WMBF Investigates: FBI, federal prosecutors target drug dealers in fight against opioid epidemic

WMBF Investigates: FBI, federal prosecutors target drug dealers in fight against opioid epidemic

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - One man fights for his life and another already lost his after a drug deal in Horry County four months ago.

On May 21, 2019, Horry County first responders found two people unconscious inside a home in Longs after responding to a report of an overdose. Narcan revived one of the individuals; the other died.

The FBI arrested Darrel Curry, better known as ‘Rell,’ days later.

The arrest came after authorities linked the drug the individuals snorted - a type of heroin called ‘China White’ - to Curry, according to a criminal complaint.

Curry is now facing a sentence of 20 years to life in federal prison.

Overdose Charge Challenges

Curry’s charge of distribution of drugs that results in bodily injury or death is one that authorities are increasingly applying in Horry County.

In simple terms, it’s a charge that can be applied to an individual if they can be linked to a drug that caused an overdose. It’s a unique charge that carries a heavy mandatory minimum of 20 years.

The type of drugs, quantity of drugs, and criminal history of the individual doesn’t matter.

Prosecutors also don’t have to prove the drug dealer intended to kill the individual. They do, however, need to prove the distribution of the drug and an overdose. They also must prove the overdose was caused because of that specific drug.

The charge was created by Congress during the 1970s as part of the Controlled Substances Act, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Everett McMillian.

Later during the War on Drugs era, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimums for many drug offenses.

Although the charge has been available for decades, it’s started to be used more frequently.

“In South Carolina between the period of 2000 to 2017, there was about a 700% increase in overdoses,” McMillian said. “You started to see an increase in the use of this law in response to the identification of the opioid epidemic as a national and statewide epidemic.”

Across South Carolina, 1,103 people died from an overdose last year, an increase from the previous year, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

More than 600 overdose deaths have occurred in Horry County since 2012, according to the Horry County Coroner’s Office. Last year, overdose deaths more than doubled the amount from 2012. Horry County Coroner Robert Edge said numbers have been high just in the last few months.

McMillian said there have been 10 cases in South Carolina involving this charge, a third of them coming from Horry County.

The first case stems from the discovery of a woman’s body in some North Carolina woods in 2017.

Kathleen Capra overdosed in Myrtle Beach on drugs officials linked to James Sumter, or ‘T.’

Sumter pleaded guilty to the charge in February but told a courtroom in August, “I pleaded guilty because I was scared for my life.”

Sumter said in court he feels sorry for Capra and her family but he “didn’t sell her any drugs.”

Another man, Charles Hunt, initially contacted Sumter to buy drugs. According to evidence presented by prosecutors, both Hunt and Capra drove to Sumter’s place to buy cocaine and heroin.

Hunt confessed to dumping Capra’s body across the border and was prosecuted for covering up the overdose. He received less than two years in prison.

This August, a judge sentenced Sumter to 20 years in federal prison.

The federal charge targets individuals who distributed the drug, but the supply and demand of drugs is more complex than two parties. Often drugs pass through multiple hands, so the decision on when to apply the charge and who to hold responsible becomes complex.

“Are we talking about just the hand-to-hand dealer? Are we talking about the person who supplied the hand-to-hand dealer? Are we talking about the person who supplied the supplier of the hand-to-hand dealer?” said Jim Hoffmeyer, who represented Sumter during his sentencing.

Before Sumter was sentenced in August, federal Judge Bryan Harwell paused a long time before delivering his decision.

When he addressed the courtroom, Harwell explained that, as a judge, he does not have the authority to choose who to charge with what crime and pointed to a similar case he was scheduled to hear that afternoon involving drugs and an overdose. However, the defendant, in that case, was charged differently.

“We all need to be concerned with equity and fairness,” Harwell said in the courtroom, explaining mandatory minimums tie his hands and his ability to treat people equally.

Harwell also sentenced Kennis Willard later that day. Willard is one of the 33 members of the drug trafficking organization G-Shine who were arrested by authorities in 2018.

