Which Pa. counties are prosecuting drug dealers when users overdose? | Investigation

ByChad Pradelli and Cheryl Mettendorf WPVI logo
Friday, March 15, 2024
Which counties are prosecuting drug dealers when users overdose?
Which Pa. counties are prosecuting drug dealers when users overdose? | Investigation

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A drug overdose epidemic is underway.

In response, states are increasingly passing new laws to prosecute dealers for homicide in overdose cases.

The Action News Investigative Team dug into court documents to find out who is prosecuting dealers in our area.

Leonard and Carol Warren of Brick, New Jersey, told us they know the pain of addiction and that they support prosecuting those who sell illegal narcotics.

"No matter what anybody tells you, it doesn't get better with time," said Leonard Warren.

We're investigating every overdose as a potential homicide
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele

The couple's son, Matt, died from a fentanyl overdose in Narberth, Montgomery County, in 2020. Their oldest and only other child, David, overdosed two years later in Tennessee.

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele, charged Matt's dealer with drug delivery resulting in death.

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The Warrens said that David's dealer was never found.

"It means everything, because Matt's life mattered," said Carol Warren.

Steele says his office has been focused on taking down those who sell poison on the streets.

"We're investigating every overdose as a potential homicide," said Steele.

And the numbers bear out.

Our analysis found Bucks County had the most drug overdose homicide prosecutions in our area from 2018-2023 with 39.

That was followed by Montgomery County with 34 and Burlington County with 24.

At the bottom was Camden with just three, and Philadelphia -- home to the East Coast's largest open-air drug market -- with seven.

RELATED: Cooper EMS use innovative approach to combat overdose deaths in Camden County

Chester County could not provide available data.

"They're are pushing their drugs to make money -- greed -- those are the people that we are looking at for this charge," said Steele.

The Camden County Prosecutor's office said in a statement, that it aggressively investigates and prosecutes suppliers of controlled dangerous substances, and said Camden City's open-air drug markets present obstacles in determining who sold overdose victims the narcotics.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said he considers every case brought to his office.

But overall, drug sale charges have plummeted under his leadership.

"Do you think more of those could be brought?" asked Action News' Chad Pradelli.

"I think that if law enforcement brings solid evidence showing mental states that make this appropriate, more cases could be brought. But we're not going to make it up," said Krasner.

Steel said his office focuses on dealers and not addicts sharing drugs.

In almost all his cases, the defendant pleaded guilty and was then sentenced to prison.

Steele said building a drug-induced homicide case can be difficult because there needs to be a trail and often that is left electronically.

He said making the cases more difficult is that overdose victims often have a combination of various drugs in their systems.

"Where it gets a little more difficult is seeing what those drugs are and working with the pathologist along those lines," he said.

In Matt's overdose, the 31-year-old took an Uber to Kensington. On his way home to Narberth, he lost consciousness. The Uber driver called 911 and pulled over at Conshohocken State Road and St. Asaphs in Bala Cynwyd. He was rushed to Lankenau Hospital.

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"They were trying to resuscitate him," said Leonard Warren. "They worked for, I don't know, 45 minutes. They looked at me and said, 'Okay,' and they stopped the resuscitation."

"We were able to spend probably an hour with him before the medical coroner came for him," added Carol Warren.

Tracking cell phone transactions and communications, Steele charged Jessica Lopez, of Kensington, in Matt's death.

She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four to eight years in prison.

Court records show a search of her home on Sterner Street uncovered a gun that was illegal for her to possess due to previous drug dealing convictions.

The drugs Matt ingested tested positive for fentanyl, heroin, and xylazine, an animal tranquilizer.

The Warrens question whether Lopez would've been prosecuted had the Uber driver pulled over in Philadelphia.

RELATED: Philadelphia now provides access to free Narcan in vending machines

"We were told there would have been nothing done," said Leonard Warren. "They said it was a matter of two or three blocks that he was in Montgomery County."

Some critics argue drug-induced homicide charges and stiffer sentences are ineffective in the war on drugs because they could prevent people from reporting overdoses.

Steele said good Samaritan laws protect those reporting overdoses.