Editor’s note: Blair County has seen more than 130 drug overdose deaths in the last 2.5 years, up significantly since six overdose deaths were reported in 1999. The following is the first in a series of articles looking into the drug crisis in Blair County.
For more than 40 years, Blair County law enforcement has been confronting drug abuse and the recurrent crimes associated with it, but within the past couple of years, the drug war has turned more deadly than ever.
Blair County Coroner Patty Ross reported more than 130 overdose deaths have been investigated by her office in 2020, 2021 and during the first few months of 2022.
The deadly abuse of drugs has not abated over the years, she said.
“Things are terrible, really,” Ross said, noting she’s seen a lot more drug overdoses than in previous years.
During a recent workday, her office was extremely busy, and Ross had a heavy burden to bear — informing a mother that her son had died of a heroin overdose.
“I’m so sorry,” she said during the phone conversation.
Over a short period of time, Ross was visited by a constant flow of police officers and her deputies, and she expressed concern about the many different issues she sees in the coroner’s office.
For instance, her office has investigated a series of fatal fires. She believes at least some of the victims of those fires would still be alive if they would have maintained their smoke detectors.
The coroner stressed the need for a morgue so that families can properly view and identify their deceased relatives. She also talked about how she strives to maintain the dignity of victims in death, including those who overdose on drugs, but whose families are unknown or can’t be found.
On the drug front, she remains very concerned — almost stunned — by the recent uptick in drug deaths by fentanyl and methamphetamine, alone and mixed with other drugs, including heroin and oxycodone.
In one of her inquest reports, she listed fentanyl, heroin and THC — the active ingredient that affects the mental state of a marijuana user — as the cause of death.
She reported three deaths this year attributed to para-fluorofentanyl, a drug so powerful that the person taking it dies while still standing.
“Some drugs are horrible deaths,” she said.
Another derivative of fentanyl seen in Blair County is carfentanil, which poses a danger to first responders.
They can feel the lethal effects of the drug by touching it. It’s no wonder, as carfentanil is used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large mammals and is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
It is often mixed in with other drugs such as heroin, cocaine or crystal meth — and often drug users have no idea their drugs have been tainted.
Overdoses, deaths on the rise
The coroner’s office reported 57 drug deaths in 2021, 56 such deaths in 2020 and more than 30 deaths by August of this year.
Ross, a registered nurse, has been associated with the coroner’s office for 30 years and has been the elected coroner since 1998.
To put the numbers in perspective, Ross scanned her computer for the year 1999.
She began to count and reported that in 1999 there were six drug overdose deaths in Blair County.
That is a far cry from the 2021 total of 57, and it does not include the overdose cases treated by hospital emergency personnel.
In a report issued that year by Operation Our Town, Altoona Police Chief Joseph Merrill stated his officers responded to 250 overdoses.
The overdose count is probably much higher, now that naloxone, a drug used to reverse the effects of an overdose, is readily available at pharmacies.
Inquest reports filed annually with the Blair County Courthouse show that of the 57 drug deaths last year, 45 were males.
Many people believe that it’s the young who suffer the most severe consequences of the drug culture, but Ross’ 2021 inquests belie that assumption.
The bulk of the overdose deaths in 2021 were people in their 30s, 40s and 50s; the oldest overdose victim was 83, while the next oldest was 73, according to statistics.
Another statistic testifying to the drug crisis locally is shown in the number of drug delivery deaths, or those deaths in which police believe they can determine who supplied the fatal overdose to the victim.
Courthouse records show at least five active investigations underway this year.
Ross works closely with police and Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks, providing them with reports of her investigations.
UPMC reported in July that there were nearly 108,000 drug overdose deaths investigated nationwide in 2021.
“In 2021, the majority of drug buys in Blair County were either for methamphetamine or heroin, much of it laced with fentanyl, causing more deaths than we can imagine. This is a war, not a battle, and we strive to manage it the best we can with our three main focuses on law enforcement, prevention and treatment,” Michael A. Fiore, co-founder/president, Operation Our Town, said in his Letter from the President published in the organization’s 2022 report.
Drugs and violence
Drug crimes and violence seem to go hand-in-hand. At least that has been the experience in Blair County.
The story of that violence dates back 41 years to Sept. 9, 1981.
A Blair County grand jury was empaneled to investigate the brutal murders of two city residents, John Henry Clark and Dennis Hileman.
Clark was a small-time drug dealer.
His body was found in a burning car along a rural Cambria County road not far from the Blair County line. He died when struck on the head with an ax.
Hileman’s body was found in the Tipton Reservoir.
Both allegedly roused the ire of the leaders of an Altoona-based crime family led by businessmen John Verilla, John Caramadre and Vincent Caracciolo.
Clark threatened to expose the family’s drug activity, while Hileman was marked for death as a mob informant.
