Casey Jordan Ross was a son, a brother, and the father of an 18-month-old girl. A star lacrosse player in his time at Urbana High School, Casey also loved painting, music and dogs.
Ross also struggled for years with opioid addiction, and, on April 26, 2017, at the age of 29, he died after overdosing on heroin at his home in Frederick.
“It was about 11:30 in the morning, I was actually on my way out the door when my wife picked up the phone and a man introduced himself as a sergeant with the Frederick city police,” said Barry Ross, Casey’s father. “She called me back into the room because she was terrified of what he was about to say, and then I picked up the phone [and] he told me my worst fear.”
Casey was one of 54 people — men, women, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers — who lost their lives in opioid overdoses in Frederick County last year, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the county sheriff’s office.
Last year marked the first year since the sheriff’s office began collecting data in 2012 in which overall overdoses fell from one year to the next, from 409 in 2016 to 341 last year, but the number of deaths remained the same as in 2016, a record high.
An evolving approach
The Frederick Police Department and the sheriff’s office both rank overdoses high on their lists of priorities, according to commanders of each agency’s respective drug units.
“When we get an overdose, we always attempt to get a drug enforcement officer out there to interview with the individual and try to get some leads to follow up on,” explained Lt. Kirk Henneberry, who oversees the Drug Enforcement Unit as commander of the police department’s Criminal Investigations Division.
The sheriff’s office’s Vice and Narcotics Section adopted a similar policy at about the same time when Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency in early 2016.
Frederick police responded to 129 overdoses last year, including 18 fatal ones, meaning DEU detectives had their hands full. Still, the work is often rewarding, said Officer 1st Class Patrick Spevak, a DEU detective who has gotten useful leads from talking to overdose victims and their families and friends.
“We’ve definitely seen a better result with us getting out on the scene that day, especially for deaths,” Spevak said. “A lot of times, particularly after a death, dealers will go into hiding, but we’ve been able to identify a couple of dealers and do a couple of reversals where we’ve been able to approach the dealers, draw them out to make some good arrests.”
Detectives are aided by the fact that a large number of people suffering from heroin addiction don’t want to be addicts, Spevak said.
The Good Samaritan law that went into effect in October 2015 has also helped encourage addicts and their friends or relatives to come forward by barring law enforcement from pursuing criminal charges against people reporting an overdose emergency under certain circumstances.
Getting smart to get results
With the subsequent increase in data on overdose trends and laws encouraging informants to step forward, local agencies are also taking steps to formalize the collection and sharing of that information.
Mark Burack was hired on April 24, 2017, as the Frederick Police Department’s first-ever heroin coordinator thanks to funds from the Governor’s Office on Crime Control and Prevention.
“When an overdose occurs, we analyze the overdose for intelligence and any trends, such as locations, people, vehicles, the type of drugs being used, anything that would be useful to law enforcement,” Burack said of his position. “Then we provide the information to law enforcement, in my case Frederick police, which would lead, hopefully, to the prosecution of dealers.”
Frederick County’s inclusion in the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program also allows Burack access to data from the city police’s partnering agencies in HIDTA, including the sheriff’s office, Brunswick police, the Maryland State Police and U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents, Burack said.
The same grant also funded a peer recovery specialist to work with Frederick police and county health officials to contact people who have overdosed and offer them resources to get clean.
Burack’s primary focus is to assist police in identifying and arresting dealers to stem the flow of opioids, but his success relies in part on police finding people willing to talk.
So while local police and health officials are more informed about the epidemic than ever, they must be able to overcome the stigma that surrounds heroin and drug addiction to do so.
The stigma of addiction
Bryan Riffle, 32, of Thurmont, is an outspoken advocate of the counseling and services that have helped him get clean.
That said, Riffle understands why many others aren’t as willing to acknowledge their addiction.
Riffle first heard about heroin when he was a high schooler growing up in Frederick County in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the drug was so rare here it was easy to write off as a vice of established troublemakers. Many, including Riffle himself, saw heroin use as a symptom of a personality type rather than its own disease.
“It was always the ‘bad kids,’ it was always the troubled kids that were a part of it, and now I can’t help but think that perception is why so many people still associate it with that, even today when it’s so common,” Riffle said. “The reality is, it’s a lot more than that.”
While Riffle never saw himself as particularly troubled, he nonetheless found himself spiraling into addiction after he was prescribed painkillers after an injury several years later.
Drawing on similar stories he has heard about as a drug detective, Spevak seeks to dispel the stigma of heroin addiction when he visits schools and neighborhood groups to speak.
“It’s students, it’s professionals, it’s people with good careers. It’s affecting everybody. ... Everybody knows somebody that either is a heroin addict or who has been affected at some point in their lives, so that’s our big push right now, to fight back that stigma and those perceptions,” Spevak said.
As further evidence of the continued stigma, Spevak pointed to the increased availability of naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. Widely available under the brand name Narcan, naloxone is now available without a prescription in an easy-to-use nasal spray.
“So many people have Narcan at their house now,” Spevak said. “The fear among us is, they’re giving it to their loved ones and then just not reporting [overdoses] to us.”
The ‘miracle’ drug
Police officers and emergency medical personnel are also equipped with Narcan and frequently use it to seemingly miraculous effect, reviving within seconds those who have overdosed on opioids.
The Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services does not record “saves” involving the use of Narcan to revive patients, but the agency as a whole administered 471 doses to 251 people last year, according to Battalion Chief Michael Cole, who oversees the division’s emergency medical services branch.
