For 153 drug addicts in Volusia County last year, the final dose was fatal. This year may be worse.
Opioids probably caused all of them.
Friday, March 16: Death in room 26
Charles Chancery cried audibly and paced the cracked black pavement outside the Boulevard Motel. He paused to look up toward the setting sun, hands resting on his head.
Inside room 26, his friend, Paul Gagne Jr., lay dead on the floor.
Chancery’s sobs pierced the relative peace of the parking lot and mixed with the drone of Friday afternoon traffic along North Woodland Boulevard in DeLand. He finished a cigarette, then got into a gray Kia Soul with his wife, another man and the deceased's pitbull, Chevy. As they waited for Animal Control, Chancery stared at the motel room door in disbelief.
“We were bulls----ing all night, laughing, watching TV, listening to music. I was just sitting right there joking with (Gagne),” Chancery told a News-Journal reporter.
Around 3 p.m., Chancery left Gagne alone in the motel room. When he returned about a half hour later, Gagne was still stretched out on the floor where he’d been watching TV, investigators said. Only Gagne, 37, was now dead.
Chancery and his wife had rented the motel room to get away from their roommates, said Volusia County Sheriff's Office Detective Jayson Paul, a Deltona property crimes investigator working a night-shift rotation.
“(Gagne) just got booted from the place where he was staying, but it’s unknown why,” Paul said at the scene of Gagne's death. “The friends said they had no knowledge of current drug use.”
But Chancery had been more forthcoming in a call to 9-1-1.
“I was trying to help him,” Chancery told a dispatcher just after he discovered Gagne dead. “He said he didn’t want to get high but he had urges. I’ve been in recovery almost six years so I invited him over.”
Chancery's recovery hasn't been smooth, either.
In 2013, he was convicted of burglary and dealing in stolen property. He violated his probation on those charges when he tested positive in August 2017 for oxycodone, other opiates and cocaine, court records show.
Chancery was sentenced to two years of drug offender probation, including 60 days of in-patient drug treatment. During treatment he met Gagne, who had violated probation on a drug offense.
“We just freakin’ connected, it was awesome,” Chancery said. “I don’t trust people at all, but I did with him.”
When Chancery found Gagne on the motel room floor — eyes open but unresponsive — he tried to perform CPR.
“He had something coming out of his mouth," Chancery, 30, told The News-Journal. "It was black and it stank really bad whatever it was. He was just frozen cold.”
After 16 years in law enforcement, Paul said such scenes no longer shock him.
“I was a state trooper before and saw a lot of dead bodies at crash sites,” he said. “I hate to say you get used to it, but you know where that switch is. You just have to flip the switch to respond to the call.”
In Chancery’s motel room, investigators found a crack pipe, a methamphetamine pipe and syringe caps but no syringes, said Paul.
“The room looks like it was cleaned before we got here,” Paul said. “There was no needle in (Gagne’s) arm, no crack pipe in his hand, so it’s speculation (to say he overdosed).”
Gagne’s obituary, posted on a funeral home website, said he was born in Salem, Massachusetts, and lived in that area until he moved to Florida three years ago.
Gagne quickly became known to local law enforcement. Arrest photos illustrate his physical decline. His buzzed-short blond hair and trim goatee stayed the same, but his face grew increasingly gaunt.
In June 2015, Gagne was accused of stealing from a Publix. The following month, police found cocaine, a used glass pipe and a scale during a traffic-stop search of his vehicle. He was arrested five more times in 2016 and 2017 for retail theft and possession of cannabis, cocaine and Dilaudid — an opioid prescribed to treat pain.
Chancery's memories of Gagne were kinder. “He was very caring, very compassionate, loyal. He would give you the shirt off his back, even if it was the last thing he owned,” he said.
Later, as medical examiners rolled by with Gagne's covered body, Chancery leaned against the motel porch post two doors down from his room, his forearm blocking his eyes. Then he got back in his car and drove away. He returned alone a few minutes later, packed up his belongings and dropped off his room key.
An autopsy shows Gagne died from the combined effects of several drugs: heroin, fentanyl, acetyl fentanyl (a powerful, fentanyl-like synthetic opioid), hydromorphone, alprazolam (commonly known as Xanax) and cocaine.
Chancery quit a court-mandated outpatient drug treatment program in May, violating his probation, court records show. He now sits in jail awaiting trial on aggravated battery and domestic battery charges.
'It touches all of us'
They died in rented rooms at faded roadside motels.
They died close together in houses built on the banks of Deltona’s lakes.
