Crime & Courts

McHenry family, local officials work to curb fentanyl-related deaths

Stop Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act introduced this year

Tammy Roach-Searcy knew her son, Michael Roach, struggled with cocaine abuse in the past, but she never expected a drug that wasn’t on her radar would kill him.

Prosecutors charged Jessica D. Chapman and Patrick D. Milton with supplying the 28-year-old with the fentanyl-tainted heroin that he overdosed on Aug. 31, 2017. As Roach-Searcy and others like her hope to see fentanyl-related deaths lead to criminal convictions, a proposed bill could make it easier for prosecutors to put fentanyl dealers behind bars.

“This was not an accidental overdose,” Roach-Searcy said. “When you’re calling it an accidental overdose, the term ‘overdose’ removes the liability of those pedaling the poison for profit.”

On Aug. 23, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan signed a letter urging Congress to approve the Stop Overdoses of Fentanyl Analogues Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year.

Fentanyl is a potent, synthetic opioid that sometimes is mixed with heroin and other opioids. The bill would make it illegal to possess or deliver substances that are made of similar ingredients and have a similar effect.

“It’s a little bit of a cat-and-mouse game, especially between law enforcement and the people who are producing this stuff,” McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally said. “The idea being that if you can engineer it so that it falls outside the chemical definition, then it’s legal.”

Madigan’s signature was among
52 tacked onto a recent letter urging Congress to pass the SOFA Act.

“Sadly, fentanyl and its analogues have made their way onto our streets with alarming regularity, and overdose deaths related to fentanyl now surpass deaths related to heroin,” the letter read.

Kenneally has been outspoken about the area’s opioid crisis, and he has made an effort to prosecute the dealers who supply drugs that lead to overdose deaths, such as Roach’s.

“A lot of times people who have used heroin for a long time are looking for the strongest possible stuff in order to get their fix, which is why fentanyl is cut with this stuff in the first place,” Kenneally said. “And the drug dealers aren’t trying to kill their customers. They don’t want to do that, but they want their customers coming back, and if they cut it with fentanyl and heroin, that leads to a more intense high.”

When Roach’s family goes to court, their presence in the front row is a sea of purple – the color that symbolizes overdose awareness. The family matches in custom-made T-shirts with photos of Roach’s body, the alleged dealers’ mugshots and the words “dealing death.”

With her brightly colored purple hair, Roach-Searcy seems relentless in her quest to bring justice to her son’s death. Occasionally, there is a silent reach across the bench for a hand to hold or a muffled cry in the courtroom as the mother is reminded of her loss.

“Many of them made a choice to use drugs, but never to die. Many of them were very sick,” Roach-Searcy said. “Though this choice was not made alone, it’s time that all drug dealers and drug traffickers be held accountable.”

The county has not yet encountered forms of fentanyl that are not already illegal, but the idea isn’t far-fetched, Kenneally said. The proposed catch-all law is not unlike those targeting the sale of a synthetic cannabinoid known as “spice” or “K2,” he said.

The new law explicitly would outlaw 13 different forms of fentanyl.

Locally, fentanyl overdoses caused
18 deaths last year – that’s more than twice the amount reported in McHenry County in 2015, according to the coroner’s records.

With heroin and opioid use also on the rise, the best defense against fentanyl distribution is a collaborative attack on drugs in general, Kenneally said.

“You need, first and foremost, a strong recovery community. Secondly, you need to make sure help is available for anyone that wants it, and third, you need strong law enforcement practices ... and you need a strong community,” he said.

Arming people with overdose treatments, such as naloxone, and encouraging parents to talk to their kids about drugs are additional measures used to curb fentanyl overdoses, Kenneally and Assistant State’s Attorney John Gibbons said.

Roach-Searcy and members of her family already carry naloxone, but until the law becomes a large enough deterrent to fentanyl dealers, the mother will continue to make it clear they’re “dealing death.”

“We will not be silenced,” she said. “When bad things happen to good people, they grieve, they suffer, then they resolve not to let it happen to somebody else.”

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