(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 18, 2017)
Pontiac, MI – A dozen Oakland County residents have been charged with selling heroin mixed with fentanyl, seven of whom were charged with distribution resulting in death, revealed Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard in a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
The arrests come from a multi-jurisdictional effort to break up an alleged drug ring that spanned at least counties that was based mainly in Pontiac. Known as “The Team,” they reportedly used to trap houses in Pontiac and the texted code word “fire” to alert customers when product was available. Sales were made at the houses, as well via deliveries to homes and to public places such as strip mall parking lots.
The Federally-prosecuted case came together with the help of many local agencies including Oakland County Sheriff’s Department’s Narcotics Enforcement Team (NET), Michigan State Police, ICE, DEA and local police including Farmington Hills, Farmington, Birmingham, Southfield, Ferndale, Bloomfield Township, White Lake, Troy, Rochester, Royal Oak, Hazel Park, Auburn Hills and Waterford. The indictment was made public by Acting US Attorney Daniel L. Lemisch.
Because of the nature of Federal cases, Bouchard could not give details as to who the victims were, or even the number of deaths. But he did put into context that this case was a “complex case to put together” because of the challenge in tying distributors to deaths, it is also only a small piece of the big picture of the opioid problem in the community and nation-wide.
DEATHS AND SAVES
In Oakland County heroin and other drug-related deaths are on the decline because of the use of Naloxone, an antidote to opioids that often goes by the brand name Narcan, can be administered by law enforcement personnel and rescue workers to revive someone who is over-dosing.
The cost of approximately $28 per dose is funded through efforts by local nonprofits as well as through partnership with Oakland County Health Department. “Sometimes it can take three or four doses before someone starts to recover,” Bouchard said. “We’ve actually had people we’ve saved twice in one day.”
The Sheriff could not give the specific numbers for opioid deaths, in part because of the difficulty in testing for substances as part of the autopsy process. “The tests just aren’t that specific,” he said.
The list of Narcan saves, however, is clear. During the press conference Bouchard held up a computer-printed list nearly as tall as himself listing the scores of successful resuscitations.
COMPASSION FOR VICTIMS
“We see it among all ages, in all communities, all income levels,” he said. One surprising trend, he said, was among teenagers who had been prescribed opoids for broken bones or oral surgery and became addicted. He explained that teens would continue to seek the pills and be faced with a choice. “It might be $75 or $80 for a pill, or what is it for a bindle of heroin, $15, $18,” he said.
In Oakland County, the approach has been to save lives and encourage people to get help, however there are challenges to that.
The Village of Holly and the City of Ferndale have instituted “Hope Not Handcuffs” programs where people with drug or alcohol addictions can walk into the police station and request help. Stations are equipped with comforting items and police will either refer to medical care or provide a safe space until a certified volunteer can arrive to connect the person with help and resources to quit.
However the program has yet to be implemented county-wide. Bouchard said the reason is simply a lack of resources. “If you do that, you need to have certain things. You have to have the resources to help them, the number of beds available.”
There are more people that need help with addiction, than programs and resources to help them. Though Bouchard said they continue to look at programs like Hope Not Handcuffs for possible solutions.
“We’ve said for a long time that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem,” he said. “”It has to be a systemic addressing of the situation: prevention, treatment and diversion. But there is a very important part for law enforcement, and that is to go after the profiteers of this death.”
Bouchard said the history of incidents involved in this case goes back to 2013, with two gangs – “Hustle Boys” and “Wall Street Gorillaz” joining together to sell heroin and heroin laced with fentanyl. Those accused of distribution are:
Timothy Williams, 26, of Pontiac
• Kristopher Anderson, 40, of Pontiac
• Deaire Rayford, 26, of Auburn Hills
• Christopher Light, 25, of Commerce
• Kourvoisiea Pittman, 27, of Keego Harbor
• Robert Bell, Jr., 28, of Pontiac
• Deandre Mullen, 26, of Pontiac
• Steven Erkins, 24, of Pontiac
• Anthony Lee, 27,of Pontiac
• Quanzay Milton, 32, of Pontiac
• Antonio Bell, 26, of Waterford
• James Bellmore, 50, of Waterford
If convicted each suspect could face 20 years to life in prison.
ADVOCATING FOR CHANGES IN LAW
Sheriff Bouchard talked about changes to laws that would make combating opioids more effective.
One would be to require physicians to enter prescriptions into a database that would flag multiple prescriptions written to the same person. “There is a system now but it’s voluntary,” he said. “So you don’t know if this person goes to the doctor, gets a prescription filled at Rite Aid, then goes to the next doctor then goes up the street to Walgreens to get that prescription filled and those pills end up on the street.”
He said databases like this have helped in other states, including Florida where opioid prescriptions declined after the database was put into effect.
Bouchard would also like the ability to share information with the Health Department and the court system when someone is revived with Narcan. “When we save somebody’s life, we can’t tell anyone,” he said. “There’s no intervention after.”
Another law that Bouchard mentioned was in regard to wiretapping, stating that working with Federal investigators was useful because in Michigan local and state agencies cannot use wiretapping in an investigation, but that the Feds could.
Even the ability for first responders to carry and use Narcan required some lobbying in Lansing, and became legal in 2016. Also in 2016 the state allowed pharmacists to dispense it without a prescription, and also to allow schools to have it on hand.
He also cited “porous borders” as another challenge in the fight to keep drugs out of the country.
Bouchard said that the opioid use of the past several years is the worst drug problem he’s seen in his career, including the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s, because of the pervasiveness ad the increase of tainted substances.
“It is important for moms and dads out there, brothers and sisters, that have been touched by this opioid epidemic to know this is our top priority. To know that we’re part of the diversion and treatment, and saving lives, but we’re also part of the punishing, and taking off the street the people that are selling this crap.”