Year-end totals of 423 and 284 doses were administered by fire and rescue personnel in 2016 and 2015, respectively, according to Cole’s data, indicating continued growth.
Still, Spevak wasn’t alone in his fear that vulnerable addicts might become overly reliant on the so-called “miracle drug.”
The sheriff’s office recorded 39 Narcan “saves” by its deputies in 2017, which included 28 males and 11 females who overdosed. The agency also recorded seven cases where deputies administered Narcan, but the people still died, according to Maj. Tim Clarke, a sheriff’s office spokesman.
Heroin seized by police in and around Frederick County is often cut with much stronger synthetic opioids, commonly fentanyl, that can both increase the likelihood of an overdose and make it harder to revive them using even multiple doses of naloxone, Clarke said.
As abundant as naloxone is, drugs such as oxycodone and oxymorphone — prescription painkillers that many addicts cite as their introduction to opioids — remain far more widely available.
A slippery slope
In the late summer of 2006, Casey Ross was an 18-year-old Urbana High School graduate looking forward to joining the Virginia Wesleyan College men’s lacrosse team in the fall.
Having elected to enroll at Virginia Wesleyan in part for its proximity to the beach, it made sense that Casey chose to spend the last days of his summer vacation on a New Jersey beach with his friends, Barry Ross said.
What neither Casey nor his family saw coming was the broken neck Casey would suffer after diving into a shallow wave Aug. 7, 2006. Despite his remarkable recovery, the injury marked the end of Casey’s athletic career, and also introduced the young man to prescription painkillers.
“So not only did he get hooked on the drugs, but also his identity for all those years was being a star lacrosse player and now he had just lost that, too,” Barry Ross said, speaking with a Frederick News-Post reporter by telephone Thursday from Florida, where he moved with Casey’s mother, Nancy Ross, a few years ago.
Drugs offered an escape of sorts from both forms of pain, and for years, Casey’s parents engaged in what Barry Ross called “the whack-a-mole game,” with doctor’s offices where their son would seek prescriptions.
“I would say ‘He’s an addict; he’s been going to rehab, and now he’s fooling around with heroin and one of the worst things you can do is make it easy for him and prescribe him with all of these drugs,’” Barry Ross said. “And they would say, ‘He says he needs it, so we’re going to give it to him.’”
Struggling for sobriety
Casey’s family and loved ones also celebrated Casey’s long periods of sobriety when he was able to triumph over his disease thanks to rehab, counseling and the fierce determination that always defined his character.
During one long period of sobriety in 2015, Casey met Stephanie Mangold, who was also in recovery, and the two began dating.
“He was a great guy, he was clean then, and he was such a great guy,” Mangold said, remembering Casey’s infectious smile and unbridled passion for life. “He loved everything. He never wanted to sit in the house. He always wanted to go do something.”
On Aug. 2, 2016, Casey and Stephanie embarked on a new chapter of their relationship when Mangold gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Riley Lynn Ross, Mangold said.
The dream came to a tragic end when Casey’s addiction once again reared its head, and Mangold made the difficult choice to remove herself and Riley in the hopes that Casey would once again find a path to recovery.
Unfortunately, after a final, monthlong stint in rehab in Cumberland, Casey suffered another relapse that ultimately claimed his life.
Finding strength through sadness
For some, an overdose can be enough to motivate a person to seek recovery, Spevak said.
“You’ll sometimes deal with the same person, over and over, four or five times, and sometimes they’ll tell you, you know, to go F yourself,” Spevak said. “But sometimes, after patrol has brought somebody back, you’ll sit down with them, and they’re terrified. They’ll tell you they don’t want to do this anymore.”
For others, like Riffle, the death of a friend can serve the same purpose.
Early last year, one of Riffle’s good friends, 25-year-old Woodsboro resident Matthew Thomas Delash, was found dead in the Monocacy River. An autopsy by the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later determined that opioid intoxication was a contributing factor in Delash’s death.
“It was a total shock. I had met him through another friend and we just clicked right away, we would hang out all the time, I would talk to him every day,” Riffle said. “He had just gotten back from rehab in Jersey.”
While he was concerned when Delash stopped returning his texts, Riffle was reluctant to visit his friend’s house because he didn’t want to upset Delash’s parents — Riffle and Delash initially met through other drug users, Riffle said.
Shortly after Delash’s death, Riffle sought recovery and, after a brief relapse in May, he managed to make it stick. As of this week, Riffle has been sober for six months.
Even though his path to sobriety is a constant source of pride and joy, Riffle sometimes finds himself gripped with guilt.
“I was out there doing the same things, you know? I mean, I was going to Baltimore to buy caps to do drugs and that’s the exact same thing you hear about these people who have died,” Riffle said. “How come I’m still alive and these people are dying all around me?”
Guilt is also something Mangold has had to come to terms with, both as a recovering addict and someone who has lost a loved one to the same disease.
“I’ve been there myself. I know a lot of people that have been there, but just because you’re an addict doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” she said. “Casey was a great person; he just had a disease. People wouldn’t judge you if you had cancer and you died from that. You just have to get the right treatment.”
Mangold and Casey’s parents are quick to point out all the ways Casey lives on every day, in Riley, who is now 18 months old, and most recently, when one of Casey’s half-brothers, 37-year-old Joey Collins, named his newborn daughter after him: Ava Casey Collins.
“If you’re still alive, then it’s not too late,” Mangold said.