They died in quiet neighborhoods with well-manicured lawns.
They died inside bedrooms and bathrooms near busy street corners where buses picked up and dropped off school children.
The dead were daughters, sons and trusted friends. One was a mother. At least two were fathers.
All of them had a history of drug use.
Over a 48-day stretch — March 16 to May 2 — The News-Journal joined Sheriff's Office investigators at the scenes of six deaths suspected to be heroin, fentanyl or prescription opioid overdoses based on drug paraphernalia and witness statements.
At least three of those victims' addictions began with opioids prescribed to treat their physical or mental ailments, according to loved ones.
The opioid death trail is more crowded than ever.
In Volusia County alone, there were 153 drug-induced deaths in 2017 — up from 109 in 2016 — according to numbers provided by the Volusia County Medical Examiner's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Opioids caused or contributed to 130 of the drug-induced deaths in Volusia County last year, a 58.5 percent increase from the previous year.
It could've been much worse. Volusia County law enforcement and rescue workers used naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, 620 times last year, Sheriff's Office data shows.
In 2017, 94 percent of fatal overdose victims were white, and 65 percent were men.
As of late June this year, Volusia County first responders have been called to more than 400 suspected overdoses.
Those who investigate fatal overdoses do so from a place of personal understanding. They include a detective who has seen the dead bodies of former classmates, a sergeant who dreads a call notifying him an addicted loved one has died, a captain concerned with his staff's exposure to trauma and a sheriff engaged in an ongoing recovery effort with his son-in-law.
“It touches all of us. It goes across socioeconomic lines,” said Sheriff Mike Chitwood.
"I think people need to take a step back and realize this isn't a shooting gallery (where intravenous drug users gather) like it was maybe in the early '80s," he said. “These people are like me, they’re like you. They’re our next door neighbors. They’re our friends.”
Friday, March 30: A baby left behind
Jenna Miller died with her 20-month-old son in bed beside her.
They weren't at home. They had spent the night in Deltona with Miller's friend, Mary Harden.
When Harden checked on them about 9:45 a.m. on Good Friday, she found Miller "stiff and lifeless," according to a sheriff's report. Harden dialed 9-1-1.
“My friend — I don’t know what’s wrong. She won’t wake up,” Harden told the dispatcher. Her high-pitched voice and panicked breaths distorted her words. “I think she did opiates.”
Investigators stretched crime scene tape from a wooden fence at the beige-and-blue block home’s front corner, out to the mailbox and around Miller’s car parked parallel to the street.
Detective Shon McGuire briefed the Medical Examiner’s Office, started a death investigation report and contacted Miller’s parents. Her parents were more than an hour's drive away, en route to Fort Lauderdale for a friend's funeral.
“We’re not going to leave this house without the child,” McGuire assured Miller’s father. The boy played in a nearby yard in care of Harden’s mother.
McGuire spent the last three of his 15 years with the Sheriff’s Office investigating property crime, but recently moved to a new position investigating drug-facilitated deaths as homicides. He also compiles evidence against drug dealers for sale and delivery of narcotics, said Capt. Brian Henderson, commander of investigative services for the Sheriff's Office.
Harden approached McGuire’s open car door. Miller’s friend had called, she said, turning on her cellphone’s speaker so McGuire could listen in.
Harden told the man on the phone that she and Miller, 28, had bumped into each other and exchanged phone numbers the previous week at the office for Women, Infants and Children, a government program that provides assistance to young children and pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women.
The two were acquainted but had lost touch. “I didn’t even know she had a baby,” Harden told the caller. She added that Miller had phoned the previous night and asked to come over.
“I felt in my heart that maybe she was going through something yesterday that she wasn’t telling me about,” Harden, 36, said to the caller, her pink-highlighted blonde hair pulled back into a loose bun. She pressed a hand over her mouth to stifle her sobs. “I don’t know that she could’ve told me (in her condition). She wasn’t — uh, she wasn’t very talkative. I told her last night that she wasn’t driving.”
To McGuire, Harden said more. She described Miller as an “opioid and Xanax user,” McGuire said later. “(Miller) showed up last night and looked like she was possibly on heroin."
Miller passed out in a dining room chair, according to a sheriff’s report. Harden woke her and suggested she lie down in the spare bedroom.
“I took care of her,” Harden said to The News-Journal. “I put her to bed and took care of the baby.” She later put the boy in bed with his mother.
“I play the mother hen," she said. “I keep asking myself what I could have done differently."
