Deaths from illicit drugs, especially fentanyl, are at historic highs. It’s why Drug Enforcement Administration St. Louis Division investigators are committed to protecting Americans and saving lives by pursuing those responsible. They aim to make sure as many drug traffickers involved in those deaths as possible, get an appearance in front of a judge.
“The poison that is killing the loved ones of American citizens is being brought here by criminal drug cartels,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael A. Davis, head of DEA’s St. Louis Division. “DEA’s great strength is taking down these networks, and as a result, helping families get justice. We might not be able to give them closure, but we can facilitate the healing process.”
The number of deaths due to illicit drugs over the last three years has increased 35%. [i] The chief cause is synthetic opioids, primarily illicit fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison.”[ii]
The stunning increase in deaths has put pressure on all narcotics investigators, from DEA to the smallest police departments, to make sure the families get justice. Unfortunately, justice for these deaths is neither quick nor easy – and might not come at all.
An investigation into a death from an illicit drug often starts when a family or friend of the victim calls 911. Among the first responders may be patrol officers, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), detectives or medical examiner personnel. How they treat the scene is critical to the future prosecution of the criminals responsible. They should all work together at the scene to collect any items of potential evidence. Families may also be part of this team, as they should do everything they can to not disturb the scene or dispose of potential evidence prior to the arrival of the investigators.
“There’s a great deal going on behind the scenes once the investigation starts moving,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Colin Dickey, lead of DEA enforcement operations in eastern Missouri. “Besides taking photos and evidence at the scene, we have to get into the victim’s phone, which means we may need passwords. We need the toxicology report from the victim, to see what they died from. We’ll need to talk to friends and other potential witnesses. Unlike television, these investigations might take months or years, depending on how far up the drug supply chain we can take the case.”
Two years from arrest to sentencing is typical. Of course families want investigators to arrest the individual that sold the deadly drug as soon as possible, but there’s good reason to take these cases slowly.
“When we stop the investigation by arresting the street level dealer, the source of the drug supply will oftentimes just find another dealer to continue distributing their illicit product,” said Dickey. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure we not only cut off the source, but also arrest as many as we can up the supply chain leadership. That’s a primary objective of DEA – destroy the entire criminal drug enterprise.”
Limits in moving these cases forward include a lack of suspects or evidence connecting the victim’s cause of death to a particular person, so cooperation from families and witnesses can be critical in developing leads regarding the victim’s contacts, behaviors and actions prior to death.
“The many steps we take during a poisoning investigation are not taken to discredit the victim or hurt the family,” said Dickey. “Every piece of evidence we collect might be the key. We take these steps to ensure the most thorough investigation possible.”
U.S. Attorneys who prosecute these cases need solid evidence of who sold the deadly dose of a drug before filing charges. Though difficult, there are successful examples, like that of Markquis Bryant. DEA investigators were able to determine the fentanyl sold to a Florissant, Mo., man who died, March 6, 2020, came from Bryant. Bryant was sentenced to 17 years, in a case that concluded June 14, 2022.[iii]
Gary Scott Hancock was another trafficker found guilty of providing the drugs that killed a 19-year-old woman in 2018, a result of “acute fentanyl intoxication.” Her text messages showed she’d purchased “five beans” or capsules of fentanyl from Hancock and died the following day.[iv] Hancock was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2021.
DEA isn’t the only agency investigating overdose death cases, relying on many other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to help stem the tide of mounting deaths. However, small police departments may have limited resources, such as time or manpower, or the officers’ investigative skills do not include how to properly conduct overdose investigations. That can lead to the feeling that law enforcement doesn’t care, which, in turn, frustrates families seeking justice.
To combat this issue, DEA St. Louis Division and the Eastern District of Missouri U.S. Attorney’s Office held Operation OD Justice, an overdose death investigation training, in St. Louis in 2022, providing education to more than 200 law enforcement officers and local prosecutors, with the goal of helping them increase their knowledge in developing these complex cases. Additional locations for training events across DEA’s St. Louis Division are in the works.
“We need families to understand: we care, we really do,” said Davis. “We know these families are having the worst time of their lives and, to them, their case is the most important one being investigated. Believe me, we wish their case was the only one we’re investigating.”
Other overdose cases recently charged in the Eastern District of Missouri include the 2022 overdose death cases of a 19-year-old from Jefferson County, Mo.; [v] a pregnant mother from St. Louis County; [vi] a St. Charles County, Mo., mother of three; [vii] and a mass overdose event where eight people died in a St. Louis apartment complex. [viii]
The number of cases involving drug overdoses encouraged U.S. Attorney Sayler Fleming, from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Missouri, to hire a prosecutor to focus on these specialized cases.