While court evidence attributes multiple overdoses to the gang’s drugs, Willard received 10 years. While his sentence is the highest awarded between the G-Shine members, it is half the time he would have received if this federal charge was applied.

Caleb Sexton is the third individual in Horry County facing a 20-year-to-life sentence. He’s a 22-year-old whose only criminal charge prior to April 2019 was for trespassing, according to Horry County Public Index records.

“I think it’s very tough to determine what’s fair and just in these cases, I tell you sometimes it seems like the people who deserve the most time get the least time and some that I think don’t deserve near what they are looking at have no way around it,” Hoffmeyer said. “I think judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys try to apply the law fairly but unfortunately, it’s a great system but it’s an imperfect system.”

McMillian served as the prosecutor in Sumter’s case. When asked about the difference in charges between Sumter and other cases that seem similar, he said sometimes authorities don’t have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an overdose is linked to one individual when charges are applied. He also said each case is different, which also affects charges.

“It depends on the individual's criminal history, the specific facts of the event, the offense, their specific role in the offense and the weight of the evidence that has been collected against them,” McMillian said. “So, while things may appear to be a disparate sometimes from the outside. I believe justice is done in our courts here in South Carolina.”

The mandatory minimum of 20 years is something Congress decided when it wrote the law decades ago. Federal prosecutors can only determine when it is appropriate to use the charge.

“The selling of substances that are taking human lives is a very serious matter. I believe Congress was right in writing the law that way,” McMillian said. “I don't believe 20 years is too high and, again, the sentence to be imposed is up to the judge. Every case is different. Facts are always different.”

Hoffmeyer said he doesn’t think people facing this charge understand the severity of the sentencing.

“This person with the meager criminal record who dealt in their mind’s eye was a small amount of drugs to somebody who had been taking a bunch of drugs is now looking at a 20-year sentence and potentially a life sentence, that’s hard for people to wrap their mind’s eye around because most people consider when somebody dies an intentionally-type crime and they obviously feel like they didn’t intend to hurt anybody,” Hoffmeyer said.

Horry County Police Chief Joseph Hill said one of the reasons the department goes after individuals at the federal level is to award higher sentences.

Twenty states, including, Illinois, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. have ‘drug-induced’ homicide laws, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit policy organization. These charges carry similar sentences as murder and manslaughter.

McMillian said South Carolina doesn’t have anything like this federal charge.

While certain factors impact sentencing at the state level, if an individual is charged with distribution in South Carolina they generally face a felony charge of less than 15 years.

Hoffmeyer said if Sumter was prosecuted in state court, he would face significantly less time and perhaps a probationary sentence based on his lack of record and the other drugs in Capra’s system. Another difference is in the state system, first-time offenses are parole eligible.

“So that effect right there has immediate effect on the folks that are doing the crime but also has a chilling effect, we believe, on the folks that are involved in this that we haven’t caught yet, so maybe they’ll have a second thought about what they are doing and turn their life around,” Hill said.

While the aim of decreasing drugs and the cycle of addiction is well-intended, people affected by the environment are skeptical of its effectiveness.

Does it Make a Difference?

Nikki Silver has lived in the Myrtle Beach area on and off her whole life. She started taking prescription pills and when the prescriptions stopped, she started using heroin. She’s overdosed three times and been brought back by Narcan.

“It didn’t faze me until I was ready to quit,” Silver said. “It wasn't that I didn't want to stop. I never woke up and said, ‘Oh, I want to be a drug addict.’ Or you know, ‘Oh, I wanna be addicted to drugs or do the crazy things I did for them.’ I had no answer to them. And then the guilt and shame came on and it was just like a vicious cycle.”

She said she does understand why there is a charge targeting dealers. Silver explained that a drug linked with an overdose can attract more business for dealers.

“They don't throw out their product because somebody dies, it becomes more, you know, more valuable to them,” Silver explained. “When I was in active addiction, that was appealing to me because that meant it was strong.”

Silver said that while that sounds twisted, that is how her brain worked while she was addicted.

Robert Meaney can understand. He’s also a recovering drug addict who now works as a peer recovery coach at Shoreline Behavioral Health Services.

