CANANDAIGUA — During his time as an Ontario County deputy, coroner and licensed funeral director, Kevin Henderson has commiserated with many parents who lost a son or daughter from a drug overdose.
Now the county sheriff, Henderson and District Attorney Jim Ritts — who also has been involved in many of those heart-wrenching conversations — want to do more to bring justice to those families, some of whom Henderson and Ritts knew before the overdose.
“The perception of some people, and I hear this in the community, is if they are an addict and they are choosing to use (drugs) and die, that is the risk they are willing to take,” Henderson said during a recent interview with Ritts at the DA’s office. “I would tell these people to talk to a true addict. They are not waking up in the morning and saying ‘I’m going to be using today and want to be an addict.’”
“They have a terrible disease. It’s a challenge for an addict to become clean,” the sheriff added. “Jim and I sit and talk with their families. We talk and listen.”
“Kevin and I have known way too many of these people. These are good kids. This isn’t ‘the other side of the tracks’ kind of thing,” Ritts said. “This problem is just invasive in every community, and it is killing good kids. Those kids really should be at the beginning of a great life, but for some reason they are dealing with emotional pain in a dangerous way.”
Henderson and Ritts spoke to the Times shortly after a Gorham man, Donald Everson, was charged with manslaughter in the overdose death of 31-year-old Justin Meath last October. Police believe Everson sold fentanyl to Meath and another person just before both overdosed.
The other person was revived by emergency responders with Narcan. Efforts to revive Meath were unsuccessful.
The charges against Everson, which include felony sale of a controlled substance, are part of an effort by Henderson and Ritts to more aggressively prosecute dealers whose drugs can be connected to a fatal overdose. Henderson said it was a stance started by his predecessor, longtime county Sheriff Phil Povero, who started a special investigation (narcotics) unit to focus on drug sales.
That unit, along with officers from the Geneva and Canandaigua police departments, is part of a county task force that meets regularly to talk about local drug investigations. Those officers are also in contact with drug investigators in nearby counties.
“We’re listening to people and focused on aggressively making sure we do our best, every day. Since I’ve taken over as sheriff, we’ve added another narcotics investigator. We now have five in that division,” Henderson said. “I’m willing to expend the money if we need more. If we can save one life, it will be worth it.”
“We are absolutely going to be aggressive in the prosecution of people who are selling drugs in this county. Kevin’s folks have done a real good job identifying these people and investigating overdoses as homicides to begin with,” Ritts added. “In this specific case, the investigation was done and we felt it warranted an aggressive approach from a prosecution angle. That is what you are going to see going forward with these cases.”
While today’s opioid epidemic started from addiction to heroin and prescription drugs, Henderson and Ritts said it’s common knowledge that fentanyl is the drug responsible for the vast majority of overdoses across the country. Despite the risk of overdose and death, addicts are still knowingly using it.
“They call it heroin, but everybody probably understands it’s not heroin,” Henderson said. “Talk to the addict, and they will tell you they are willing to take the risk.”
“Everybody is buying and selling fentanyl, but it depends on who is cutting it and it’s being stomped on,” Ritts added. “One day it will be like taking crushed-up Advil, and the next day you are putting elephant tranquilizer in your blood. There’s no consistency and it’s so dangerous.”
Although most people who overdose on fentanyl are categorized as young adults, a range from late teens to early to mid-30s, Henderson said there was a recent overdose to a middle-aged woman at her place of work.
“This female came into work, and right after that a co-worker heard a noise in the restroom. She hadn’t been to work for five minutes and she had a needle in her arm,” he said. “We actually had two overdoses that day, including a 28-year-old mother with kids in the house.”
“Opioids are developed to cure pain, but not all pain is physical,” Ritts added. “What we are finding is that more people are dealing with childhood experiences or trauma, or just giving up. Maybe they can’t find a job.”
Henderson said the sheriff’s office, along with the public health department, have started an overdose map being used by all police agencies in the county — including state police — to see where overdoses are happening. That can help determine where the sales are happening.
“There are a lot of red dots,” Henderson said.
Henderson and Ritts said if the investigation and evidence warrants it, more overdoses will become homicide prosecutions.
“I’m going to support my men and women, who go out looking for where the drugs are being sold. They keep me in the loop constantly and sometimes I go out with them,” Henderson said. “We are going after this stuff. If we take fentanyl off the street that could go to someone that afternoon, we have done our job. This should send a message to the dealer that if you come in and deal drugs in Ontario County, you are going to pay the ultimate price — you are going to prison.”