An effort to get long federal prison sentences for drug dealers whose illegal sales kill or injure people is showing results as abuse of heroin gets worse in Kentucky, according to authorities.
Three men pleaded guilty this week in federal court in cases prosecuted under the initiative.
They face sentences of at least 20 years, and two could be sent to prison for life, U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey announced Tuesday.
Several others defendants in the cases who pleaded guilty earlier also face potentially lengthy sentences.
Harvey said at a news conference that professional heroin dealers ultimately will kill someone.
“Those are dealers that the money’s more important to them than the human life,” Harvey said. “Those are the people that we’re targeting with this initiative.”
Federal law provides for sentences of at least 20 years for drug dealers in cases where someone they sell to dies or is injured. If the dealer has a prior conviction, the penalty can be life in prison.
Harvey’s office started an effort about 18 months ago to prosecute more overdose cases in federal court under the law.
Federal authorities met with state and local police and officials to encourage them to contact Harvey’s office or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration about overdose deaths and injuries.
Harvey’s office provided training to local officials who wanted to get cases into federal court under the initiative. Prosecutors in the office gave police their cell phone numbers so they can call for advice on a case at any time.
Harvey said his office has prosecuted a total of 15 or 20 people under the initiative. The three guilty pleas Monday show the effort is working, Harvey said.
In one, Luis Aguirre-Jerardo, 28, admitted he sold a pill to drug dealer Gill Dewayne Garrett, 30, of Lexington, in July 2015, who in turn sold it to Versailles resident Jolene Bowman.
Bowman, 37, injected the pill in a bathroom stall of the business where she worked and died.
Aguirre marked the pill to look like oxycodone, a much-prescribed painkiller.
However, it contained fentanyl, which is 40 to 50 times as strong as street-level heroin. Bowman did not know the strength of the drug she was getting, said her sister, Jennifer Powell, who spoke at the news conference.
Bowman had a daughter and son and worked steadily, but developed a drug problem after going through a divorce and had struggled with addiction for years, Powell said.
Bowman had gotten off drugs, but her former dealer had pestered her for months to begin abusing drugs again, texting her, offering to deliver drugs and even sending her photos of heroin, Powell said.
Bowman ultimately succumbed to a bad decision, Powell said.
“I know my sister was victimized by predators who sought to profit from her addiction with no regard for her struggle and no remorse for our loss,” Powell said.
The case illustrates a growing problem in Kentucky — drug dealers selling fentanyl to people who think they are getting heroin.
Drug cartels make fentanyl in labs in Mexico and can boost their profits by substituting it for heroin, Harvey said.
However, drug users don’t often know they are getting the more powerful drug.
Fentanyl played a key role in driving up the number of overdose deaths in Kentucky in 2015 to a record high of 1,248 people, up from 1,088 in 2014, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
The number of deaths involving fentanyl, alone or combined with heroin, jumped to 420 in 2015 from about 120 the year before, according to the office.
Overdose deaths have gone up more sharply in Fayette County than in the state as a whole in recent years because of heroin and fentanyl.
Aguirre made a plea agreement that calls for a sentence of 28 to 33 years. Garrett pleaded guilty earlier and faces a minimum 20-year sentence.
Harvey said the case was the first in which his office prosecuted a street-level drug dealer and a person higher on the supply chain for the same overdose.
That’s one benefit of the potentially tough sentences under the federal overdose law.
In addition to serving as a deterrent and providing justice for victims and families, the law also can push drug dealers to cooperate with police to investigate others in a drug ring, Harvey said.
In another case announced Tuesday, Fred Rebmann, 31, admitted he sold a $60 dose of fentanyl last February in Lexington to Katie Cassity, 27, who was six months pregnant.
Cassity, who thought she was getting heroin, died of an overdose. Police found her on the floor of her bathroom.
Messages on her cell phone led to Rebmann. He could be sentenced to life.
In the third case, Navarius “V” Westberry, 38, pleaded guilty to supplying heroin and fentanyl that killed Corey Brewer, 25. Police found him with his head slumped over in a car in the parking lot of a Richmond store in March.
His mother, Julie Robinson, said her son had taken painkillers to deal with a degenerative back disease, but she didn’t know he was using heroin.
A few months before Brewer died, he told his mother she had been an example of unconditional love during his struggle with drugs, an emotional Robinson said.
“I wanted him to be clean,” she said.
Harvey said Detroit is a key source of heroin coming into Central Kentucky. Westberry was among a number of drug dealers who have moved to the region from Detroit in recent years to set up drug networks, Harvey said.
Four other people pleaded guilty in the case. Westberry and one other, Benjamin Fredrick Charles Robinson, 21, also from Detroit, face sentences of 20 years to life, according to Harvey’s office.
Harvey said that abuse of opioid drugs — which include heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers such as oxycodone — has reached crisis levels in the district where he is the chief federal prosecutor, which covers 67 counties from Frankfort east.
Some ominous changes are helping drive the problem, he said: heroin is stronger, cheaper and more widely available than a generation ago, and users are younger and less experienced with drugs.
They also are more likely to be middle class, Harvey said.
He provided research showing that between 2000 and 2013, the largest growth in heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. was among non-Hispanic white people ages 18 to 44.
This horrible crisis calls for an all-hands-on-deck solution. This is a problem that will destroy our communities if we don’t solve it.
U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey
The pathway to heroin also has changed. Many users now move from pills — which some have seen as more acceptable because they are medicine — to heroin.
Law enforcement is one piece of the response to the problem, but there also is a need for more treatment, greater public awareness and more knowledge by parents, Harvey said.
Any parent of a teenager should be aware that their child is likely to be confronted by a decision on whether to use drugs, Harvey said.
Harvey also said naloxone should be widely available. The drug can reverse the effect of an opioid overdose.
The Kroger Co. announced this week that it has made naloxone available at 96 of its pharmacies, including in Lexington, without a prescription to try to decrease overdose deaths.
Harvey said it was a good development.
“This horrible crisis calls for an all-hands-on-deck solution,” he said. “This is a problem that will destroy our communities if we don’t solve it.”