Meaney started drinking in high school, smoked a little marijuana and eventually decided to try street drugs.

“It can be a really ugly path at the end. But for me, it was more, more than the consequences and more than the fear of dying was just the hopelessness that I was living in,” Meaney remembered.

He’s overdosed before and said the decision of who authorities should hold responsible for an overdose is not so cut and dry.

“Does the person that's a drug addict choose to buy the drugs and use them? Of course they do, especially at first. It's an absolute choice,” he said. “Then later down that slide eventually it becomes really not much of a choice. It is a fight-or-flight survival instinct to get what it is that you need to be able to function.”

Silver also said if one of her overdoses had led to her death, she holds part of the blame.

"I need to be held accountable but if I'm dead, I can't be held accountable. Now my family can become, you know, that's, that's what it is. It's the families of people hurt by the person,” she said.

Meaney agrees that this charge seems to be more reactionary and as a way to appease grieving families. He understands the support for it but doesn’t see it stopping the supply and demand of drugs.

“We know that we’re already potentially facing serious consequences if we get caught and we do it every day anyway. So just because they up that, that anty is up, is that actually going to stop what’s my, my driving life force?” he said.

Meaney said he doesn’t think this approach will be effective. He’s been arrested before for drug charges and went right back to using. He noted that focusing on recovery efforts over lengthy sentences might be a better way to help the community.

“I don't know that somebody in that situation is necessarily such a danger to society that they needed to be locked in the cage for 20 years,” Meaney said.

A 2018 study by Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research organization, found more imprisonment does not reduce the state’s drug problems.

“The absence of any relationship between states’ rates of drug imprisonment and drug problems suggests that expanding imprisonment is not likely to be an effective national drug control and prevention strategy,” the study stated.

The study compared a state’s imprisonment rates to indicators like self-reported drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug arrests.

“Putting more drug-law violators behind bars for longer periods of time has generated enormous costs for taxpayers, but it has not yielded a convincing public safety return on those investments,” the report went on to state. “Instead, more imprisonment for drug offenders has meant limited funds are siphoned away from programs, practices, and policies that have been proved to reduce drug use and crime.”

GOING FORWARD

“No one thing can solve the opioid crisis. We all know that this is a tool that the federal government has, and the prosecutors have to try and target individuals who are distributing particularly dangerous drugs and to discourage others from choosing to distribute those types of drugs,” McMillian said.

Despite the debate about if increasing sentences and arrests are effective, the approach isn’t slowing down locally or across the country.

A New York Times 2018 investigation discovered between 2015 and 2017, the number of cases involving overdose deaths doubled based on data for just 15 states.

The magazine The New Republic reported a nearly 200% increase in the number of people serving time for distributing drugs that led to death or injury from 2013 to 2017.

McMillian explained that applying this charge and increasing these efforts requires local and federal authorities to work together.

“They are the ones with boots on the ground who know when something happens. They are the ones who initiate. The first phases of the investigation that determine whether or not enough evidence is going to be collected, that we can bring a federal charge,” he said.

McMillian added that local police departments are working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to learn how to work overdoses into a federal prosecution rather than an accidental death investigation.

“That is a change that’s occurring in the Pee Dee and elsewhere, right now, is the local departments are learning that we can prosecute these cases so they can be investigated differently. That will hopefully allow us to charge even more of them going forward,” McMillian said.

Hill said his department has already amped up narcotics investigations and arrest numbers have increased.

“We can’t go after the big cartel. That’s just not our role in local law enforcement. There’s federal agencies to do that, but we can get the street dealership and we can go after the folks that are using. So if we can attack the demand and the supply, you’re going to resolve this,” Hill said.

McMillian shares a similar view and admits there is no one solution to resolving the problem.

“Prosecuting individuals who are bringing these drugs into our state and into our communities and poisoning our communities is just one piece of the puzzle. But it is the piece of the puzzle that we have at our disposal, and we’re trying to use it to bring justice for our community and to those individuals who were breaking the law in this way,” McMillian said.

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