Pa. investigators struggle to build drug death cases
After his 28-year-old son died of a heroin overdose in 2013, Greg King looked to his cellphone for clues.
The West Newton man transcribed text messages that Adam King had sent and received, hoping police could figure out who had sold him the fatal dose.
“At the time, I definitely wanted to find out who he got the heroin from,” said King, who said he was blind-sided by the death of his son, who loved the outdoors. “Adam was the kind of person you wanted to be around. He and I were very close, and we talked all the time about drugs and alcohol.”
But investigators told him tracking down the supplier would be difficult.
“That just became very frustrating to me,” he said.
A similar scene plays daily in Pennsylvania, where overdoses are at epidemic levels. Few of the dealers who have sold fatal doses have been held accountable. Investigators say overdose deaths are difficult to unravel and, even when a suspect is identified, there's rarely enough evidence to file charges.
Between 2011 and 2015, 115 cases of drug delivery resulting in death made it to trial, according the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. In 2014 and 2015, overdoses killed 6,125 people in the state, the Drug Enforcement Administration wrote in a recent report.
The number of drug delivery cases filed has increased each year — from four in 2011 to 41 in 2015 — and led prosecutors to try various tactics, according to Richard Long, director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
“We're trying to fight this on multiple fronts,” Long said. “District attorneys are looking at where these drugs are coming from, especially with the law change.”
Before 2011, prosecutors in the state had to prove that a drug supplier intended for the user to die to secure a conviction on a drug delivery resulting in death charge. That year, lawmakers amended the statute to eliminate the requirement to show intent.
The charge can be prosecuted as a third-degree homicide, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 to 40 years in prison.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck has authorized the filing of eight cases. Authorities in only three other counties — Cumberland, York and Dauphin — have filed more cases.
Few of those cases have been resolved. In 2014 and 2015, 14 people were sentenced on the charge.
In January, Peck secured Westmoreland's first drug delivery-death conviction during a trial. Michael Ulysses Peterson, 42, was sentenced in June to eight to 16 years in prison in connection with his cousin's overdose death.
Challenges in charges
Between 2012 and 2015, 377 people died of overdoses in Westmoreland County, according to coroner statistics. On average, one person died every three days last year. Charges have been brought in just four of those deaths.
The disparity hasn't daunted Peck, who last year decided to send county detectives to every overdose death to collect evidence of how the victims got the drugs.
“The number of these was too great to not investigate,” he said.
Autopsies can be a stumbling block if the victim had more than one drug in his or her system, Peck said. Toxicology results show that most of the 126 people who died of overdoses in Westmoreland in 2015 had used more than one substance, coroner statistics show.
And prosecutors must be able to connect a suspect to the specific deadly drug dose.
“That cannot always be the easiest connection to make,” Peck said.
Rachele Amodeo of Hempfield said she knew who sold her 18-year-old son, Jonathan Morelli, a fatal dose of heroin in February 2013. But there wasn't enough evidence to bring charges.
“It was very frustrating,” said Amodeo.
The investigation into Morelli's death was thorough, she said.
“The police were wonderful with trying to figure out can they do something,” she said. “I tried, and I know the police tried.”
The charge is a tool in battling the drug epidemic, but authorities said it's not the ultimate solution. Peck's office has distributed the overdose antidote Narcan to municipal police departments and collected thousands of pounds of unused prescription medications.
“I think people understand ... that dealing in drugs resulting in a drug death can have serious consequences for the seller,” Peck said.
But for the families of overdose victims, those sentences are few and far between, said county Detective Tony Marcocci.
“Family members typically want someone to be held accountable,” he said.
Criminal charges against Adam King's supplier wouldn't erase the pain, but it could prevent someone else from the same fate, Greg King said. The investigation into his son's death might have yielded more if a county detective had been sent to the scene, he said.
“I think that's a good thing,” he said. “At the time, I had no idea my son was using heroin.”
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer.