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Drug overdoses rise; Portage prosecutor coming down hard on dealers

by DAVE O'BRIEN RECORD-COURIER REPORTER Published: August 3, 2016 1:00 AM
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Unregulated, illegal heroin has increasingly become a public health epidemic in Portage County, around Ohio and across the nation.

There is no quality control for heroin, leading to numerous overdoses. It also can result in users taking the prescription painkiller fentanyl, thinking it is heroin.

The lack of labels means users have "no idea what they're putting in their body," Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci said.

"Those selling heroin are cutting it with fentanyl, and they bear responsibility, too," for their actions, he said.

That fact has led Vigluicci's office to file charges against alleged drug dealers or persons who provide heroin and other drugs to those who overdose, sometimes with fatal consequences.

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Most recently, a fatal overdose in June in Shalersville has led to charges against a person accused of providing the drugs that killed 29-year-old Clinton L. Harris.

He died of a heroin overdose on June 21 after Bernard M. Watts provided him with heroin-laced fentanyl, according to the Portage County Drug Task Force.

Watts, 41, who goes by the nickname "Tanner" or "Tanna" and has a last known address in Kent, was indicted June 30 by a Portage County grand jury on five felony charges, including involuntary manslaughter, corrupting another with drugs and trafficking in drugs.

Watts currently is in the Portage County Jail on $200,000 cash bond, awaiting a September trial date after pleading not guilty to the charges July 1 before Portage County Common Pleas Judge Becky Doherty.

There is no safe level of heroin use, Portage County Coroner Dr. Dean DePerro has said. And prescription fentanyl can be many times deadlier than heroin if not controlled under a doctor's care.

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In a case filed in 2015 and decided in June, Brian T. Woods, 27, of Kent was sentenced to seven years in prison by Doherty after being found guilty of providing his friend with a fatal dose of drugs in April 2015.

Vigluicci said it was the first time during his tenure as county prosecutor that his office convicted someone of involuntary manslaughter due to the underlying or "predicate" offense of corrupting another with drugs.

Several other criminal cases related to non-fatal overdoses now are making their way through the courts.

Thirty people died from accidental drug overdoses in Portage County in 2015. A majority -- 14 -- involved heroin, while others were a mixture or cocktail of drugs including heroin, fentanyl or cocaine.

Vigluicci said he has directed Portage County law enforcement to investigate the source of drugs in fatal and non-fatal overdoses so he can consider filing charges.

Email: dobrien@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4157

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