BR homicide case highlights heroin resurgence

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Heroin called new drug of choice for being cheaper, yet stronger

A local man has been booked with second-degree murder, accused of administering a fatal dose of heroin to his 19-year-old girlfriend, an unusual case that highlights the resurgence of the highly addictive opiate in south Louisiana.

Jarret Jean McCasland, 24, of Denham Springs, is accused of injecting the drugs into Flavia Cardenas hours before she died of a heroin overdose at her Baton Rouge home.

East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s officials arrested him Wednesday under a law that enables authorities to charge someone with murder for distributing or dispensing an illegal drug proven to be the direct cause of the user’s death.

“It is a difficult case to make,” District Attorney Hillar Moore III said, “but it’s one that can be made and one that has been made in the past.”

The death underscores the return of heroin as a local drug of choice in the Baton Rouge area.

East Baton Rouge Parish had a total of five fatal heroin overdoses last year; thus far this year, the parish has seen 11 suspected heroin deaths.

“We’re over double already and we’ve got four months left in the year,” said Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner. “It’s scary.”

Heroin has emerged as a cheaper alternative to pain-numbing prescription pills, which have been increasingly targeted by authorities in a crackdown on doctor shopping.

What’s more, the heroin on the streets today is stronger than in years past, Clark said.

“People are taking their same volume of drug — which is three times more potent — and dying just like that,” Clark said.

Overdoses are seen among drug users who leave rehabilitation then, after relapsing, use the same amount of heroin as they did before entering a recovery program.

In those cases, Clark said, the drug users are no longer accustomed to the drug, and their tolerance levels have fallen to that of a beginner.

The heroin boom has been seen across the country in the sheer volume of the drug investigators are pulling off the streets.

Casey Rayborn Hicks, an East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said detectives seized 21.6 grams of heroin in 2012. That number has soared to 122 grams seized so far this year.

“Heroin was virtually non-existent for many years, so we’re certainly seeing more of it than we used to, although it’s still in relatively small amounts compared to other illegal drugs,” said Lt. Don Kelly of the Baton Rouge Police Department, which has seized 198.9 grams so far this year, up from 96.1 grams in 2012.

Earlier this month, five people were indicted in Baton Rouge on racketeering and drug charges in what authorities described as the breakup of a major heroin ring.

And last month, Livingston Parish deputies raided a home and seized 22 grams of heroin.

Days later, sheriff’s officials in Ascension Parish seized 2 ounces of black tar heroin and other drugs in a raid off La. 44 in Gonzales.

“We got heroin here,” said Capt. Ty Patin, of the Iberville Parish Sheriff’s Office. “What we learned is that people are turning to heroin because it’s cheaper by the dose and the effects last much, much longer.”

State officials pointed to the high cost of — and crackdown on — prescription pain pills as one of the reasons drug users are returning to heroin.

“Drugs sort of swing on pendulums,” said Kenneth Saucier, regional services director for the Office of Behavioral Health and a licensed clinical social worker. “Heroin is making a comeback because there is such a high focus on the abuse of prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin and all those opiates, that it’s easier and cheaper to get heroin.”

A new report issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said, of the people reporting, 373,000 said they used heroin in 2007, while 620,000 said they used it in 2011.

Over that same time span, the number of people who reported being addicted to heroin jumped from 179,000 to 369,000, the report said.

Law enforcement officials said the softening of sentencing laws for heroin-related offenses also has affected heroin use and distribution.

In 2001, Louisiana lawmakers lowered the penalty for distribution of heroin from life to between five and 50 years.

Proponents of the change argued a life sentence for heroin was draconian and unnecessary at a time when prisons are teeming with nonviolent offenders.

At a news conference in June, local authorities said they would seek to track the origin of the heroin in the overdose deaths.

In the death of Cardenas, investigators said a witness saw McCasland inject his girlfriend with cocaine and heroin at the witness’ home July 25. This witness, who was not identified in court papers, told sheriff’s officials that Cardenas didn’t know how to inject herself with the syringe and relied on McCasland to administer the drugs.

After leaving the witness’ residence, McCasland and Cardenas arrived at her mother’s home arguing about “some content on the victim’s cellular phone,” according to an arrest warrant.

Cardenas’ mother, Nancy Cardenas, told authorities her daughter seemed angry but had otherwise been acting normally. About 2:15 a.m., the mother decided to make McCasland leave and went to her daughter’s bedroom, the warrant said. When she entered the room, she found her daughter to be lethargic.

McCasland did not want to leave and began yelling and slamming doors, the warrant said. He allegedly began beating on his girlfriend’s window and blowing the horn of his truck.

“The victim’s mother advised it was odd how her daughter, the victim, could sleep through that entire incident,” the warrant said. “However, she thought she was tired and let her sleep.”

Nancy Cardenas returned to her daughter’s room the next morning and, after finding her unresponsive, called for medical personnel.

Flavia Cardenas was taken to a local hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy determined she died of a heroin overdose.

Moore said he has not encountered such a homicide case in his five years as district attorney.

The parish has seen similar cases in the past, such as a grand jury indictment in 2002 that charged two people with second-degree murder in the death of a woman who overdosed on Ecstasy.

One of the defendants, Heather Smith, pleaded guilty to manslaughter, while another, Randall Corbett, was convicted at trial of negligent homicide in the death of Marsha Fisher.

Corbett, Smith and Fisher had been friends who used drugs together. After Fisher began having an adverse reaction to the Ecstasy on the day in question, they waited several hours before calling for help.

In 2001, a grand jury returned murder charges against two men accused of giving GHB, gamma hydroxybutyric acid, often dubbed the “date rape drug,” to a college student at a party. The student, Timothy Mathis, left the party and collapsed in bed at his mother’s home, where he was found dead hours later.

Charles Coleman and Michael Meagher faced life sentences if convicted of murder, but both pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of negligent homicide.

Ryan Broussard can be reached at rybroussard@theadvocate.com and Jim Mustian can be reached at jmustian@theadvocate.com.