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Operation S.O.S. targets Lorain County


Lorain County has been designated as a high-impact area and will be targeted by Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge, a new program started by the Department of Justice.

On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman of the Northern District of Ohio announced the program, which seeks to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in high-impact areas and identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers.

As part of Operation S.O.S., the Department of Justice will launch an enforcement surge in 10 districts across the country with some of the highest drug overdose death rates, including the Northern District of Ohio.

Each participating U.S. Attorney’s Office will choose a specific county and prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues and other synthetic opioids, regardless of drug quantity.

“When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case,” Sessions said. “In 2016, synthetic opioids killed more Americans than any other kind of drug. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal — that’s not even enough to cover up Lincoln’s face on a penny.”

Lorain County has been designated as the area for the Northern District of Ohio as it has been deluged with opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In 2014, County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans reported 39 heroin deaths with 13 of those involving fentanyl. In 2015, the number climbed to 41 heroin deaths with 20 involving fentanyl.

The number grew significantly the following year.

By 2016, there were 132 overdose deaths, and in 2017 there were another 132 overdose deaths.

The impact has affected both larger and small towns in the county. Investigators have noticed that overdose deaths have sometimes occurred in clusters and are related to the recent influx of fentanyl, carfentanil laced heroin and other analogues, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

These drugs have killed thousands of our friends and neighbors and caused pain and heartbreak to their families,” Herdman said. “This initiative will allow us to work in a collaborative, targeted way on the enforcement side to reduce the drug supply, while continuing to partner with others in our community to help drive down demand.”

Additionally, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force will send an additional two-year term assistant United States attorney to each participating district to assist with drug-related prosecutions.

The Department of Justice said there is reason to believe such an approach will have an impact.

In Manatee County, a Florida county just south of Tampa with a population of about 320,000, overdoses and deaths skyrocketed in 2015 with 780 overdoses and 84 opioid-related deaths. The following year, there were 1,287 overdoses and 123 opioid related deaths. In 2016, local law enforcement reported frequent, street-level distribution of fentanyl and carfentanil for the first time.

To combat the crisis, the Middle District of Florida committed to prosecuting every readily provable drug distribution case involving synthetic opioids in Manatee County regardless of drug quantity. The effort resulted in the indictments of 45 traffickers of synthetic opioids, according to the Department of Justice.

In the last six months of 2016 to the last six months of 2017, overdoses in Manatee County dropped by 77 percent and deaths dropped by 74 percent. Overall, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdoses a day to less than one per day, according to the Department of Justice.

“Our prosecutors in Manatee County have shown that prosecuting seemingly small synthetic opioids cases can have a big impact and save lives, and we want to replicate their success in the districts that need it most,” Sessions said. “This new strategy — and the new prosecutors who will help carry it out — will help us put more traffickers behind bars and keep the American people safe from the threat of these deadly drugs.”

Through Operation S.O.S., The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio will coordinate with Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will, Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely, Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera, Lorain County Sheriff Phil Stammitti, the DEA and the FBI to work together to “aggressively” combat opiate drug crimes.

“We’re grateful for the excellent working relationship between all the Lorain County law enforcement agencies and our federal partners,” Whitely said. “We will continue working together to attack the illegal drug trade throughout Lorain County.”

Stammitti said the opioid crisis has had an adverse effect on the county.

“Through the cooperation of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies working together to share their resources, intelligence and manpower we can aggressively investigate drug-trafficking organizations,” he said. “These organizations from the street-level dealer to the main source suppliers are drastically having a devastating effect on our communities. In conjunction with the newly formed Lorain County HIDTA (high-intensity drug trafficking area), we are proud of all the units that work together to aggressively investigate drug traffickers.”

Contact Scott Mahoney at 440-329-7146 or smahoney@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @SMahoneyCT.

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