McGuire secured Harden’s consent to search her home except for the bedroom she shared with her boyfriend, Ron Stidd.
In Miller's purse he found a needle and two pill bottles — Baclofen and an empty bottle of Tizanidine. Both are non-narcotic prescription muscle relaxers.
Harden and Stidd also have a history of opioid use. Harden's court records show charges for possession of heroin, Baclofen and cannabis, as well as charges of burglary, grand theft and dealing in stolen property. Over the past two decades, Stidd has faced dozens of charges including possession of heroin and other illicit substances.
As personnel from the Medical Examiner's Office loaded Miller’s body into a white van, three detectives searched her car. Amid trash and clothing strewn across seats and floorboards, McGuire discovered a glass pipe, a prescription list and what he estimated to be a gram of marijuana.
Miller’s parents, both in their 60s, arrived to take home their grandson and their daughter's car.
Jack Miller, a former police officer, said his daughter had been “getting treatment for anxiety for a long time. The doctor gives her pills, and she eats too many of them,” he told The News-Journal.
“We can see that she’s messed up but she insists she hasn’t taken anything. We know she’s lying,” he said. “As bad as this hurts, it isn’t unexpected.”
Jenna Miller’s troubles started about 10 years ago when the family relocated from Miami to DeLand, Jack Miller said.
“She hated moving,” he said. “She hasn’t been the same since.”
She accumulated charges in five different cases in 2011 and 2014 for retail theft, grand theft, driving under the influence and possession of Xanax and drug paraphernalia.
Two near-fatal drug episodes underlined the severity of her struggle with substance abuse, Jack Miller said.
She entered an Orlando rehab program two years ago after blacking out on a beach. And about a month before her death, he said, she overdosed again. “We found her unresponsive at home.”
To the detectives, he added, “She was on the floor and the baby was in the crib.”
As they talked, the child sat in the front seat of his mother’s Ford Taurus toying with a string of beads that hung from the rearview mirror. Janet Roberts, Jenna Miller’s mother, stood inside the open car door.
“The dad is in no position to care for the child,” Roberts, a retired nurse, told two Florida Department of Children and Families agents. “He’s unemployed, and he has warrants out for his arrest.”
Since 2006, the boy’s father, Christian Rivera, has been charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, credit card fraud, possession of cannabis and multiple counts of burglary, grand theft auto and dealing in stolen property, records show.
“I guess we’re going to go home now,” Roberts said to The News-Journal. “I’m not looking forward to facing her room. She was my only child,” she said, struggling to stay composed.
“Now we have the baby. This will change our lives dramatically.”
Miller and Roberts were granted temporary custody of their grandson on April 12, court records show.
Miller's death, according to an autopsy, resulted from intoxication from clonazepam — a medication prescribed to treat panic attacks, seizures and anxiety — and hydromorphone, an opioid.
An evolving epidemic
Chitwood recalls responding to the scene of a cancer death earlier in his law enforcement career as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department. He was tasked with inventorying a medicine cabinet.
“What’s this OxyContin stuff?” he wondered, and learned it was a painkiller for cancer patients.
“Three or four years later, I have knee surgery and I’m prescribed 100 of them,” said Chitwood. “We’ve created a whole generation of people who are addicted to these pills. The genie is out of the bottle — you can’t get it back in there now.”
In Volusia County, OxyContin and its variants began to show up in the late 1990s. Major drug manufacturers aggressively marketed the highly addictive pills to physicians across the country, who prescribed them as pain medication for numerous injuries and ailments. Within years, so-called pill mills had popped up all over Florida — including here — fueling an epidemic that stretched to other states.
Deputies saw a "huge surge of prescription pills being diverted (for illegitimate use), most of which were opioids," said Henderson, the investigations commander. "At one point in time, Florida prescribed more OxyContin than every other state in the country combined. The reason behind that is there was no prescription monitoring in our state."
At the pill mills, some doctors dispensed narcotics for a price. But physicians had no way of knowing if patients already had been prescribed pain pills from someone else, recalled Dr. Frank Farmer of Ormond Beach, who was Florida's surgeon general in 2011-12.
"We had people going to eight or 10 doctors a day to get OxyContin," said Farmer. Though OxyContin cost $60 to $70 a bottle, the street value was $40 to $50 per pill.
Farmer advocated for a drug registry to collect, monitor and analyze prescription data. The Prescription Drug Monitoring Program was signed into law in 2011, followed by legislation that made it easier to revoke medical licenses.
