A heavy toll from heroin

Frederick County Sheriff's Office Captain Alan Sibert holds an ounce of heroin that he said has a street value of $11,000. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Local, state and federal officials struggled to contain the rising death toll from heroin in 2014, a continuation of a bleak trend that began with a wave of fatal overdoses the year before.

With about a week to go in the year, The Addiction Action Committee, a Winchester-based organization, counted 31 deaths on its web site, a dramatic surge over the 21 overdose deaths in 2013. The committee’s data comes from a five-county area of Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Page and Shenandoah counties and Winchester.

The increase in deaths came despite the arrests and sentencing of several major drug dealers in the last year. Law enforcement officials joined with medical professionals, social service officials, educators and state lawmakers in a search for answers to the drug epidemic.

The northern Shenandoah Valley was part of a national epidemic of drug overdose deaths spreading into rural areas and small towns. The number of drug overdose deaths now exceeds the number of motor vehicle deaths in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

One of Shenandoah County’s two pending death penalty cases ended the year under a plea agreement that allowed the defendant, Nicole Dawn Miller of Woodstock, to avoid the risk of execution by pleading guilty to first degree murder.

Virginia State Police Supervisory Special Agent Jay Perry, coordinator of the Northwest Regional drug task force, spoke on the regional heroin problem during a public safety meeting in August with Attorney General Mark R. Herring at the Timbrook Public Safety Building in Winchester. Herring was conducting 22 regional meetings with local public safety and law enforcement leaders and local elected officials to discuss the unique public safety challenges of their area. Rich Cooley/Daily file

Authorities accuse Miller of killing the 20-month-old-son of a man with whom she was living at the time of the boy’s death in June 2013. An autopsy report said the boy died from blunt force trauma to the head, neck and trunk.

Miller could still receive a prison sentence of up to 60 years at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 22 in circuit court.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley said she believed there was only “a slim chance” that a jury would have sentenced Miller to death. Wiseley said Miller’s lack of a criminal record, a history of mental health problems and her four biological children were among the reasons why she doubted the case would end in a death sentence.

Only 53 women in the United States have been executed since 1903. Two have been executed in Virginia since 1912.

The Rappahannock Warren and Shenandoah Regional Jail in Front Royal opened with a ceremony attended by beaming local government officials. But the jail quickly became mired in controversies over its administration and questions about its treatment of inmates.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter speaks during the Heroin Town Summit held at Strasburg High School. The meeting was the first of three community meetings on the drug problem in the region. Rich Cooley/Daily file

The first superintendent resigned only a few days after the opening ceremony for reasons that remain unclear today. He was replaced by an interim superintendent who remained in charge until the hiring of William Wilson, who took over on Oct. 1.

Defense attorneys complained of a lack of access to their clients. The transport of prisoners from the jail to courts in Shenandoah County was plagued by several mix-ups. Some inmates said they were receiving inadequate or no medical care.

By the end of the year, Shenandoah County General District Judge Amy Tisinger and Shenandoah County Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp had sent messages to jail superintendent William Wilson asking for assurances that one inmate was receiving medication that had been prescribed for him.

Two elderly people died in a house fire in Toms Brook in March. Shenandoah County Fire Marshal David Ferguson later declared careless use of cigarettes as “more than likely” the cause of the fire that took the lives of Kikuko Dischleit, 86, and her husband, William Dartnell, 81.

Ferguson said cigarettes were also the likely cause of a fire the destroyed the historic Alms House in April. Parts of the building, which had served since its beginning as a shelter for needy families, dated back to 1829. No one was injured in the fire.

Several court cases began to reveal the scale and magnitude of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office efforts to curb the sale of untaxed cigarettes. Several defendants from out of state, mostly from the New York City area, faced dozens of felony charges.

Records from the U.S. Justice Department showed that the Sheriff’s Office had received several million dollars from cash and property seized as a result of undercover investigations into illegal sales of cigarettes and drugs. The investigations spanned several years and were sometimes coordinated with other law enforcement agents up and down the East Coast.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com