Heroin proves a formidable foe in Butler County

Posted at 4:08 PM, Oct 11, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-11 16:08:29-04

HAMILTON, Ohio (AP) -- Scenes from a community under siege:

- It's been a hectic morning for the Butler County coroner, who's investigating three new deaths, all of them suspected heroin overdoses. If Dr. Lisa Mannix's office confirms heroin as the cause, they will add to a deadly pace well ahead of last year's record toll.

- Less than a mile away, Steve Monnin, wearing a sleeveless neon-green shirt with the message "God is Good," spreads out recent heroin-related finds on his red pickup truck's hood in a riverside park that's become a spot for drug deals, shooting up and sex acts performed in return for heroin. There are four needles and syringes, a couple of scorched spoons and a knife from along the Great Miami River.

- In the same downtown building as the coroner's office, Judge Daniel Gattermeyer is keeping cases moving through his Municipal Court session's docket. A young man in handcuffs turns to his mother and grandmother in the courtroom and says "I love you" as he's led away after appearing on a heroin charge. His was one of a half-dozen cases involving heroin-related counts this morning, but back in his chambers later, the judge says he's nearly certain that several other suspects who were before him on theft and burglary charges were driven by heroin.

"It's a terrible problem," says Gattermeyer, a former prosecutor who has seen heroin gain a foothold and spread rapidly within a few years. "Now it's just crazy."

Butler County, Ohio: home to bustling, growing northern Cincinnati suburbs, two older mill cities, rural burgs nestled amid farmland, a college town, and some 374,000 residents including outgoing House Speaker John Boehner. And to a stunning heroin scourge, despite a range of community efforts to turn it back.

What the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called a national epidemic is hitting especially hard here. The CDC says heroin-related deaths nationally nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013, when 8,200 deaths were linked to heroin. In Butler County, they have nearly quadrupled in a little over three years. Heroin-related deaths soared from 30 in 2012 to 103 in 2014, with 86 recorded already through the first half of 2015.

Explanations for the county's heroin problem usually start with location. Lying between Cincinnati and Dayton, Interstate 75 cuts through it, and easy access to four other interstates and multiple state and federal highways keep supplies flowing in. And like other counties that had past problems with abuse of prescription painkillers, which have become more tightly regulated, Butler officials have increasingly seen users making the dangerous switch to cheaper, easier-to-get heroin for numbing themselves.

"Heroin's a whole different ballgame," says Melissa Smith-Procter, 42. "I always call it the devil, because it's something you would sell your soul for."

The lifelong Hamilton resident says she's had two ex-boyfriends, several other friends and two women she was in treatment with die from heroin. She recently celebrated 20 months of sobriety after more than two decades of abusing drugs and alcohol.

At the coroner's office, Mannix puts on her glasses as she studies the latest reports. In a few hours' time, two couples have been found in separate residences after apparent heroin overdoses. Only one of the four survived.

She sighs.

"Unfortunately, it's becoming very common," she says of this day's caseload.

Last year's heroin toll was among 137 total deaths from all overdoses, marking the first time that drug overdose deaths outnumbered all other causes of death such as traffic accidents, homicides and natural causes investigated by the county coroner's office. The dead have been found on porches, in cars, parks, alleys, "everywhere," Mannix says.

"Sometimes the syringe is still in their arm; that's how quick it is."

It's not as if Butler County has ignored the problem.

There has been a series of community Heroin Summits; police go after traffickers in multi-agency task forces and special units; churches have banded together in a "Hope Over Heroin" campaign that included a three-day festival drawing thousands; people have held rallies wearing T-shirts that say "Heroin Sucks;" and recent events such as a "Harleys Over Heroin" motorcycle ride and "Bash Heroin" concert raised funds for anti-heroin work.

One of the new cases Mannix was investigating this day was the death of 18-year-old Alison Shuemake, of Middletown. Her parents, Fred and Dorothy McIntosh Shuemake, later named heroin as the cause of death in her obituary, in an effort to draw more attention to the toll and to trigger family discussions.

Monnin, 57, who moved across Hamilton with his wife from a neighborhood beset by drugs, has made a crusade of trying to win back Combs Park from drug use for the sake of family gatherings, fishing and other outdoor activities. He confronts people when he spots illicit activities, despite threats.

"The dopers don't like me," he says. "We're not going to stop them, but we can get them out of here."

Sojourner Recovery Services, a nonprofit treatment center that has expanded capacity by 80 percent in a year, recently opened "sober living" housing for recovering addicts, has cut wait times by months, and introduced a pre-treatment counseling program while addicts wait for beds to open up.

Scott Gehring, the center's CEO, says he's certain the expansion in services has saved lives, as have the community awareness campaigns.

"We're just still fighting an uphill battle," Gehring says.

Another setback has come from recent rise in abuse of the painkiller fentanyl, which is often combined with heroin. Butler had the fourth-highest number of fentanyl-related deaths among Ohio counties in 2014, contributing to a statewide 18 percent increase in drug overdose deaths.

"The numbers don't show any positive impact at this point," Mannix says. "But I think that's going to be a big, big ship to turn around."

Gattermeyer gets ready to return to his courtroom, where a Hamilton man charged with selling heroin awaits. He's part of many families the judge has gotten to know because of heroin's damaging impact.

"It's not hopeless," he insists. "You've got to just keep fighting."