Centre County officials see heroin problem ‘all around us’

Photo of money and heroin from a recent Centre County trial. Photo courtesy Centre County District Attorney’s Office
Photo of money and heroin from a recent Centre County trial. Photo courtesy Centre County District Attorney’s Office

In August 2013, Katie Bittinger lived every mother’s worst nightmare. She went upstairs and found her 20-year-old daughter dead.

Emily Rossman had overdosed on heroin, a drug whose name conjures up images of needle-tracked arms and dark-alley deals between shady people.

However, experts said those images aren’t the whole story. The world of heroin is all around us, they say, and the users could be friends, co-workers or family members.

Bittinger said many people reached out to comfort her. But many of them didn’t understand the menace that had claimed her daughter’s life.

“After my daughter passed away, I had a lot of compassion for my loss,” Bittinger said, “but a lot of denial that anything like that could happen to them or that it was a problem in our community.”

On Thursday, the state Bureau of Narcotics Investigation made several arrests in a ring that is believed to have been trafficking heroin into the area since 2009. The investigation itself has been building a case for more than a year.

Over that time, many local agencies say they have been seeing the heroin problem continue to grow. Pennsylvania now ranks No. 3 in the nation for heroin use, behind California and Illinois, according to the federal government.

“I think people feel like, if they don’t acknowledge it, it’s not here,” Bittinger said. “Well, it is here. These arrests are only the tip of the iceberg.”

When heroin hits home

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said she is seeing evidence of heroin everywhere on the court dockets.

“It’s truly at a high point,” Parks Miller said.

The charges range from those focused on the drug, such as possession or intent to sell, to the related crimes that go hand in hand with heroin use.

“Any time you have a resurgence, you see a lot of burglaries and robberies,” Parks Miller said.

State College Police Chief Tom King said central Pennsylvania had a spike in heroin activity about 10 years ago. A rise in incidents of theft came with it, he said, particularly vehicle burglaries as desperate users looked for items such as CDs to sell for quick cash.

Today, he said, addicts are gravitating toward electronics and technology they can sell or trade for drugs. More homes are being burglarized for iPads, computers and televisions to fund the addiction, King said.

Anthony Sassano, the regional director for the Bureau of Narcotics Investigation in Centre County, said heroin doesn’t just hurt the user; it hurts the community. On Thursday, suspects facing charges in the drug bust filed in and out of his office.

“Drug addiction as a whole, but heroin specifically, creates a lot of other crime — thefts from vehicles, assaults, child abuse ...,” Sassano said. “Child neglect can occur because you can’t take care of your kids. All you’re thinking about is heroin.

“So heroin leads to a lot of other crimes.”

Sassano said the drug ring was connected to trafficking out of a Pleasant Gap home, which was the target of a bust last year, Sassano said.

“This nice neighborhood, where everybody’s pleasant and knows each other, now you have all these strangers coming in,” he said. “And a lot of these people have a criminal element, and it just is harmful to whatever neighborhood is affected.”

Sassano said more than a dozen weapons, including semi-automatic guns, were seized at the home.

Fatal attraction

King’s officers aren’t just chasing stolen laptops and cell phones. They are often the ones responding to calls about people passed out cold in public restrooms.

The number of overdoses has risen, he said, as have the number of ambulance calls downtown for unconscious people due to the use of heroin.

Cathy Arbogast, program administrator for Centre County Drug and Alcohol, said there is anecdotal evidence of a local heroin spike.

“I don’t have any firm numbers to give you, but I am hearing that heroin use is up,” she said. “We are hearing it from treatment providers, from family members, from individuals. EMTs are seeing an increase in overdose situations.

“What we are hearing is that heroin is readily available and cheap compared to prescription opiates,” Arbogast added

Dr. Theodore Ziff, director of the emergency department at Mount Nittany Medical Center, said he saw an overdose case on Thursday. Such incidents are becoming a weekly occurrence, Ziff said.

“It used to be alcohol and other drugs,” he said. “Now it’s really getting into medications and drugs that are more dangerous.”