"We were able to shut down about 300 illegal pain (pill) mills in Florida and put 35 doctors in jail," said Farmer. As a result, distribution of OxyContin and similar opioids declined.
But demand did not.
The prescription monitoring program stopped "doctor shopping" almost overnight, Henderson said. "The problem is, you had all these people that were living in our communities that were addicted to pain pills, opioids, and they were physically dependent on them to the point where they were sick."
Local law enforcement expected the pill shortage to spawn a spike in heroin use, but it didn't happen right away. Meth manufacturing became a "major issue" first. Local agencies shut down 130 meth labs in the span of two or three years, Henderson said.
As meth production tapered off, heroin overdoses increased, said Henderson, a 17-year Sheriff's Office veteran. "But where we're at right now — I haven't seen anything like it."
The problem isn't just heroin, the most popular and inexpensive opioid on the street these days. Synthetic opioids also are available. One of the most dangerous is fentanyl.
Pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl is made in the U.S. and prescribed to treat severe pain, but most fentanyl sold on the street is manufactured in overseas labs and delivered through the mail.
This synthetic fentanyl is often added to heroin to increase its potency. The trouble is, fentanyl and related opioids known as fentanyl analogs may be "tens, hundreds or thousands of times more potent," Henderson said.
"That's where we see the death."
Monday, April 2: ‘I can’t let go’
Tamara Hernandez roused from sleep after noon in the master bedroom she shared with her boyfriend, Brian Jett, investigators said.
Jett, 32, wasn't in bed. She found him face down in their bathroom next to the toilet, according to a 9-1-1 call.
“There’s blood everywhere and he won’t move and he feels cold,” Hernandez said to the dispatcher, who gently pressed her for more information.
Where was the blood coming from? Was he breathing?
“It’s like black-looking water,” Hernandez said. “It looks like vomit.” Jett’s face, she said, was “all purple.”
Reality seemed to set in.
“I can’t let go,” she cried. “We’re drug addicts. I think (he overdosed).”
The black substance Hernandez described may indeed have been blood, a local health professional explained.
A drug overdose can induce a seizure, causing the victim to bite their tongue, said Dr. James Fenley, addiction medication specialist at Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare. Blood from the bite could appear to be black.
Jett’s recent drugs of choice were heroin and meth, Detective Sgt. Kyle McDaniel said. Jett and Hernandez had "bought a mixture of drugs" the previous evening, he said.
Near Jett’s naked body, investigators found a used syringe on a stand in the bathroom corner and a mixing straw.
While deputies combed the crime scene, a bus stopped near the corner lot Hernandez’s rental occupies on a busy thoroughfare between East Normandy and Saxon boulevards. Middle school students spilled from its doors and scattered along city sidewalks, calling out to each other and laughing.
“Unfortunately a lot of these kids are born with zero chance in hell of surviving. (Addiction) affects everything,” McDaniel said. “It affects me, it affects my family. It’s just the people that are willing to talk about it are few and far between.”
McDaniel was raised in a stable home by financially secure parents, he said. But his sister struggles with substance abuse.
“What’s sad is we were happy when she was in prison because we knew she was safe. We weren’t going to get a bad phone call (notifying us she had overdosed),” he said.
McDaniel and his wife have a young daughter, which also “brings a lot more emotion into it.” He recalled Jenna Miller’s death three days earlier.
“That (toddler found in bed with his dead mother), it makes it real,” he said. “My 2-year-old runs around the house all day (saying), ‘Mama, Daddy.’ If we weren’t there she would know.”
Jett had a history of auto and retail theft, burglary, dealing in stolen property and drug offenses dating back 15 years. He had eight felony convictions, and served three prison stints for charges including cocaine possession and sale/manufacture/distribution of meth, records show.
His most recent arrest was May 6, 2016. He was found sleeping in a hot-wired car strewn with pills, two white powder-covered spoons and a syringe, the arrest report states.
Jett was sentenced to 17 months in prison, but was released July 28, 2017.
His girlfriend, Hernandez, stayed inside her home during most of the death investigation. Milton Carrero, a sheriff's chaplain, prayed with her and “she felt some spiritual comfort,” Carrero said.
Hernandez, 45, told Carrero she had gotten clean in the past, but had relapsed nine weeks ago. “She’s desperately trying to get out,” he said.
Later, when medical examiners wheeled Jett’s body from the bathroom, Hernandez asked Carrero to pray once more.
“They stopped, and she put her hands on his body,” said Carrero. “She was angry at the people that are selling this stuff. She said, ‘I really want to get these suckers off the street.’”
