‘People are dying’

GREENFIELD — It wasn’t the kind of thing Edie Horan expected to hear about her son.

Landis Bussell was a good-time guy, eager to please and make new friends. He was always up for a party, to share a few drinks and have a good time.

But drugs? His mother didn’t think so.

But after a few drinks one summer day in 2013, a buddy offered him heroin, a 12-inch line of the drug. Bussell gave in, passed out and never awoke. He was 27.

Stories like Horan’s are cropping up too often in Hancock County, prompting the county’s two largest law enforcement agencies to seek additional funding for detectives who can dedicate their time to drug investigations — to save lives like Bussell’s.

The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and Greenfield Police Department each plan to hire a narcotics officer, and officials say these two investigators will work together to curb heroin use before it becomes an epidemic here.

Currently, the departments’ detectives split their time between narcotics and other investigations. Officers say it’s common for them to spend an entire work week on one narcotics case, leaving cases involving other crimes untouched.

This week, after months of prodding from sheriff’s department leaders, the Hancock County Council deemed the narcotics problem an emergency, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy. The council voted to allocate $100,000 from the county’s reserve funds to pay for the salary of a new detective who will be dedicated to narcotics investigations.

At the same time, the Greenfield City Council gave preliminary approval to Chief John Jester’s request to hire two police officers next year. One of those officers will focus on drug cases, Jester said.

Overdose deaths on rise

Officials said the hires will fill a gap that has existed in local law enforcement since 2010, when the city/county drug task force was disbanded after allegations arose that an officer had dipped into funds intended for drug buys.

The effort piggybacks on the announcement this year that officers would begin carrying a lifesaving medication to treat overdose victims. Narcan, a brand name of the prescription drug naloxone, can reverse the effects of a prescription opioid or heroin overdose.

Police announced in May the medication would be distributed to officers in hopes of addressing the county’s problem with narcotics.

A wide range of drugs fall under the umbrella of narcotics, including cocaine and many prescription medications. But police and probation officials say heroin, an opium-based narcotic, is growing in popularity among Hancock County’s drug users, and it’s likely the cause on a increasing number of overdoses here.

For the past two to three years, the county has seen 14 to 18 overdose deaths annually, and about 60 percent of those were heroin-related, deputy coroner Rudy Nylund said.

In the first six months of this year, there have been 10 overdose deaths, six of which were heroin-related. That sets the county up to potentially double the number of overdose deaths it sees annually by the end of the year, officials said.

“It seems like it’s escalating, and I don’t see an end to that escalation,” Burkhart said. “People are dying.”

Fatal attraction

The problem with heroin is it knows no bounds, officials said. Users come from every demographic, and it’s cheaper and easier to access than other drugs.

Amy Ikerd, a crime prevention specialist for the Hancock County Probation Department, said her office has seen increased use of the drug among its 18- to 24-year-old probationers.

Heroin is landing an increasing number of people in local emergency rooms, said Rob Matt, Hancock Regional Hospital’s chief operating officer. In 2013, six people were treated for a heroin overdose. In 2014, that number increased to 11. So far this year, 12 people have received treatment.

Heroin seems to be causing a bigger problem than any other drug, Jester said.

“Heroin doesn’t care. You can be rich, you can be poor. But once it gets a hold of you, you’re an addict,” he said.

That’s what happened to her son, Horan said. About three weeks before his death, Bussell came to his mother and told her he had tried heroin for the first time. He was ashamed and admitted it was a stupid mistake, she said.

“I said to him, ‘Once you do it, you will do it again. You will die,’” Horan said.

She was right. Weeks later, she buried her son.

Today, she shares Bussell’s story in hopes of keeping other parents from suffering the way she has. She wants people to understand the danger.

“People think they’re bigger than it, but you’re not — you’re not bigger than this drug,” she said.

No typical case

Each case registered as an overdose is turned over to law enforcement for investigation.

Narcotics cases are traditionally more time-consuming than the investigations surrounding other crimes, Burkhart said. They usually start with some sort of tip, but even those are hard to come by, he said. Drug use is more secretive than alcohol, for example. There aren’t usually parties or gatherings for police to break up.

