Pursuing justice for families who lose loved ones to opiates
Jennifer Powell, whose younger sister Jolene Bowman died of an overdose in their hometown, has given Versailles Police Det. Keith Ford a reason - a human face - to continue investigating drug overdose deaths as crimes. Ford hopes his department's drug investigations lead to additional arrests and prison sentences that give other Woodford County families "some sense of closure" when a loved one dies of an overdose. Criminal prosecutions in overdose cases are now possible through a federal initiative aimed at drug trafficking. U. S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey's overdose prosecution initiative led to the successful prosecution of two drug traffickers in federal court for their roles in Bowman's death. Luis Aguirre-Jerardo faces 28 to 33 years in prison and Gill Dewayne Garrett was sentenced to 20 years in prison (on Dec. 8) after entering guilty pleas to distribution of a controlled substance resulting in death. "It's gratifying to see that we can get some justice for the families of these people who die of overdoses," said Ford. Powell said she's "incredibly proud of our police officers and investigators, and the efforts they put into these cases." She's especially grateful for their empathy. "Their compassion and understanding toward the drug issues in our community and of the struggles of the families who have experienced these losses is what makes them not only great officers, but also great people," said Powell in an email. VPD patrol officer Teddy Melton described overdose deaths as troubling. "You don't want anybody to die .You're here . to save lives," he said. Because Melton was raised in Pike County and witnessed the prevalence of drug addiction in Eastern Kentucky, he has broad insight into this epidemic. "Those people are humans just like anybody else, and they have a very bad problem," he explained. "If you can help them fix it - that's a good thing." Yet, he knows they have to want to get clean because "there's nothing you can say or do to fix it." "When it comes down to that deep-rooted addiction," added Ford, "we don't understand it. Other than the fact that we see that it's a negative (in our community) so we're against it. But we don't know what drives an addict because we're not addicts." He does know an overdose death is "a horrible tragedy when it happens," and it's his job to find out where this person who died got the drug that ended his or her life, which can lead to criminal charges for a drug trafficker. "We all have to work together to better understand what we're facing," said Powell, "and have faith in our law enforcement to do their best in protecting our community, and help keep senseless overdose deaths from happening." While the number of overdose deaths in Woodford County has been greatly reduced by the quick actions of EMS first-responders, Ford knows "overdoses are not going to stop." "I think the deaths will increase simply because there are going to be more and more overdoses, and the drugs now are getting more and more potent," explained Ford. In the past, he said one or two doses of Narcan would usually reverse the effects of an opioid - heroin or narcotic painkiller - overdose. Four to as many as eight doses of Narcan have been needed in some recent overdoses because of synthetic opioids: fentanyl (100 times more potent than morphine) and carfentanil (10,000 times more potent). "Addicts can't help themselves," said Ford. "They're going to do what they do to support that habit." Yet, it frustrates him that addicts will seldom seek the help they need to get clean. "If I know they're doing heroin and if I can arrest them," said Melton, ".I'm going to put them in jail because they're better off in jail than they are out here at their house overdosing and dying." Most of the men and women that Melton arrests cry when he puts them in handcuffs "because they know that they truly have a problem." Typically, drug overdoses happen in waves. "When it's a bad batch we know it's a bad batch," said Melton, a patrol officer for 11 years who came here after spending almost six years at the Lawrenceburg Police Department. Incredibly, Ford said, many people who nearly die of a drug overdose are unwilling to cooperate with authorities seeking information that may lead to a criminal prosecution of a drug dealer who sold them the drug that nearly ended their life. They oftentimes don't know what they're getting, but because of their addiction they are willing to put any drug into their bodies. "When you're sick (from drug withdrawals)," explained Melton, "you're going to do whatever it takes not to be sick." A person becomes "deathly ill" after three days of not getting their fix, he added. "Many addicts will tell you," explained Ford, "they'd rather be dead than go through withdraw symptoms, which is the drive to go get the 'medicine' they need." Whenever police eliminate the supply of illicit drugs coming into the community by prosecuting a local dealer, users will typically get their drugs from out of town. "I firmly believe that because of the (federal) prosecutions that are taking place and the ones that are pending," said Ford, "I think your dealers from out of town do not want to come to this town because they know there's a risk they can be swooped up into the federal initiative and they don't want to be any part of that. So, what they'll do is make the people come to them." These drug runs - for personal use and other users - may lead to a traffic stop, a charge of driving under the influence and other charges in this county or elsewhere. A newly formed narcotics task force in the 14th Judicial Circuit - Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties - has partnered detectives from three jurisdictions to investigate drug cases in those communities. Given the pervasiveness of the drug epidemic and rise in overdose deaths, Ford said "It just makes sense to work together." "I personally am beyond happy to know there are now more avenues for our officers to use - resulting from partnerships with other county, state and federal task forces - to help eliminate these predators (who sell illicit drugs for profit) from our town," said Powell. Melton, who estimates that the percentage of DUI arrests involving drug use has climbed to about 90 percent, said he's learned a lot about investigating drug cases and "what to look for" in those cases, because of Ford's experience. Before coming to the Versailles Police Department, Ford was a narcotics detective with the Lexington Police for 20 years, beginning in 1993. He viewed his work there as "a cat and mouse game" to determine if someone was using drugs or selling drugs or doing both. Ford sometimes got frustrated - even saddened - knowing the lifestyle of many he arrested would never change. Since becoming a detective with Versailles Police four-and-a-half years ago, Ford has continued investigating drug cases, but also handles other criminal investigations and random acts of violence that sometimes don't make any sense to him or anyone else. Investigating the murder of 6-year-old Logan Tipton in his family's Versailles home last December "was a huge, troubling experience for me - like anybody in this town," acknowledged the father of three. ".sometimes we lose perspective on what our officers go through every day," said Powell. "I imagine some of the situations . can weigh pretty heavily on them personally especially when it's their neighbor." Ford lives in Woodford County with his wife and sons, who are students at Simmons Elementary and Woodford County Middle School.