Hernandez emerged from her home just once, after most detectives had left the scene.
She held a coffee mug in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and cried.
Carrero stood at her side. He put a hand on her shoulder and bowed his head.
'Addiction is an illness'
Understanding that addiction is a disease rather than a moral weakness is “one of the biggest things we struggle with in our culture,” said Fenley, the addiction medicine specialist.
Like heart disease or diabetes, addiction "has complications, it progresses.”
Fenley started practicing addiction medicine in 1984, and joined Stewart-Marchman-Act in December 2017. He likened addiction in its early stages to a single item on a tabletop filled with all the important things in life.
As the disease progresses, it pushes other priorities off the table — clinical health, emotional health, friends, financial security, maybe even marriage and children — Fenley said.
Fear of powerful cravings and the “physically most uncomfortable withdrawal a person can go through” drive an opioid user. Symptoms include sweats, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, horrible aches, back pain and sinus issues. "They’re completely miserable,” he said.
It takes a crisis for addicts to realize what they’ve lost — if they live long enough.
“With the presence of fentanyl now and other drugs that are so deadly, a patient can overdose and die before they ever have any mental clarity,” said Fenley.
At Stewart-Marchman-Act, he practices medication-assisted treatment — administering drugs such as morphine, suboxone and Vivitrol that stop cravings and reduce the anxiety and depression that pair with addiction. That allows the patient’s brain to return to an “opiate naïve” state, Fenley said.
Supplemental therapy is crucial. He estimates at least 60 percent of females and 30 percent of males he has treated were victims of childhood sexual abuse.
“If you don’t treat trauma in a patient with addiction, the possibility of them getting clean and sober is not good at all,” he said. “You can’t put psychiatry above addiction or addiction above psychiatry. You have to treat them equally.”
Tuesday, April 10: Dozens of needles
Two men sheltered from the late-evening downpour in a DeLand home’s carport as detectives quizzed them for details about the dead woman inside. Both men were in their 60s.
The dead woman, Katelyn Zwolinski, was 27. She lay in bed, face up and naked.
She had no permanent residence and did not own a cellphone, the two men — John “Mike” Pugh, 60, and James Gratzer, 69 — told investigators. Instead, she had split time between the men’s homes.
“They said they share her,” an investigator told The News-Journal.
Neither man has any criminal record in Volusia County.
Pugh, the homeowner, said he had provided Zwolinski a room for about seven months. She used his cellphone, but deleted her activities.
“She stays at (Gratzer’s) house two or three days in a row, then my house for two or three days,” Pugh told Detective Katie Campbell, a child exploitation investigator working a night-shift rotation with Detective T.J. Pullin.
Had he given Zwolinski money?
“Yes, for quite a while she has asked me for a lot of money for a lot of different reasons,” Pugh said. “She would never really say what it was for.” He suggested doctor visits, court costs and prescriptions as possible expenses.
His 9-1-1 call painted a clearer picture. “She’s been on — what’s that pill? — she does drugs basically,” he said to the dispatcher.
Pugh described Zwolinski’s skin as “kinda bluish,” and noted red circles around her eyes. “I can’t get her mouth open (to perform CPR),” he told the dispatcher. “She’s stiff as a board.”
Zwolinski had stayed home sleeping all day, and Pugh thought she had last used drugs that morning.
No pill bottles were visible in Zwolinski’s room, Pugh said. His tone with the dispatcher calm and matter of fact, he added, “There’s some needles here, though.”
That proved to be an understatement. Pullin told The News-Journal he and Campbell collected “40-to-50 used” syringes from among Zwolinski’s belongings. “One looked like it was loaded and ready to use. It had a pinkish liquid.”
Drug users typically draw some of their blood into a loaded syringe before injecting, investigators said. Blood mixed with a white substance turns it pink.
They sometimes will leave a small amount of the substance in the syringe as a backup in the event they become desperate, Pullin explained.
Investigators suspected the substance in Zwolinski's syringe was heroin.
The drug severely impacted Zwolinski's physical appearance. "She's 27 but she looks like she's in her 60s," said Pullin, a Deltona property crimes investigator. "Her face is all sunken in."
When Campbell questioned Gratzer about Zwolinski’s substance abuse history, he said she was known to use “Ds” — slang for Dilaudid — “and crack.” But heroin, he said, “is an out-of-the-blue thing.”
Campbell made clear that her goal was to establish what caused Zwolinski’s death.
