Authorities investigate powerful painkiller-heroin mix as death toll rises
By Jason Cato
Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 4:15 a.m.
Gina Adkins pleaded with her sister in a text message to get help.
“I know if you don't stop, you will die,” she typed on Nov. 30.
On Monday, Adkins said goodbye to her younger sister, Christina A. Donati-Racioppo, 31, at Mount St. Peter Parish in New Kensington. Authorities believe she is one of 22 Western Pennsylvanians who died in less than two weeks from a potent mix of heroin and fentanyl, a prescription painkiller, marketed under street names of “Theraflu,” “Bud Ice,” and “Income Tax.”
Donati-Racioppo's boyfriend found her slumped over inside the bathroom of her Lower Burrell home.
“I loved her more than anyone can imagine,” said Adkins, 35, of Arizona. “But I knew this was coming.”
Police recovered heroin bags stamped with names signifying the deadly mix in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence and Westmoreland counties, state Attorney General Kathleen Kane said. The Washington County coroner said his office knows of no cases there.
“It's definitely here. People are dying from this,” said Armstrong County Coroner Brian Myers, who confirmed one death and another suspected case.
Allegheny County officials on Monday reported at least 15 deaths believed to be tied to fentanyl-laced heroin. Westmoreland County officials reported Donati-Racioppo's and one other death. On Sunday, a 10-year-old Greensburg boy called 911 when he found his father unresponsive in their apartment.
David M. Bramini, 31, told police he used four stamp bags of Theraflu.
“I would say (the boy) definitely saved his life,” Greensburg police Capt. Chad Zucco said.
Tony Marcocci, a Westmoreland County detective, said heroin users have warned fellow users: “People have been telling me, if you normally use three bags at a time, they're asking them to cut back to one. It's that strong.”
A state police crime lab is analyzing some heroin found. Authorities are trying to determine the source of the drug.
Charges are pending in Ligonier Borough, where police on Sunday stopped a motorist for running a stop sign and found three known drug users with 15 bags of heroin stamped “Theraflu.”
Homestead police on Sunday raided a 20th Avenue residence and seized 30 bricks — about 1,500 small bags — stamped “Bud Ice” and cutting agents, packaging materials and powder believed to be fentanyl, said Chief Jeffrey DeSimone. Officials took the drugs for testing at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's lab.
“For us, this was a big hit,” DeSimone said. “But I'm sure it's just a drop in the bucket.”
Adkins said Donati-Racioppo smoked marijuana for the first time at age 14 and tried heroin five years later.
“Christina was always involved with a crowd she felt needed her help,” Adkins said. “It was a crowd that lingered in the dark.”
Donati-Racioppo stayed sober for years after her daughter's birth seven years ago, Adkins said. “When she was good, she was good. When she loved, she loved hard. But this drug is like dancing with the devil.”
The day Donati-Racioppo died, Carol Keenan hosted family members and friends at a funeral home to celebrate the life of her only child, Caitlin, 25, who died Jan. 19 in her mother's Dormont home from a suspected overdose. Authorities believe hers was one of the first fatal overdoses tied to the mix.
“It was a parent's worst nightmare,” Keenan said.
Kevin Rodgers, 29, died on Saturday, authorities said. He and Caitlin Keenan were in a relationship that her mother said was unhealthy for both.
“I don't blame him any more than I blame her,” Carol Keenan said.
Mother and daughter often fought about the topic of drug abuse.
“When your head is at war with your heart, your heart always wins,” Carol Keenan said. “When my heart and my head were warring, I was afraid I was going to lose my daughter, that I was going to push her away. Well, I lost her anyway.”
Staff writers Bob Stiles and Nicole Chynoweth contributed to this report. Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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