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Indiana County panel offers tips to combat drugs at Homer City meeting

| Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Bruce Siskawicz | The Dispatch
Courtney Hankinson (left), a prevention specialist with the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission, and Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty display a mock bedroom illustrating methods teens might use to conceal illicit drugs. The display was featured at an Indiana County Drug Information Panel meeting held in January in Homer City and will be repeated at another panel meeting set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Blairsville fire hall. Speakers will offer tips on what parents and community members can do if they suspect drug use and where to turn if someone needs help. Those attending can enter to win a $25 Sheetz gift card.
Tuesday's meeting of the Indiana County Drug Information Panel in Homer City included a display of various devices that appear to be common household items but contain hidden chambers for concealing illicit drugs. Taken 1-22-13 Bruce Siskawicz | The Dispatch

Panelists at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Homer City urged an audience of about 15 citizens to “Take A Stand Against Drugs” by reporting suspicious activities to authorities and by keeping close tabs on their children.

Organizers said they were pleased by the number of people who braved frigid conditions to attend the meeting at the Homer City fire hall, the sixth in a series of such gatherings held in various local communities by the Indiana County Drug Information Panel.

“You are the first line of defense in your neighborhood,” Indiana County District Attorney Pat Dougherty told those present. “You know your community. You know who or what belongs. You know when something doesn't seem right.”

He encouraged those who witness something that seems suspicious to report it to police. Any details that citizens can relay, such as models and license plate numbers of vehicles involved in an incident, can be particularly important, he noted.

He stressed that citizens should not try to intervene in any way in a suspicious incident but should report what they see.

Dougherty and chief county detective Dave Rostis, who heads the Indiana County Drug Task Force, said tips about unusual vehicular traffic have been among information that has helped authorities move forward with drug investigations.

Recalling one case, Dougherty noted heavy traffic to and from a mobile home in the Center Township village of Coral prompted citizens to report their suspicion that drugs were being sold from the dwelling. “Eventually we got a warrant and those people are now in prison,” Dougherty said.

In another case, Rostis said, a key piece of information was relayed at the end of a previous drug panel meeting in Armagh. A citizen had witnessed an exchange occurring between two parked cars and provided the license plate numbers to authorities.

“That information was the mortar that put the bricks of that investigation together,” Rostis said. Previously, “We couldn't figure out where the drop was taking place. That led to the arrest of 40 some people.”

Rostis noted a special hotline for phoned tips about suspected drug activities is no longer in operation in Indiana County. But he said citizens still can provide such information by calling the county District Attorney's office and asking for the chief county detective. Callers can remain anonymous.

Courtney Hankinson, prevention specialist with the Armstrong, Indiana, Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission, said statistics indicate alcohol is the top drug of choice locally. The commission's services include screening and referral of clients to drug treatment programs.

Out of 1,105 clients the commission assisted with substance abuse issues in the 2011-12 fiscal year, 466 were affected by alcohol, Hankinson said. “We are number two in the state for underage drinking issues,” she noted.

She said a survey of more than 1,000 students that the commission promotes every other year at participating school districts indicated 45 percent were imbibing alcohol by the time they were in the 12th grade.

According to Hankinson, heroin was the second most frequent drug used by commission clients, accounting for 213 cases. Marijuana ranked third, involved in 124 cases.

Hankinson and Dougherty both encouraged parents to “toss” their children's bedrooms to check for possible signs of illicit substance use.

“Know your kids,” Dougherty advised. “Look in their drawers and book bags. Know who their friends are and where they're going.”

Keeping track of teens' Internet activity is another important measure.

Using a mock bedroom display, Hankinson described a number of items with hidden compartments — many available for purchase online — that can be used to conceal drugs. The “stash” containers are disguised as objects ranging from a lipstick applicator to a surge protector or clock — both of which appear to function normally. She also displayed an item that looks like a computer mouse but is actually a scale for weighing drugs.

According to Hankinson, other avenues teens may explore in pursuit of an illicit high are abuse of inhalants or over-the-counter medications and consumption of gummy candy that has been soaked in and absorbed alcohol.She also reported the recent resurgence of hallucinogenic drugs including Ecstasy and a purer version of the drug known as Molly.

