed dozens of people, pored over records, created data visualizations and filed Freedom of Information requests.
If you have more information on the topic or have questions about the project, please e-mail the course’s professor, Brett Orzechowski.