Often the case starts with a dead body, the victim of an overdose, Burkhart said. Police are then forced to work backward, tracing the path the drugs took from the victim to a dealer they might or might not find.

There is no typical narcotics investigation, said sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Rasche, the head of the sheriff’s department’s investigations unit. Some can be quick and wrapped up in a few hours; others can take six months to a year, he said.

Recently, he and fellow sheriff’s detective Sgt. Bridget Foy racked up more than 16 hours of overtime between them during a four-day investigation that occurred after a heroin overdose death in New Palestine.

Foy, who took the lead on the case, arrested a dealer in Marion County; but that meant about 10 other cases were left untouched for a week.

“She did a great job, but she had to prioritize, which isn’t necessarily fair to those other victims,” Rasche said. “We’re a small department, and we have to do what we can.”

The same can be said for the Greenfield department, said detective Lt. Randy Ratliff, who oversees the department’s investigations unit. When a narcotics user or dealer turns up in Greenfield, the investigation often lasts 40 to 60 hours, he said.

There is a short window of time to make a heroin-related arrest as well, Prosecutor Brent Eaton said. Unless police catch a dealer ready to sell the drug or an addict about to use it, drug users don’t seem to keep the drug on hand for long.

“With heroin, people get it and use it,” Eaton said. “That makes it harder to press charges.”

A trickle-down effect

When methamphetamine seemed to be the most popular drug in central Indiana, Greenfield officials were thankful the city had far fewer problems with the drug, Jester said.

But the city hasn’t had the same luck with heroin, he said. As neighboring jurisdictions have reported increases, Greenfield has followed suit.

Officers suspects the drugs’ highly addictive nature might be having an effect on other crimes as well. The area has seen an increase in the number of burglaries so far this year, police said, and it’s common for those involved to be heroin users looking for a means to feed their habit.

“If we take down a ring of people doing robberies, a large percentage of those people are usually heroin addicts,” Rasche said. “And they are usually open to talking about (their drug use). Some are even relieved to have been caught because we can get them help.”

Eaton said his office has been working with the probation department to create more severe penalties for those who violate their probation by using drugs.

For many years, a failed drug screen would land a probationer in jail for a day or two followed by home detention, Eaton said. Those penalties likely will increase for those found with opioids in their system.

“It’s for these people’s own safety and well-being,” Eaton said.

Additionally, police are exploring starting public education programs to increase awareness about drug use in the county, Rasche and Eaton said. They hope to bring lecturers into local schools to teach the county’s young people about the effects heroin can have on the body, in addition to teaching residents key characteristics of heroin use and users.

‘Just too close to us’

Officials hope the new officers will help to counter the reactive approach they’ve been forced to adopt with narcotics investigations. With both the county and the city poised to receive new officers, the two departments hope to reverse the trend of heroin abuse.

On the county level, council members say they have to act now.

County councilman Kent Fisk noted the county’s reserve funds are earmarked for emergencies and said an issue this severe certainly qualifies.

Fisk’s daughter works for Fairbanks, a drug rehabilitation facility in Indianapolis, and he said he has heard horror stories about substance abuse.

“It’s just too close to us,” he said. “I said, ‘You know, this is gonna get out of hand fast.’ Hopefully, this’ll give a jump start to slowing that down.”

For families like Horan’s, news of the additional officers comes as a welcome surprise. Horan said she’s hopeful a focus on heroin will lead to change.

“You have to stop it where it starts; because if they never try it in the first place, they’ll never know (the addiction),” she said. “It doesn’t just ruin your life, it ruins families.”

Pull Quote

“Once you do it, you will do it again. You will die.”

Edie Horan, on heroin abuse. Horan’s son died at 27 from an overdose.

At a glance

For the past two to three years, the county has seen 14 to 18 overdose deaths annually; 60 percent have been heroin-related. In the first six months of 2015, there have been 10 overdose deaths, six from heroin; that sets the county up to potentially double the number of overdose deaths it sees annually by the end of the year.

Source: Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, Hancock County Coroner’s Office

Emergency treatment

In the past few years, emergency room doctors have seen an increase in the number of patients coming to the ER for treatment for a heroin overdose.

2013: 6

2014: 11

2015: 12 so far this year

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.