“This has nothing to do with you being in trouble,” she assured Gratzer. “(Zwolinski) had drugs in her purse and drugs in her room. The drugs in her room look like heroin. That’s what’s killing everybody.”
Gratzer offered no additional insight on that front, but said Zwolinski suffered from attention deficit disorder and a lung issue, and had undergone major surgery.
“(Recently) she looked emaciated and was having trouble breathing,” Gratzer said. “It’s the skinniest I’ve ever seen her.”
Zwolinski was charged several times in the past seven years for theft and contempt of court, records show. In 2014, she broke into her mother’s locked bedroom to steal checks, then cashed them and used the money to buy pills, according to an arrest report.
Pugh downplayed Zwolinski’s drug use to The News-Journal. “I think she actually had a breathing problem the last few days. I don’t know what, if anything, she was on,” Pugh said. Then he added, “She told me she had been in several rehabs.”
He had spoken to Zwolinski about 6 p.m. when he arrived home from work, he said. “I asked her to go to the hospital and she refused.” He cooked and ate dinner.
“I went back to check on her and found she was no longer with us,” Pugh said. “It was totally unexpected. You just don’t think about that. I knew she wasn’t doing well, but how bad was it?”
Zwolinski's death was caused by bacterial endocarditis of the tricuspid valve, a heart valve infection, due to intravenous drug abuse, according to an autopsy report. She tested positive for cocaine, Dilaudid and other opiates, the report states.
'It's normal people'
Campbell and Pullin anticipated working at least one more drug death before their night-duty rotation ended five days later.
“I can’t tell you how many people’s deaths I’ve been to that I went to high school with — all overdoses,” said Campbell, 31, a Deltona High School graduate who started at the Sheriff’s Office in 2011.
She worked as a Deltona patrol deputy before her 2015 promotion to detective. “People I was arresting when I was on patrol, I’m going to their overdoses,” she said.
She and Pullin were headed to Deltona to notify Zwolinski’s mother that her daughter had died. It’s impossible to predict how a person will respond to such news, they said.
“Sometimes you get a completely different reaction than you think,” said Campbell.
But “some have been expecting it,” said Pullin.
“The worst part of doing notifications is most of the time it’s normal people. They work a 9-to-5 job. They have that one kid who gets into trouble. They did everything they could to try to help them, and this is how it ends up.”
Friday, April 13: ‘I’ve never been alone before’
Five clear plastic evidence bags filled with prescriptions and drug paraphernalia provided a glimpse of the man whose name was printed on the pill bottles.
Joshua Lacy, 34, died in his bedroom in the east Deltona home he shared with his father.
Investigators removed anxiety pills, antidepressants, painkillers, antipsychotics and a 14-compartment daily pill organizer — as well as syringes, several small clumps of what appeared to be cotton and a bent metal spoon.
After injecting drugs, users often clean the syringe capsule with a cotton swab to soak up any remaining drug residue, Henderson explained. They clip off the cotton tip, place it in a spoon with water and hold the spoon over a flame. The heat releases scraps of illicit substance from the swab for re-use.
“We think it was heroin (that killed him) by his past,” McGuire said. “He had used it before.”
Gerry Lacy, a bus operator for Volusia County Schools, was at work when a neighbor called with news that his son was dead.
He was shocked. He knew his son had used heroin about nine months ago, he later said to The News-Journal. “It didn’t go real good for him then. I didn’t know he had started doing it again.”
Josh Lacy hadn’t kept his drug use secret from everyone in his life.
“He was an addict,” Juan Vega, the neighbor, said in a call to 9-1-1. He and Josh Lacy had a regular routine, he told the dispatcher.
“He usually wakes up and, you know, makes me coffee and we talk,” said Vega, 33, after discovering Lacy’s dead body. “He’s a stay-at-home person.”
Josh Lacy was “disabled” and had “really bad bipolar” disorder, which required “a lot of medications,” Gerry Lacy said.
He also had been prescribed pain pills for a years-old hand injury, a sheriff’s report states, and had hepatitis B — a viral infection intravenous drug users can contract through shared needles and drug-preparation equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
About 8:30 a.m., Vega had knocked repeatedly on the door of the Lacys’ east Deltona home.
“All of a sudden I’m peeking through his window. I see him on the floor,” said Vega to the dispatcher. “I broke the window open to see if he was OK.”
He climbed inside to perform CPR but couldn’t open Josh Lacy’s mouth. “It’s clenched,” Vega said, his distress increasing. “He’s completely cold.”
