HARRISONBURG — Federal and local authorities took the fight against a growing heroin problem in the northern Shenandoah Valley to the steps of the federal courthouse in Harrisonburg on Wednesday.
Officials held a press conference to highlight three drug distribution sentences handed down earlier in the day and tout multijurisdictional efforts to combat a rash of overdose deaths and injuries.
So far this year, the region that the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force covers has already had 23 heroin-related deaths, compared to 21 in all of 2013, U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy said.
Forty-one non-fatal overdoses have also already occurred this year.
The task force works out of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and covers Warren, Page, Shenandoah, Frederick and Clarke counties, and the city of Winchester.
Two of the deaths this year occurred in Page County, while Shenandoah County had one.
Of all the deaths, 18 have been men, and the average age of all the victims is 31.
“It is non-discriminatory in its impact,” Heaphy said.
Heroin, an opiate, is entering the area primarily from Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, officials say, often attracting people coming off usage of opiate-based pharmaceuticals.
“It’s economical. It’s cheap,” Shenandoah County Sheriff Tim Carter told his county’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night.
ShenCo Seeks Designation
Carter was also present for Wednesday’s press conference, where Heaphy noted that it takes a comprehensive approach to combat the issue.
That includes getting law enforcement agencies access to Narcan, a drug paramedics use that can quickly treat heroin overdoses.
Heaphy said rescue personnel used the drug to save the life of a user who obtained heroin from Dean Allen Roberson, a 32-year-old Stephens City man who was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on Wednesday.
Also sentenced on heroin distribution charges in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg were Dwayne Thomas Fletcher, age unavailable, of Strasburg, to seven years and three months in prison, and Megan Wooddell, 27, also of Strasburg, to five years in prison.
Roberson received heroin from Baltimore, while Fletcher and Wooddell got it from Philadelphia to resell in Strasburg.
“We’re seeing it way, way, way too often,” Heaphy said.
As a result, additional resources are being plugged into the region.
In Winchester, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration is doubling its presence from two to four agents.
“We’re here to stay as long as there is a problem,” said Karl Colder, a special agent with the DEA from Washington, D.C.
At Tuesday’s Shenandoah County supervisors meeting, Carter said he applied for membership to the White House’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
If accepted, Shenandoah County will be classified as a region of high concentration for illegal drug trafficking and related crime.
The designation comes with a $50,000 allocation and makes the sheriff’s office eligible for special federal resources, including tactical equipment.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” Carter said.
If accepted to the program, he said he would likely request additional funds from the supervisors for a full-time drug enforcement position.
On Wednesday, officials had a large board on the courthouse steps with the location, date and result of various heroin-related incidents this year.
“I hope that at the same point next year, we’re standing at a podium and the numbers have declined,” Heaphy said. “[The board] is really discouraging.”
— DN-R staff writer Amelia Brust contributed to this report.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org