• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Drug dealer sentences give family 'sense of justice'

JOLENE BOWMAN, pictured at left, with her daughter, Sommer Melton, died of a drug overdose on July 1, 2015. Under a federal law, the U. S. Attorney's Office prosecuted Luis Aguirre-Jerardo Gill Dewayne Garrett for distributing a controlled substance that resulted in her death. (Photo submitted)

The U.S. Attorney's successful prosecution of two drug traffickers for their roles in the overdose death of her sister, Jolene Bowman, gives Jennifer Powell "a sense of justice, not of closure," she said. Powell spoke during a news conference where U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey announced a comprehensive approach to combating the opioid epidemic in Kentucky, including an overdose prosecution initiative aimed at drug trafficking. "Jolene was both an addict and a victim," said Powell. "Her death deeply affected my family and those who knew her best. ".I am very aware that addicts bear responsibility for the consequences that come with using drugs, but at the same time 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." During an interview last Friday morning, Powell described the prosecutions of Luis Aguirre-Jerardo and Gill Dewayne Garrett as proof to her family and the entire Woodford County community that law enforcement has taken "a very firm stance" against the distribution of illicit drugs in their neighborhoods. Aguirre-Jerardo faces a prison sentence of 28 to 33 years and Garrett faces a minimum of 20 years in prison after entering guilty pleas to distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death. Both are scheduled for sentencing in U.S. District Court on Dec. 8. According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Aguirre-Jerardo admitted that he provided a counterfeit pain pill to Garrett who then distributed the pill to Bowman. She consumed the pill and subsequently died of an overdose on July 1, 2015. The counterfeit pill looked like Oxycodone, but instead contained fentanyl - a powerful opioid as much as 100 times more potent than morphine. Powell described her sister as a less-than-perfect person who - like so many addicts - struggled with addiction and finding an avenue to seek recovery. These people are preyed upon by predators like Aguirre-Jerardo and Garrett for profit, she explained. "They're selling (these drugs) to put money in their pocket," said Powell. "And my sister - forever on now - will represent that niche of people who are being preyed upon." She said her sister, a mother of two, was contacted by Garrett via text messages while struggling to stay clean, and he went as far as sending her images of heroin. Bowman eventually purchased the counterfeit pain pill that ended her life for $30. The successful prosecutions of Aguirre-Jerardo and Garrett renewed Powell's faith in the judicial system and law enforcement. "They do care. They really want this (epidemic) to stop, also," said Powell. She agreed to talk about her sister's death and her family's grief at last week's U.S. Attorney's Office news conference "to give a face of what's left when the overdose victim is gone." Powell spoke for her family, and the families of a 25-year-old Madison County man and a Lexington woman (pregnant at the time of her death), who also lost their lives to overdoses. Three convictions for distributing a controlled substance that resulted in death were made by the U.S. Attorney's Office in those other cases. Under federal law, defendants convicted of drug trafficking involving a Schedule I or Schedule II drug that results in a death or serious bodily injury (overdose) are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years or, if they have a qualifying prior conviction, a mandatory term of life in prison, according to a U.S. Attorney's Office press release. "We are committed to using every tool available in combating this terrible epidemic," said Harvey, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky. "We employ the tough federal law regarding overdoses advisedly, in order to prosecute those who engage in truly predatory behavior, with tragic results." Powell said she's hopeful that the recent convictions and the U.S. Attorney's overdose prosecution initiative will act as a deterrent for others who are or may get involved with drug trafficking. And she's thankful that Versailles Police Det. Keith Ford attended an informational meeting about the U.S. Attorney's Office overdose prosecution initiative on July 1 - the day of her sister's fatal overdose. Ford relied on his knowledge of the federal law as well as his contacts with the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate Jolene Bowman's overdose death in Versailles as a criminal case. "This federal initiative really takes the guesswork out of it," said Ford. "Because it's very, very clear that if somebody distributes a controlled substance that then results in death . they're on the hook for enforcement action." The federal statute makes it easier to prosecute overdose cases, but Ford said specific criteria must be met in order for a case to advance to the federal courts for prosecution. "Because of our success in Woodford County," added Ford, "other jurisdictions are calling us for assistance on getting their own systems (for investigating overdose cases as crimes under federal law) up and running." Powell credits Ford and his willingness to pursue her sister's case for allowing her family to get "a sense of justice," if not closure. "They'll never get their daughter, sister or mother back," said Ford, "but at least they feel something's been done. And that is very gratifying." The prosecutions of Aguirre-Jerardo and Garrett also ensure they "will not be selling drugs in Woodford County any time in the next 20 years. And that's huge," said Ford, who spent 12 years investigating drug cases with the Lexington Police before coming to the Versailles Police Department in 2012. Ford pointed out that the volume of calls for drug overdoses declined significantly after those dealers were locked up. And while the number of overdose calls has picked back up again, he said the number of fatalities has declined in large measure because of the quick-response and use of Narcane (which reverses the effect of an opioid overdose) by emergency service first-responders. Powell says she will continue sharing her sister's story to raise awareness about Kentucky's drug epidemic, while also helping addicts understand "that recovery is absolutely possible." She willingly shares what she's come to understand in the aftermath of her sister's overdose death so others might "avoid going through what I've gone through." "While nothing can bring Jolene back to those who loved her," said Powell during last week's news conference, "we feel some sense of justice with this prosecution. "More importantly, we believe that the prosecution of this case and others like it will save other Kentucky families from the tragedy that struck ours." Jolene Bowman was one of six overdose deaths that occurred in Woodford County last year, according to a 2015 Overdose Fatality Report released by the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. A total of 16 overdose deaths was reported in Woodford County during the last four years. Statewide, the number of overdose fatalities rose from 1,088 in 2014 to 1,248 in 2015. Kentucky reported a total of 4,417 drug overdose deaths in the last four years. Those deaths represent overdoses by illicit and/or prescription drugs that were inflicted intentionally or unintentionally, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. Educating others about drug abuse The Heroin Education Action Team - or HEAT - seeks to reduce the growing harm of heroin and opiate abuse by increasing community understanding of this epidemic. It's a partnership between the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Kentucky and families who have lost loved ones to overdose. "They've all lost someone to drug abuse," said Jennifer Powell, whose sister, Jolene Bowman, died of an overdose on July 1, 2015. "And we open our trauma to schools and churches and civic groups and law enforcement groups, and anyone who will basically listen." By sharing their family's story, these moms, dads, brothers and sisters hope others can avoid the grief of losing a loved one to a drug overdose. For additional information and HEAT and its mission, access the U.S. Attorney's Office website - justice.gov/usa-edky - and click on HEAT under programs.

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