A New Weapon in the Fight Against Opiates
On July 1, 2015, EMS notified the Versailles Police Department about a death from an accidental drug overdose. But, they weren’t asking for an investigation; rather, they were requesting help with disposing of the drug evidence.
When Sgt. Matthew Mitchell arrived at the scene, the story took an interesting turn. While cleaning up the drug paraphernalia, the sergeant spotted the cell phone of the overdose victim, Jolene Bowman. The phone was password protected, but a fresh text message was visible on the home screen. The author of the message was someone Mitchell recognized.
When Mitchell showed the text to investigator Keith Ford, Ford also recognized the name — Gill DeWayne Garrett, a known drug dealer in the area. The text Garrett sent Bowman read, “Are you happy?”
At that point, Ford normally would have just alerted the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office about the evidence, because of an ongoing state drug case against Garrett.
Instead, Ford varied from his normal routine in dealing with overdose deaths. He called Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Bradbury and informed him of the situation. Ironically, at the same time Bowman was taking the drugs that killed her — provided by Garrett — Ford was attending training in which Bradbury and U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey were discussing an initiative designed to increase prosecutions of drug-overdose cases under tough federal laws. The training emphasized the need to treat the site of an overdose death as a crime scene.
Ford remembered Harvey had emphasized the importance of obtaining an autopsy in situations when it appears investigating officers might be able to identify the dealer who provided the fatal dose. In those cases, an autopsy can rule out other causes of death, greatly enhancing the chance of a successful federal prosecution.
After talking with Bradbury, Ford contacted the local coroner, to ensure an autopsy was performed on Bowman.
The medical examiner found Bowman had ingested a lethal dose (four times the therapeutic amount) of fentanyl, a powerful opiate drug 50 times more potent than heroin. The medical examiner determined had it not been for the fentanyl, Bowman still would be alive. The autopsy also established there were no other potential causes of death, preventing a defense attorney from later speculating Bowman could have died of natural causes.
The building blocks were now in place for a successful federal prosecution of illegally distributing a Schedule I or II controlled substance that resulted in death or serious bodily injury: the seller of that lethal dose was tentatively established and the cause of death scientifically confirmed.
Garrett, who sold Bowman the fatal dose of fentanyl while on bond from state charges, now faced consequences for his criminal conduct he could not have foreseen. Under federal law, a defendant convicted of illegally distributing a Schedule I or II controlled substance that results in death or serious bodily injury is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years, with a maximum sentence of life. If the defendant has a qualifying prior drug conviction, the sentence is mandatory life. There is no parole in the federal system.
Because the case was properly investigated, Garrett had few options. Additionally, the evidence also led to Garrett’s supplier, Luis Aguirre-Jerardo, a man who, according to some others in the county, had sold the drugs responsible for a series of recent drug overdoses in Woodford County.
Ultimately, the U.S. Attorney’s Office charged both Garrett and Aguirre-Jerardo with distributing the drugs that caused Bowman’s death. Garrett pleaded guilty and cannot be sentenced to anything less than 20 years. And, because of his prior drug convictions, Aguirre-Jerardo is facing mandatory life, if convicted at trial.
“If we didn’t know about this initiative, we would’ve taken it to the commonwealth attorney and I don’t know that anything would’ve come of it,” Ford said. “It would’ve been uncharted waters for those guys, I’m not sure there are any laws on the books for them to work with on this. They certainty would not have had the hammer to put these guys away.”
“I’m convinced that, if these dealers weren’t taken off the streets, they would have continued to pedal this poison and someone else would’ve suffered the same tragic fate as Ms. Bowman,” Harvey said. “We are not using this initiative to pursue addicts. We are working with local and state law enforcement to go after the worst of the worst, in hopes of saving lives. And we are willing to work with anyone who wants to partner with us.”
Harvey’s office previously has used the overdose death enhancement in a half-dozen cases, all of which resulted in the defendant receiving at least 20 years.
According to Bradbury, building a strong case starts with collecting essential evidence at the overdose scene.
“Now, anytime we have an overdose, I call Todd and he gives me a checklist of things for us (Versailles police and other first responders) to obtain as evidence at the scene,” Ford said.
That checklist includes, collecting the deceased’s cell phone, taking photos of the scene and interviewing people around the scene.
“This initiative helps us show our citizens we care and show our drug dealers we aren’t messing around,” Ford said. “When drug dealers know it’s more than probation and could be a very long sentence, these prosecutions can have a very strong deterrent effect,” Harvey added.
“We would like all overdose scenes to be looked at as potential crime scenes,” Bradbury said. “Not every case will end up in our court, but imagine the type of deterrent message we can send with the ones that do.”
Ford has met with other first responders in Versailles and shared with them what he learned in the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s training session. Now, much of the county is on board.
“When I heard about this initiative,” Ford explained, “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Now we can do some damage with this.”