Too often, the overdoses don’t end in a hospital stay or time at a rehabilitation center.

Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers said he investigated at least 10 heroin-related deaths in 2013, an increase from 2012.

Parks Miller believes that number is closer to 16. She said police follow up on such cases in an attempt to find out who sold the drugs, but sometimes the trail is just not that easy to follow.

“There are just so many of these young kids and even older people, that are selling it, and they don’t care what happens after the sale,” Bittinger said. “They want the money, and that’s it.”

‘No boundaries’

Thursday’s arrests included warrants for individuals still at large, likely in the Philadelphia area, where much of the product in those cases was originating.

“We live in a drug corridor,” Parks Miller said.

With Centre County an easy drive from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York, it isn’t hard for someone to target the area and bring in drugs, she said.

Sassano said the tiny baggy of heroin that someone could buy on a Philadelphia street corner for $5 can go for $20 in State College, making it lucrative to bring the drug trade to Happy Valley.

It also changes the face of heroin addiction.

“One time, it was an inner-city, poor-people’s drug,” said Scott Serafini, of Drug Free Pennsylvania. “Now it’s finding its way into all classes, all backgrounds.

“There are no boundaries anymore.”

That is how a happy girl who loved to play jokes on her friends, a girl with a huge smile who wanted to be a dentist to help other people smile, too, lost a fight with heroin.

Bittinger said her daughter had a problem with heroin in high school, but she had worked hard and been clean for three years.

But a little stress and some bad connections brought a form of heroin back into her life. Then, she was gone.

“They call it the Eternal Nod,” said Bittinger. “The coroner said she basically just went to sleep. But that’s the thing. Each time you do it could be your last.”

Parks Miller said that is the reality of Centre County’s addiction issue, that it could affect anyone.

“It could be a college-educated student. It could be a soccer mom. You just don’t know,” she said.

‘A nasty beast’

And just like you don’t know the addict, you also can’t know the drug.

Ziff said the product is evolving. The heroin someone buys one time can be 10 times stronger than the previous dose. Ziff also noted the new danger of Fentanyl-lacing that has shown up in western Pennsylvania. Twenty-two people died in the Pittsburgh area because they took heroin laced with Fentanyl, a strong analgesic used to reduce pain during surgery.

Arbogast is preparing for an influx of people seeking addiction treatment in the wake of Thursday’s bust.

“We always see an uptick in requests when there are arrests, because supplies are cut off,” she said.

Even those receiving treatment are, like Rossman, prone to backsliding. Arbogast would like to see more funding, not just for getting people free of heroin, but keeping them off the drug.

“We are grossly underfunded for the demand,” she said. “How do we support them? Addiction is a nasty beast in terms of recidivism.”

Sometimes, King said, getting a loved one help means making a hard phone call.

“You can reach out to health care providers and drug counselors, but sometimes the best thing that can happen to someone is that they get arrested,” King said. “Sometimes, that’s really the only thing that is going to make them pay attention.”

King said families are often the most victimized by a heroin user who turns to theft. Addicts often believe family members won’t call the police, even though that might be the best way to ensure the user gets help.

Bittinger said families need to be zealous about paying attention, both for signs of addiction and indications that someone might be selling drugs.

“You want to look for those signs of use, changes in behavior,” she said. “You also want to see if someone has a lot of money that they are exorbitant with, but they don’t have a job. A lot of dealers don’t use. They’re just in it for the money.”

‘Community issue’

One point on which everyone agrees: There is no singular or simple answer to the heroin problem.

“It’s really a community issue,” Parks Miller said.

“The question has to be ‘what is the community going to do?’” King said. “We need to have a real discussion.”

Bittinger wants that conversation to happen soon. She would like to see an effort in Centre County such as the Operation Our Town initiative in Altoona that networks community and business leaders to take on the drug issue.

“This has put me on a path. I call it my journey,” she said. “If I can save another mother from feeling this, that’s what I need to do.

“I want Emily to not die in vain.”