The top local news story of 2016 is actually many stories, but they can all be summed up in a single word. Heroin.
What started with sporadic reports of overdoses early in the year turned into near-daily headlines about the drug, the users, the dealers and the effect it is having on the community. While in past years, law enforcement has dealt with meth labs and social service agencies with alcohol abuse, all eyes are now, it seems, turned to heroin.
It is a problem nationwide and statewide, but here is just a sampling of what has happened locally and why The Daily Record news staff voted overwhelmingly to make it the top story of the year.
The overdoses took place everywhere -- on front porches, in fast food restaurants, even in the restrooms in the grandstand during the Wayne County Fair. The users were from all over, all ages, all backgrounds.
Sometimes they ended up in court.
Sometimes they ended up dead.
Sometimes, they had help.
Larry Davenport, a 52-year-old from Sterling, pleaded guilty in July to involuntary manslaughter and possession of heroin and was sentenced to five years in prison after helping to administer what proved to be a fatal dose of heroin to 23-year-old Kimberly Karosy. The incident occurred in 2015 and, according to court documents, was the culmination of a relationship in which Davenport would pick the addicted Karosy up off the couch, carry her to his car, drive to Cleveland to pick up heroin, then return her to the couch and help her shoot up.
Shortly before the overdose, Karosy gave birth to a baby. Davenport told the court the child died and he placed the body in a cardboard box and put it in the bathtub.
Kristyn Manchester, 38, told a Holmes County judge her addiction started with the painkiller she had been prescribed for a medical condition and later had turned to heroin. Manchester was sentenced to 18 months in prison after she pleaded guilty to breaking into her ex-husband's house and stealing money she needed for drugs. The money, the judge noted, was stolen from her children.
It was that same need for drug money that led Joshua Hostottle, a 24-year-old Dresden man, and a friend to break into Hostottle's grandparents' home in Holmes County's Monroe Township. The incident, which occurred in 2015, led the man to plead guilty earlier this year to counts of burglary, theft, theft from an elderly person and grand theft of a firearm. He also stole his grandparents' credit card, leaving a trail of purchases that led to his arrest.
A Killbuck man who overdosed on heroin told a judge he'd rather go to prison than treatment.
Derek S. McKeag Jr., 26, was found unconscious at his home in June, foaming at the mouth, a needle still in his arm. But, county Prosecutor Steve Knowling said, McKeag was aware he'd do a short amount of time in prison as part of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction's "catch and release" program for low-level offenders and chose it over a treatment option and probation that would last longer.
"It's nonsense," he said, noting offenders like McKeag, who are prematurely bounced out of the prison system, are likely to continue to re-offend and, without jobs or other income sources, will continue to commit crimes to support their addiction.
The 2015 overdose death of Adam Marty in Wooster resulted in court cases in both Wayne and Holmes counties and showed, in part, how many people could be held responsible for one death.
Heroin, laced with fentanyl, was sold to Marty by Gary Martin, 33, of Wooster, who bought the drug from Kristin Johnson, 26, who was living in Millersburg with her mother, 50-year-old Susan Johnson.
Martin, who was prosecuted through the Wayne County courts, was sentenced to two years probation following a bench trial in which he was found guilty of one count of trafficking in heroin in the Marty death. Martin already was on probation for a 2014 trafficking conviction when he sold the heroin to Marty. Since his conviction in the Marty incident, Martin has been sentenced to prison on a new drug charge and a probation violation.
Martin's ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Phillips, was sentenced to 180 days in jail for her role in the Marty overdose. In Holmes County, Kristin Johnson, 26, who sold the heroin to Martin and Phillips, was sentenced to 11 months in prison, while her mother, Susan, was sentenced to six months in jail for permitting drug abuse in her home.
The lengths to which dealers and addicts would go to get drugs was no more evident than in a July robbery at the Country Corners Animal Clinic in Kidron. Thousands of pills -- including fentanyl, phenobarbital and tramadol -- were taken. Though their intended use was for the animal population, the drugs also were Schedule II narcotics.
Even as early as April, the Medway Drug Enforcement Agency knew it was facing a record-breaking year. It cut ties with the Brunswick Police Department in order to focus its full attention on Wayne County. In the past, agency director Don Hall said, meth labs were taking up a lot of Medway's time and resources. But the heroin and fentanyl trade is a top concern, he said, especially due to the number of overdose calls.
There were times those calls came in bunches, taxing the resources of first responders who were finding it often took more than one dose of Narcan to revive a user. Over the three days of the Rittman Sleepwalker Festival, police and emergency personnel responsed to four overdose calls -- running out of Narcan in the process.
Over one weekend in September, seven overdoses -- including one death -- were reported.
Wooster first responders were called to respond to five reported overdoses in the first week of November, including one man found at Discount Drug Mart and another in the restroom of the Salvation Army. A 21-year-old woman died after overdosing in the basement of her home.
In December, a 31-year-old Wooster woman overdosed while babysitting two of her friends' children, as well as her own year-old son. A needle was still in the arm of a 60-year-old man found dead days later at the Glen Ridge Mobile Home Park just east of Wooster.
What can be done?
Attempts to stem the epidemic have come from all corners -- law enforcement, social services, grassroots groups. A vigil was held the end of November on Wooster's Public Square and local youth coach and small business owner Ted Amstutz convened a grassroots organization that planned to meet monthly, as well as establishing the "Parents That Want to Help Fight Heroin" page on Facebook.
In Creston, where eight overdoses had been reported by August, Chief Bryon Meshew said his department would take part in the Police Assisted Addicted Recovery Initiative, getting people who needed help into places and programs that could assist them.
The results of a survey and related focus groups convened by the Family and Children First Council showed respondents were aware of the shift from alcohol to heroin as the primary drug of choice and how it affects children, families and the community. In April, the Rittman Salt Coalition kicked off the Rittman Opiate Awareness Project. During the program, coalition chairman Rob Gable offered what might be advice -- and a warning -- for the year to come.
"Opiate addiction is stronger and more powerful than what the government can handle on its own," he said. "It will take the community coming together and working together to prevent the problem.
By TAMI MOSSER Staff Writer