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Suffolk leads the state in heroin-related deaths, authorities say

Heroin packets at Suffolk police headquarters, Yaphank, Sept.

Heroin packets at Suffolk police headquarters, Yaphank, Sept. 19, 2014. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

Suffolk tallied more heroin-related overdose deaths than any county in New York from 2009 to 2013 — evidence of the “devastating” toll that the drug has taken on the county in recent years, according to authorities and a new state report on opioid abuse.

At least 337 people died from heroin in Suffolk during the 60-month period ending Dec. 31, 2013, the report states. That’s more than in the Bronx, which recorded 216 such deaths, the second-highest number over that period; Queens, which recorded 174; Manhattan, which recorded 156; Brooklyn, with 151; and Nassau, with 128.

Suffolk also reported the highest number of naloxone administrations in the state during 2015, with 234, the report states.

The drug, which can reverse the effects of an overdose of an opioid — which includes heroin, the painkiller fentanyl and pills like oxycodone and hydrocodone — is carried by county police and paramedics.

The overdose data, published for the first time in the New York State Opioid Poisoning, Overdose and Prevention 2015 Report to the governor and State Legislature, suggests that, among the state’s 62 counties, Suffolk has been hit hardest by the wave of cheap heroin flooding the country, experts said.

“These numbers reflect what I’ve been seeing in the community, and taken in total, represent a tremendous loss of life and untold misery among local families,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of Family and Children’s Association, a Long Island nonprofit that offers drug recovery programs.

The government report on heroin and other opioid deaths, the first of its kind in New York, is based on data collected by dozens of state and local government agencies. It contains dozens of findings on heroin and painkiller use, including:

  • Treatment admissions for opioid addiction on Long Island rose 29 percent from 2010 to 2014, from 12,887 to 16,681.
  • Heroin was involved in 637 drug-related deaths statewide in 2013 versus 242 in 2009, a 163 percent increase.
  • Prescription opioid deaths rose from 735 in 2009 to 952 statewide in 2013, a 30 percent increase.
  • Opioid-related emergency room visits increased 73 percent statewide from 2010 to 2014.

Last year, there were 103 fatal heroin overdoses in Suffolk, according to preliminary county data. The figure is expected to rise, as the county also had another 126 possible fatal drug overdoses for which the cause of death has not been determined.

In 2014, there were a record 109 heroin overdose deaths in Suffolk.

Among those who lost relatives to heroin overdoses in Suffolk in 2013 was Carrie Ann Bracco, 47, of Brooklyn, whose sister, Donna, 28, of Smithtown, died after shooting up in her apartment.

“It’s been devastating for everyone touched by this [opioid epidemic], but I know in Suffolk it’s worse than a lot of other places,” Bracco said.

Nassau, which had the fifth-highest number of fatal heroin overdoses among New York counties from 2008 to 2013, had 58 fatal overdoses in 2015, compared with 53 in 2014, according to county data.

The epidemic recently spurred both county police departments to form a joint “overdose task force” — charged with investigating every heroin overdose on the Island in hopes of tracking the drugs to their source. The squad is believed to be the first of its kind in the region.

“The rising heroin epidemic throughout our nation is a serious problem that our communities are not immune to,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said of the state report. “In order to combat the rising trend of opioid addiction and overdose, we must work cooperatively and leverage all of our resources to fight this epidemic together.”

Fatal overdoses caused by opioids have risen dramatically across the United States in recent years, driven by a surge in prescription pill addiction and a flood of cheap heroin from Mexico.

In 2014, opioids were linked to a record 28,647 deaths in the United States, government data show. Since 2000, the number of confirmed fatal opioid overdoses in America has quadrupled.

The origins of the current epidemic can be traced to the 1990s, when opioid painkillers like OxyContin were marketed to the public as everyday treatment for pain. Previously, such high-powered drugs were prescribed only to patients suffering from cancer and other life-threatening ailments.

Data show about 2.1 million people in the United States were thought to be addicted to prescription opiates in 2012, with an additional 467,000 addicted to heroin.

Since then, heroin use has soared, government officials said, driven in part by a sweeping effort by federal and local law enforcement agencies to deter prescription drug abuse.

Those efforts — including more education of pharmacists, establishment of a real-time state database to track prescriptions, and the arrests of dealers and overprescribing pain doctors — have driven up the street price of a single opiate pill to about $20 to $100, depending on strength. By contrast, a dose of heroin typically costs $5 to $10.

Suffolk’s spot atop the heroin overdose total list is the result of several factors, experts say, including its proximity to New York City, one of the nation’s primary hubs for heroin distribution.

Suffolk is largely white, suburban and rural — characteristics it shares with hundreds of other U.S. municipalities hit hard by the opioid epidemic. Urban areas have also suffered high numbers of opioid overdoses in recent years.

Asked to comment on the report, the county’s police commissioner, Timothy Sini, said the opiate epidemic is “the biggest public health/public safety issue facing Suffolk County today.”

Bracco, who left Long Island after her sister’s death, said the amount of heroin and pain pills available from dealers in Suffolk while her sister lived there was “overwhelming.”

“I know they’re doing everything they can to stop the dealers and get people treatment,” Bracco said of the county’s opiate plague. “But you can’t get all the drugs off the street. There’s always going to be more.”

An earlier version of this story had the wrong hometown for Donna Bracco. She lived in Smithtown.

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016. 

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book. 

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.  

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote. 

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures. 

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Carrie Ann Bracco and her sister Donna. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.  

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:  

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review. 

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names. 

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.  

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes. 

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local. 

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.” 

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.” 

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes. 

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.  

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday. 

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories. 

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