Vega exited the house through the window, but realized emergency responders would need to kick in the door. “I gotta go back through the room, so can you stay on the phone with me please?” he asked the dispatcher.
Detectives found Josh Lacy face down on his bedroom floor near two used hypodermic needles. One of them could have been "knocked (from a nearby surface) when he fell,” said Detective Garrett Morris, a Deltona persons crimes investigator.
Later, McGuire recovered a partially used baggy of gray heroin.
Josh Lacy’s previous dalliance with the drug was shortly after his mother, Elizabeth Lacy — Gerry Lacy’s wife — passed away, Gerry Lacy told The News-Journal.
According to an autopsy report — which has not yet been made public — Josh Lacy wasn’t abusing his prescriptions, Gerry Lacy said, and the only illegal drugs in his system were heroin and fentanyl.
Elizabeth Lacy’s death left her relatives reeling. Josh Lacy “never got over it.”
He had dedicated himself to watching over her during her long battle with lung disease and constant infections. “He thought that was his purpose — taking care of his mama,” Gerry Lacy said.
For the elder Lacy, alone in the home he once shared with his wife and son, every day is a struggle. Josh Lacy’s 13-year-old daughter, who visits on weekends, is the only family he has left, he said.
“Sometimes I don’t even want to get out of bed,” said Gerry Lacy. “But then I start thinking about my granddaughter. She’s my life.”
'We want to send a message'
That afternoon, investigators attempted to purchase drugs from Josh Lacy’s suspected heroin dealer.
They believed the man lived near India Boulevard about a half mile from Lacy’s residence. He had two open felony warrants for violating probation on August 2017 charges for possession of heroin and dealing in stolen property.
The suspected dealer had agreed via text message to sell an undercover deputy posing as Lacy two “teenth” bags — each containing 1/16 ounce of heroin, enough for one or two doses — for $15.
Investigators arranged for the suspected dealer to bring the drugs to Lacy's house, and dispersed in unmarked cars to surveil Lacy's neighborhood.
But the man never showed. Detectives speculated that he may have learned of Lacy’s death or received a tip. He was arrested at his home on warrants later that evening. He was jailed for six days and released.
Chitwood said the Sheriff's Office has several other suspected dealers “on the hook” who potentially could be charged with murder or manslaughter.
But “those cases are very, very difficult to prove,” he said.
Prosecutors must show that a direct drug transaction occurred between the suspect and the dead person, and that the specific drugs sold were the cause of death — which may not be clear if more than one substance was ingested.
If those facts can't be established, or if the deceased had other medical issues, "then you’ve got a proof problem,” said State Attorney R.J. Larizza.
Often potential witnesses abuse drugs, too, and are afraid to cooperate with law enforcement. “You might get one (witness) who has the guts or courage to come forward,” but that may not be enough.
“(The witness) might have gotten high at the time or might have gotten high afterward or might not have reported it (right away),” said Larizza. “Is a jury going to believe them?”
And sometimes the law itself is lacking.
Fentanyl, which according to Medical Examiner's Office data caused or contributed to 52 deaths in Volusia County in 2017, was not listed as a controlled substance under Florida's murder statute until last October.
On June 25, Steve Montilla became the first alleged drug dealer to be charged with first-degree murder for a Volusia County overdose death. That first step — and a handful more potential cases — may seem paltry in the face of an epidemic, Chitwood said. But he believes it’s important to press on.
“We want to send a message" to deter dealers but also to comfort victims’ families: “At least we got the person responsible who was taking advantage of your loved one.”
Wednesday, May 2: ‘A real nice guy’
“This one is something different,” McDaniel said. He stood on the street outside a brick house along Fort Smith Boulevard in Deltona in the bright heat of early afternoon.
In the home’s living room, a 44-year-old dead man sat slumped over on a couch.
“He had a fentanyl patch hanging out of his mouth. It looks like he was chewing on that. Crazy. It looks like one of those Icy Hot (transdermal) patches,” said McDaniel. “Other than that there’s nothing to indicate it was an overdose.”
Mary Kirkgard, the landlord and neighbor who found Gerald Frank Henry dead that morning, had rented the house to Henry’s friend, she told The News-Journal.
After the tenant’s wife and kids left him, he let Henry move in. The house was barren except for a living room couch, and the utilities had been shut off, said Kirkgard, 76.
When the tenant moved out, she gave Henry permission to continue living there.
“He’s a real nice guy,” she said. She wanted to help.