Hankinson mentioned some early signs family members can look for to detect substance abuse in teens: a chemical smell on the youth's clothing; a drop in school attendance or grades; a change in friends or “hangouts;” an unexplained need for money; a change in eating or sleeping habits.

Dougherty noted an increasing trend of impaired motorists being arrested locally for driving under the influence of drugs other than alcohol. It's an alarming trend, he acknowledged: “You don't know what's in the oncoming car, what that driver has in their system.”

Homer City Police Chief Lou Sacco said he's also witnessed that shift in driving violations during more than two decades with the borough police department. He noted that drivers “are acting intoxicated but there's no smell of alcohol on them.”

In one such instance, Sacco said, an impaired driver backed her car into his police unit at routes 119 and 56. The woman ultimately lost custody of her three-year-old daughter, who was riding in the back seat of the car. “It was not the first time that it happened,” Sacco said.

Rostis explained some of factors that have made heroin the most prevalent illicit drug in Indiana County.

Afghanistan had traditionally been one of the leading regions for growing the poppies used to produce the drug, he said, until the Taliban came into power and cracked down on poppy farms. Ironically, he said, now that U.S. forces have opposed the Taliban, areas have once again been freed to grow the poppies.

From the domestic side of the problem, Rostis added, those who have become addicted to prescription painkillers such as Opana and Oxycontin may have switched to heroin use because the latter is easier and cheaper to obtain on the street.

In either case, drug habits are expensive to maintain, often prompting users to turn to theft in order to obtain the required money.

Homer City-based District Judge Susanne Steffee said she routinely sees cases where defendants are charged with writing bad checks or stealing electronics from retail stores in hopes of reselling them to get money for buying drugs.

Drug users also may steal valuable items from family members, but in many of those cases, Steffee noted, the relatives don't want to pursue charges.

“They don't want to see anything done, therefore you can't get that person any help to get into rehab,” she lamented. “Sometimes it's the best thing to see them go to jail. Sometimes it saves a life.”

Indiana County Coroner Mike Baker spoke about the ultimate price that those who abuse drugs can pay.

“I'm in my 30th year in the coroner's office, and the drug problem has never been worse in the county.” Baker said. He said more than 60 percent of the cases he handles involve deaths where drug or alcohol abuse was a contributing factor.

He noted he's been called three times to the same house in Blairsville for drug-related deaths including a suicide.

He said those cases drive him to visit public schools to tell youngsters about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and he urged parents to take the time to have a similar talk with their children.

Baker praised the work of medics with the local Citizens' Ambulance Service, who are called to intervene and revive drug overdose victims — often encountering potentially volatile situations to do so.

Arrests of alleged dealers have not been the only successes in the local battle against drugs.

Dougherty noted more than two dozen people have graduated over the past six years from a drug treatment program that is offered to defendants as an alternative to jail time. He explained participants must complete a drug rehab program and then gradually progress through a halfway house setting and house arrest.

Another local resource that people can turn to for assistance is The Open Door, an agency that offers a crisis hotline as well as outpatient drug and alcohol programs.

“We can help get people set up for treatment,” said Craig D. Faish, the hotline coordinator.

Those attending the meeting heard from a man who is now in recovery from drug addiction and helps others who turn to the area Drug and Alcohol Commission for similar assistance. He said nicotine was the first “gateway” drug he abused at age 10 when he stole cigarettes from his parents. At age 12, he was smoking marijuana instead.

“At age 25, I didn't expect to see 30,” he said, noting he had to be revived three times in 2005 for overdosing on drugs.

Three years later, he said, he “got sick and tired of living the life I was living” and entered a treatment program while also changing his circle of friends, becoming active in his church and taking advantage of 12-step groups. “I really needed all the help I could get,” he said.”

Now, he said, he finds satisfaction in a productive life that includes holding down a job with the Drug and Alcohol Commission and enjoying meaningful family relationships as a father, son and grandson.

“Being able to give back is a big part of my recovery,” he said. “That's what keeps me grounded.”

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or

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