New tactics used to fight heroin problem

Prompted by a large influx of heroin into the parish in 2013, Baton Rouge police realized they needed to change the way they investigated deaths that resulted from overdoses of the dangerous drug.

Law enforcement officers seized 3,807 grams — or 8.3 pounds — of heroin in the parish in 2013. A year earlier, officers seized a quarter-pound of heroin — 117.7 grams.

Overdose deaths also saw a significant spike from 2012 to 2013, increasing from 5 to 34.

“It’s a concern to us because it has crossed over so many social and economic boundaries unlike in the past and we have seen so many deaths,” said Sgt. Mary Ann Godawa, a Baton Rouge police spokeswoman. “We are doing everything in our power to fight this battle.”

Baton Rouge polices are determined to work the cases more aggressively and have assigned a narcotics detective, whom Godawa declined to identify, to monitor every heroin overdose death in the city and keep officials abreast of the investigations.

One of those investigations resulted in the Monday arrest of Brandon Eirick, 30, 11414 Bard Ave., Baton Rouge, who admitted to giving his girlfriend heroin on Dec. 18, one day before she died.

Eirick sits in a cell in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in the death of his girlfriend Leah Hutchinson, 31, after police arrested him using a provision in the state’s second-degree murder statute that allows police to arrest someone on murder for distributing or dispensing an illegal drug proven to be the direct cause of the user’s death.

An arrest warrant says Eirick drove out to Mall City on Dec. 18 to buy heroin from someone he did not know, then met Hutchinson. The two were later found unresponsive in a car on Florida Boulevard and taken to a nearby hospital. Eirick admitted to detectives while in the hospital that he gave Hutchinson the heroin, which is the probable cause police say they used to arrest him.

Eirick already had been imprisoned on counts of possession of heroin when officers booked him in connection with Hutchinson’s death.

He is the second person authorities have arrested in the parish in the past six months using that provision.

“You don’t have to physically shoot up somebody,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said. “You can just have to be the provider of the drug.”

Hutchinson’s family declined comment Wednesday.

This arrest comes on the heels of award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s suspected heroin-related death Sunday.

In that case, New York police arrested four people late Tuesday accused of supplying Hoffman with the drugs even though police have not obtained evidence to solidify the connection.

Hoffman’s death has attracted national attention to the resurgence of heroin, something that local officials said has been on their radar for a while.

“The increased use and sale of heroin is very alarming and something our agency is definitely seeking to deter,” East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said. “It is imperative that those in the community understand how dangerous this drug is.”

Officials say combining the reduced sentences for heroin distribution the Legislature enacted in 2001 with the rise in opiate prescription pill abuse and the amount of heroin flowing into south Louisiana from Houston and Atlanta along the Interstate 10 corridor has fueled the local heroin market.

“It’s kind of been this reverberating cycle between the prescription drug epidemic and heroin use,” said Terry Davis, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s New Orleans Field Office. “One is kind of feeding the other.”

As the deaths began piling up in 2013, Clark decided to review some of the suspicious deaths in which heroin was not perceived to have been a factor. He was shocked to find that in most cases, a heroin overdose was the cause of death because there were no signs around the body, like the ubiquitous needle and spoon, to signify heroin was used. That proved to him that heroin was hitting all walks of life.

“It crosses all socioeconomic layers; it’s in men and women, it’s in young and old, it’s in rich and poor,” he said. “Anything you want to label it, it goes across.”

He said investigators have responded to heroin overdoses in traveling businessmen in their 50s, college-age students and people huddled together in vehicles shooting up together. They also responded to overdoses in Baker and Zachary, not just Baton Rouge.

“Really, it stretched across those barriers,” he said. “It’s been fairly equitable to be appreciated in all areas.”

In the toxicology reports performed in all deaths, other illicit drugs used to cut heroin, such as PCP, were found in the heroin overdose victims, making an already deadly drug more dangerous, Clark said.

Other drugs that are not used to cut heroin, such as Valium and other opiates, also were found in most of the victims, though heroin was the only one present at toxic levels, he said.

“Heroin is the one that will kill you,” he said.

Police also noted the presence of other drugs, such as Xanax, in the systems of overdose victims.

In the first overdose in which an arrest was made, the victim was Flavia Cardenas. Her boyfriend, Jarret McCasland, is accused of administering a fatal injection of heroin. Authorities have said McCasland also was given cocaine.

A witness told sheriff’s deputies she saw McCasland inject Cardenas on July 25 because she did not know how to inject herself and relied on him to do it. McCasland was indicted on second-degree murder charges on Nov. 13, but no trial date has been set.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.