Tide of overdose deaths rising

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Hempfield had more drug overdose deaths last year than any other Westmoreland County municipality, according to Coroner Ken Bacha.

Eight people died in Hempfield, Derry Township had seven drug deaths and Greensburg had six, according to 2012 statistics.

“I have no explanation whatsoever,” Bacha said. “How and why, that is. I don't know.”

Fairfield, Irwin, Loyalhanna, Manor, New Stanton, North Belle Vernon, Southwest Greensburg and Upper Burrell recorded no deaths.

So far this year, 46 people have died from drug overdoses. Another seven suspected deaths will be confirmed once toxicology reports are complete, Bacha said.

“That would put us on pace to experience approximately 110 by the year's end,” he said.

Bacha said a newly created task force is analyzing the surge in drug overdoses, which peaked last year with 78 deaths, including 27 by heroin.

The 2013 numbers reflect increased fatalities in rural and suburban areas.

Bacha said geography may be linked to the death rate. A number of municipalities are along or near the Route 30 corridor, which is one area where the task force is focusing.

“Demographics is high on our list,” he said.

Recent arrest reports show drug trafficking is prevalent along major highways in the region.

• Drug agents arrested 16 suspected drug dealers earlier this month operating along the Route 65 corridor from Pittsburgh's North Side to Beaver County.

• In April, Pittsburgh police nabbed 43 suspected dealers operating along the Brownsville Road corridor in Carrick, seizing $100,000 worth of heroin, crack cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs.

A portion of Route 30 leading to Ephrata in Lancaster County has been dubbed the “heroin highway” by law enforcement officials because of the flow of heroin from Philadelphia to Ephrata.

• State police routinely make drug arrests along Interstate 80, which is known as a drug route that cuts across Pennsylvania from Butler County in the west to Northumberland County in the east.

District Judge Mark Bilik, whose jurisdiction includes Derry borough and township, said most of the theft and burglary cases he handles are related to heroin use. He said three of the four people he arraigned Friday morning were held on heroin-related charges.

“They're after guns, jewelry — anything that will sell,” Bilik said. “Maybe it's the Route 22 corridor. That gives them easy access to Pittsburgh and its suburbs. It doesn't take much to shoot down Route 22 and back into Derry.”

District Judge James Albert of Greensburg said he believes there are more drug-related deaths in the Greensburg area than are reported.

“That's the ones you know about,” Albert said. “I think there's more than that. I get parents in here who say their son or daughter robbed the mother of her jewelry to sell to get heroin. They have to have it.”

Albert said he sees virtually no charges related to cocaine.

“I get almost no cocaine compared to seven, eight, nine years ago. Cocaine was the big thing,” he said.

Hempfield Area School District Superintendent Andy Leopold said it's difficult to assess the level of drug abuse within the schools or the township.

“If we based it on disciplinary hearings or expulsion hearings, you'd think it was declining,” Leopold said. “We know that's not the case. There's really no data to say drug abuse is on the rise or on the decline. We've been trying to be out in front of this because it's a frightening situation.”

Peter F. Luongo, executive director of the Institute for Research, Education and Training in Addictions in Pittsburgh, has attended drug forums held in Westmoreland County since spring to address the drug problem and spike in deaths. What's happening in the county is not unique, he said.

“We are concerned,” Luongo said. “This is now happening virtually in every state.”

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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