Year in Review: Heroin deaths down, drug court effort up in 2015

The past year has brought some qualified good news about the efforts to dampen the destructive effects of heroin in the area.

The death toll from overdoses stood at 24 near the end of 2015, down sharply from the 33 who lost their lives in 2014.

Another glimmer of hope arrived during the year as efforts to create a drug court in Frederick County built momentum. Supporters hope it will be ready to accept its first cases by July 1.

The picture looks bleaker when considering the number of overdose deaths over each of the last few years. As recently as 2012, only one death was attributed to an overdose from heroin or other opiate drug. The figure spiked to 21 in 2013, three less than the total as of late December 2015.

And deaths are only one barometer of the extent of the heroin epidemic in the area. Public defender Timothy Coyne, one of those leading the push for the drug court, said it is impossible to precisely determine the extent to which heroin is being bought, sold and consumed outside the tracking systems maintained by law enforcement officials or medical professionals.

“It’s so hard to gauge,” Coyne said, adding that the number of overdoses remains “at an unacceptable level” and overall trafficking “continues at a pretty vigorous clip.”

The drug court will use the same prosecutors, probation officers, defense attorneys and judges who are the principal figures in current drug-related cases, Coyne said. Much of the money for the program will be spent on expanding treatment options and other non-law enforcement activities designed to help addicts return to productive lives.

“The idea is that it would provide them with a very organized, rigorous treatment program with court supervision, pretty constant monitoring, testing and treatment,” Coyne said.

The state currently has 37 drug courts, 23 of them at the circuit level. Most of the others operate within the juvenile and domestic relations court system.

Heroin was not the only drug problem afflicting the area in 2015. Shenandoah County authorities and members of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force said methamphetamine appeared to be making a comeback. The laboratories used to manufacture the drug were also changing as users and sellers relied more on vehicles filled with equipment and chemicals to make their operations smaller and more mobile than those run out of buildings.

Shenandoah County and Winchester police also investigated several overdose cases involving synthetic drugs obtained by users over the Internet.

Fires took the lives of people in Shenandoah and Warren counties and southern Frederick County in 2015. The victims included Michael Goodman, 29, of Woodstock, who died trying to rescue his wife and two daughters from a burning trailer. All three had escaped and were outside the trailer at the time Goodman entered it. Goodman’s widow, Donna, said an electrical malfunction in the dryer caused the fire.

The cause of a fire that destroyed the Front Royal Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1860 remained officially undetermined at year’s end while an investigation begun in mid-July churned on. Warren County Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico said the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has joined the Front Royal Police Department and Warren County Fire and Rescue Services in the investigation.

Meanwhile, the commander of the VFW post said plans have been made for a new, smaller building on the same site as the one destroyed by the fire.

The past year brought the retirements of two police chiefs in Edinburg and New Market and the resignation of another in Mount Jackson. The retirement of Edinburg chief Mike Clem in April was followed by a town council decision to have the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office take over law enforcement service in the town.

Another police chief, Middletown’s Philip Breeden, was in trouble with the town council late in the year and facing the possibility of losing his job at a meeting scheduled for Jan. 11. Breeden was placed on probation about two months ago for what Mayor Charles Harbough IV said were complaints received by other town officials., Harbough refused to specify the nature of the complaints.

Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter was spared an election showdown when Strasburg Police Chief Timothy Sutherly called off a campaign he had been planning for more than a year. Sutherly said concern over the health needs of his son were the reason he chose not to run.

Echoes of national controversies over videotaped recordings of unarmed black men dying in confrontations with police reached the area with a decision by the Warren County Sheriff’s Office to equip deputies with body cameras. Warren County joined the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office and Woodstock Police Department among area police agencies using body cameras.

Those calling for reform in police tactics when arresting or pursuing a suspect have cited videotapes from body cameras as a valuable tool in clarifying sometimes conflicting accounts of what happened during a violent incident.

Fire departments in the area continued struggling to recruit volunteers in 2015. Warren County advertised for a part-time recruitment coordinator in an effort to learn more about why volunteers leave and replacements for them are hard to recruit.

Strasburg’s Fire Department was beset by internal turmoil when several veteran members sent letters to county and town officials complaining of what they considered to be lax discipline as applied to some of the younger volunteers. Several incidents involving alcohol were among the incidents cited in the letters.

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