A few days earlier, Kirkgard gave Henry some cash and drove him to a convenience store to buy cigarettes. She watched him do a “strange handshake” with a man outside the store, then Henry briefly followed the man around the corner, she said.
She suspected a drug deal.
Two nights before she found Henry dead, Kirkgard had invited him over for dinner.
“He kept falling asleep,” Kirkgard said. “The way he was sweating so bad, I told him he needed to check himself in (to rehab).”
She sent Henry home with a plate of food, and told him to leave his back door open to let the air circulate since he had no electricity.
Around 10:30 a.m. May 2, her tenant phoned to ask her to check on Henry. That's when she found Henry dead.
“He didn’t show up at his job and everything so I came in the back door,” Kirkgard said in a 9-1-1 call. “(It) was wide open.”
Henry appeared to be asleep on the couch, she said to The News-Journal.
Kirkgard called his name but “he didn’t budge. I shook his hand and it was cold and stiff,” she said. “He had a clear paper in his mouth.”
Kirkgard is a retired certified nursing assistant, she said. “That’s why I’m not freaking out.”
Henry’s girlfriend, Keila Ortiz, was shaken.
She sat with an older woman and a young boy in a car parked on the front lawn, crying and talking on a cellphone.
“She’s obviously upset,” said McDaniel. “(She) said (Henry) was prescribed medications but all in pill form. He doesn’t inject anything. She didn’t paint the picture of our typical IV drug user.”
Records show Ortiz and Henry had a tumultuous relationship. Henry served 64 days in the county jail for striking her in the face while she was pregnant with his child in June 2015, an arrest report states.
Henry again was charged with domestic battery against Ortiz in November 2017.
Court records show a third battery charge and multiple arrests for driving with a revoked or suspended license. Henry was charged just once with a drug offense — possession of marijuana in 2016.
After medical examiners loaded Henry’s body into the van, Ortiz drove away. Detectives stayed behind to wrap up the scene.
McGuire shared additional details he had learned from Ortiz. Henry had been involved in a “bad crash and was basically self-medicating,” said McGuire. “He abuses pills, so (Ortiz) tries to control it the best she can, but they fight often."
Henry had several fentanyl patches in his pocket when he died, McGuire said. Ortiz remembered seeing such patches in the past, but was unsure whether those found in his possession were left over from an old prescription or if he had obtained a new supply without telling her.
Transdermal patches release fentanyl slowly over several days, McGuire said. “Putting it in his mouth — that would be a huge problem. It’s like taking 50 to 100 pills at one time.”
Henry's death resulted from fentanyl intoxication, according to an autopsy report. "Detected concentrations far exceed those expected with therapeutic use of fentanyl," the report states.
No easy answers
A big-picture analysis of the opioid epidemic — or an up-close look at a single addict’s struggle — can leave the observer with a sense of hopelessness.
Larizza recalled encountering drug abusers as a pre-law school probation officer whom he later prosecuted. Then, as a private attorney, he defended them and their children.
Now, as state attorney, “we’re prosecuting their grandkids, too. It’s almost like it’s a hole that’s been dug that folks get trapped in and they can’t climb their way out,” Larizza said.
“I’ve seen kids, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers that get addicted to drugs that are good people. It just eats them alive,” Larizza said.
During the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, “you would see young women and young men, mothers and fathers, out on the street day after day selling their bodies just to get a fix. The sad reality is that hasn’t changed,” he said. “The answer is what’s tough.”
The fight, at times, feels futile. Drugs are “flooding” into the U.S. through the postal service, ports, trains and on foot. “We can’t (stop it),” Chitwood said.
Law enforcement officials and treatment specialists agree no one agency can turn the tide.
“This isn’t a law enforcement problem all by itself because law enforcement isn’t going to solve it. Quite frankly, it’s a mental health crisis,” said Chitwood. “(If we could) slow demand down, we would put (dealers) out of business.”
To achieve that, Larizza said, the threat of incarceration may be necessary to force into treatment those who don’t have the willpower to seek it on their own. “But it’s frustrating because I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to make the drug abuse problem in our country or in the world, for that matter, disappear," he said.
"You can't arrest your way out of the problem. I can't prosecute enough drug dealers that might be selling it that will stop it from happening. It's got to be an approach involving the community."
Fenley agrees. He authored a book in 2012, “Finding a Purpose in the Pain,” about his professional and personal approach to addiction recovery. He believes a combination of medication-assisted treatment and trauma therapy offers hope.
“I have a ton of people I’ve treated who live full, productive lives and have been in recovery for 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. “They’re sober, married and had their lives restored.”