“When it comes to addressing drug crimes, our office has to focus on the worst offenders, which includes the ever-increasing number of cases involving overdose deaths,” noted Fleming. “By their very nature, these cases are difficult, because, sadly, the person who ingested the substance has died and we’re left to rely on the circumstantial evidence to figure out what happened. It’s difficult to obtain a conviction when the defense attorney can argue the victim could have picked up the lethal dose from anyone.”
One such case resulted in a 14-year sentence for Antonio Hubbard in November 2022. [ix] Investigators were able to show that the fentanyl, hydrocodone and ethanol concoction that killed the victim, who died in 2018 with a needle in his arm, could be traced to Hubbard.
To combat overdose death cases, federal prosecutors sometimes employ a charge of distribution of controlled substances resulting in death to increase the minimum sentence to 20 years. Investigators have to tie the death to the person who sold the substance in order to successfully add the charge of death resulting. However, if a defendant is found guilty, he’s out of the drug distribution business for a very long time.
“In death resulting charges, there doesn’t need to be intent to kill,” Fleming said. “It’s one of the many tools we have to combat the scourge of overdose deaths. In a perfect world, the 20-year minimum sentence would have a chilling effect on criminal behavior, hopefully driving illicit drug distributors to think twice about adding lethal fentanyl into their supply.”
Just like DEA’s investigators, attorneys prosecuting these cases know they are difficult cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. They seem straight forward to the victim’s family, but the cases may involve expert witnesses, such as toxicology lab technicians or medical examiners. In addition, the defense attorneys will employ their own experts to refute the evidence or testimony. The cases require vast amounts of resources and time.
“They’re not easy cases,” Fleming noted. “Due to challenges with evidence and other complications, in some instances we feel it more appropriate to pursue lesser charges.”
Still, whether prosecutor or investigator, the end game is to put the dealers of death behind bars for taking someone’s loved one away from them.
“Criminal drug organizations do not care about losing a customer,” said Davis. “But their distributors do care they might go to jail for it. We want to make sure that happens. We’re working to help other law enforcement agencies to understand that it’s no accident that someone died from an illicit drug. Criminals made that drug and victims were poisoned from the concoction.
“We’ve got to get over the stigma associated with drug use,” he added. “Fentanyl is a game changer, and we are in a public safety crisis because of it. It impacts all races, genders and people across the socio-economic spectrum. We’ll keep arresting the criminals and reducing the supply of this man-made health hazard, but to reduce the demand, it’s going to take all of us to bring down these overdose deaths.”
[i] “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Assessed Dec. 19, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm.
[iii] “Fatal Fentanyl Dose results in 17 Years in Prison,” United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Assessed Dec. 19, 2022, https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2022/06/14/fatal-fentanyl-dose-results-17-years-prison.
[iv] “St. Louis Man Pleads Guilty to Selling Drugs that Killed 19-year-old Chesterfield Woman,” United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Missouri. Assessed on Jan. 12, 2023, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edmo/pr/st-louis-man-pleads-guilty-selling-drugs-killed-19-year-old-chesterfield-woman.
[v] “Three More Face Charges in Teen’s Fentanyl Overdose Death in Jefferson County,” United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Assessed Dec. 19, 2022, https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2022/10/12/three-more-face-charges-teens-fentanyl-overdose-death-jefferson-county.
[vi] “St. Louis County Man Sentenced to 12 Years in Prison For Selling Fentanyl That Killed Pregnant Woman,” United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Missouri. Assessed on Dec. 19, 2022, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edmo/pr/st-louis-county-man-sentenced-12-years-prison-selling-fentanyl-killed-pregnant-woman.
[vii] “Missouri Man charged in Suspected Overdose Death of Mother of Three,” United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Assessed on Dec. 19, 2022, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edmo/pr/st-louis-county-man-sentenced-12-years-prison-selling-fentanyl-killed-pregnant-woman.
[viii] “Federal Charges Filed against St. Louis Woman Linked to Multiple Overdose Deaths,” United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Assessed on Dec. 19, 2022, https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2022/02/09/federal-charges-filed-against-st-louis-woman-linked-multiple-overdose.
[ix] “St. Louis Man Sentenced to 14 Years for Selling Fatal Dose of Fentanyl,” United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Missouri. Assessed on Jan. 9, 2023, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edmo/pr/st-louis-man-sentenced-14-years-selling-fatal-dose-fentanyl.