CLEVELAND — Each year in 2016 and 2017, 132 people died from a drug overdose in Lorain County as the community was ravaged by the opioid epidemic. So far in 2018, the death rate in the county has declined greatly, with just 78 overdose deaths as of Dec. 2, according to the Lorain County Coroner’s office.
What has been the catalyst for the decline? Northern District of Ohio U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman believes it could, in part, be due to Operation S.O.S., or Synthetic Opioid Surge.
“We started in July, and hopefully, at the end of the year we’re going to be down on the number of deaths in Lorain County,” Herdman said. “That may have happened with or without S.O.S., but we expect, and we’re absolutely hopeful that we’ll see an acceleration in the downward trend next year because of Operation S.O.S.”
In July, then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the implementation of the initiative, which seeks to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in high-impact areas and to identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers.
Ten counties across the country were selected to be the focus of the operation, with Lorain County being selected for the Northern District of Ohio.
“Every district was asked to select a county where this would make sense to enact this project. It would take every opioid case out of that district — whether it involved heroin, fentanyl, fentanyl mixed with cocaine, pills or any other case we could take — to prosecute them federally to help out our local state partners in those counties,” Herdman said.
While Lorain County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, the death toll here pales in comparison with places like Cuyahoga County, which has a death toll of three to four times more than Lorain County’s. So why was Lorain County selected?
There are multiple reasons, Herdman said.
“First of all, Lorain County certainly has suffered from the opioid crisis, along with every other county in the district,” he said. “It has experienced a death rate that is unacceptable, but it is also not as high as what we’re dealing with in Cuyahoga County.
“We wanted to make sure it was a place where this problem would be more manageable, and we could actually guarantee to make an impact.”
Another reason Lorain County was selected is because of the “longstanding and good relationship” the U.S. Attorney’s office has with Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will, Herdman said. Over the years the two offices have been connected, with former Lorain County Prosecutor Greg White serving as U.S. attorney for the district and former assistant county prosecutors now working as narcotics prosecutors in Herdman’s office.
Herdman said there also have been strong partnerships in the county with law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The goal of Operation S.O.S. isn’t to prosecute as many cases as possible, but instead to have a measurable impact on the death rate in the counties where the project has been implemented.
Has it worked?
Herdman isn’t quick to take credit for the reduction in overdose deaths in the county, just yet, but he does believe there’s been a noticeable impact.
So far, 31 individuals have been charged in federal court with violations of federal drug laws as part of Operation S.O.S. Of those 31, all of them have prior arrests and convictions for drug-related offenses.
“When you look at the numbers, the thing that jumps off the page is the number of career offenders that we’ve prosecuted federally,” Herdman said. “These are people who have a history of drug trafficking or violent crime and are eligible for some pretty significant enhancements under U.S. sentencing guidelines.”
Several of the defendants were out on bond for pending state cases or state or federal probation or parole-type release when they committed their new offenses, according to authorities. With a few exceptions, all of those defendants have been and have remained federally detained since their arrests under Operation S.O.S.
Herdman believes the effort has “targeted the right individuals” and is getting career offenders off the streets. He also said it’s sending an important message to others.
“When you think about it, the cost of doing business for these drug dealers in Lorain County is very high,” he said. “Business as usual is over. If you’ve been arrested in Lorain County and you’ve been dealing fentanyl or heroin or anything with an opioid in it, you are going to be prosecuted federally, and you’re probably going to be detained, convicted and go away for years or possibly decades. Also, you’re not going to be going to a prison in Ohio.”
Drug dealers in the area are taking notice, according to Rob Corts, a former assistant Lorain County prosecutor who now works as a prosecutor in Herdman’s office.
“Anecdotally, we’re making a difference,” Corts said. “We’re hearing from our street officers that what they’re hearing on the street is that people are saying, ‘The feds are in town,’ and, ‘The feds are watching us.’”
Corts also said one of the first people indicted as part of the effort asked federal agents, “Hey, what is this S.O.S. all about?” on his way to federal court.
Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely said his officers have noticed it, as well.
“I know that our investigative people have said that through people who have been arrested, contacts on the street and informants, people are talking about it,” Whitely said. “They’re saying, ‘Don’t do that stuff in Elyria, because they’re taking everybody federal.’”
Herdman said there are several more cases in the pipeline as part of Operation S.O.S. with indictments that haven’t been unsealed yet. In January, he said his office will have the help of an additional federal prosecutor to work on Operation S.O.S. cases, which will help the effort ramp up even more.
“If you’re a drug dealer, why would you want to sell dope in Lorain County?” Herdman said. “That’s really what we’re trying to get at here.”
Whitely said in the six months that Operation S.O.S. has been in effect, he believes it has put a dent in the opioid drug trade in the area.
“I think it has. We won’t know for a year, but I think it has,” Whitely said. “I don’t know how it couldn’t be. When you take away the dealers and send them away for 10 to 20 years, everybody else notices that.”
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