A special unit of state police troopers, led by Ed Pottmeyer, did the investigative work for the grand jury, which was led by Philadelphia County Assistant District Attorney L. George Parry, who remains in practice in the City of Brotherly Love, and Special Assistant Attorney General D. Brooks Smith, who eventually became a Blair County district attorney and judge and who recently went into semi-retirement as the chief judge of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Pottmeyer, charismatic with a wry sense of humor and a trooper who didn’t abide inference with his investigation either by his state police superiors or the FBI, said in a recent interview that his team found so much crime in the area “it was overwhelming who to go after.”
He said cocaine was coming into the Altoona area from Cuba and South Florida and not from the mob.
His team also concluded the local “family” was involved in all types of crime, including arsons, loan sharking and murder.
However, the investigators hit pay dirt when Pottmeyer interviewed a former Altoona-area osteopath, John Maras, who was doing prison time for writing false prescriptions.
Pottmeyer said Maras started out writing false prescriptions for quaaludes, a type of sedative that became a popular drug on the streets.
People would be sent to Maras, who would prescribe the pills. That person would be paid $25, and the pills would be given to street dealers.
Maras, in court testimony, claimed he was making thousands of dollars a week on quaaludes and other drugs.
The money interested the leaders of the crime family, who met with Maras and eventually accepted him as an associate.
Maras “became a finger of the mob,” Pottmeyer said.
He said the crime family eventually — in an effort to get drug agents off Maras’ back — concocted a fake robbery.
Maras reported to police that two “husky” men entered his Altoona office, tied up him along with his wife, beat him and took his drugs and his records.
Pottemeyer explained that the husky men were members of Vince Caracciolo’s crew — Caracciolo was the mob enforcer — and Maras requested that one of the crew punch him to make the robbery look real.
That punch knocked Maras to the floor, broke his glasses and left a definite mark, Pottmeyer said.
Pottmeyer reported the crime family made $60,000 selling Maras’ drug stash.
It was the drug business that became the key to the grand jury’s success in breaking up the crime family because it led to convictions and imprisonment of the leaders for the brutal death of John Henry Clark.
The grand jury team, after four years of work, was eventually discontinued, but Pottmeyer, 82 and retired, maintains there was still plenty of work remaining for that special unit to do.
Pottmeyer is writing a book about his experiences.
‘They come to make money’
While the Blair County grand jury proved a success in eliminating the quaalude problem, police from the local to the federal level in the next few decades would experience an onslaught of drugs that included cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, fentanyl bath salts and multiple other substances that attempt to quench the craving of people who are seeking the ultimate high.
Drug companies attempted to convince the public that opioids could eliminate their pain, and when pills weren’t available, users would turn to heroin or cocaine — and more recently to even more dangerous fentanyl-laced products.
The door was open once again for the criminal element to thrive, and many gangs, attended by their violence, took advantage of the opportunity.
They came from Buffalo, Brooklyn, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Camden, East Orange and Detroit.
Anthony Sassano, a former Altoona police officer who went on to a career with the attorney general’s office, explained the attraction.
Sassano, who was the chief of the AG’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control, views the problem as statewide.
Drug gangs come to communities from major metropolitan areas for the money.
“It’s the same everywhere. The main reason is money. It’s to make money. These guys are organized. They come to these areas to make money,” he stated emphatically.
The gangs came to Altoona. They fought over territory, and more and more local residents became addicted to the product — whatever drug it might be.
By 2006, the violence was once again surging.
Altoona Detective John McTigue was placed in charge of the city’s vice and narcotics unit.
Drugs were having a major impact on crime.
Thefts and burglaries spiked as users sought money to support their habits, he said.
The number of overdose deaths began to increase.
“The biggest impact was on the families: the fathers, the sisters of drug addicts wondering when the call was going to come that a brother or sister had died due to overdose,” McTigue said.
The families at least knew if their relative went to jail, they weren’t going to overdose, he said.
Gang violence was prevalent, McTigue said, adding: “We were having a lot of shootings early in 2006. Gangs were warring over turf. There were shootings all the time.”
McTigue, as a member of the area’s drug task force that was created in 1988, knew the drug world.
He said he was appointed as the lead detective of the vice-narcotics unit to stop the violence.
“I loved working for the Altoona Police Department. I gave my heart and soul to that place for 25 years,” he said.
While his new job was 24/7 and very challenging, he liked working drugs.
He took an aggressive approach to the job, noting that the drug task force would plan periodic raids during which multiple dealers would be rounded up. He changed the procedure.
He began hitting the street dealers hard, not waiting for a mass roundup. The task force officers would make a buy and then bust the small-time dealers. Police would follow the bust by issuing search warrant after search warrant.
The street dealers didn’t know what hit them, he said.
Afraid of arrest, many users began to go to local methadone clinics, and many agreed to become informants.
“We had a huge network of informants,” he said.
Police were finally able to go beyond the street dealers and identify the leaders who came from major metropolitan areas.
One of the street gangs operating locally was the Bloods from Brooklyn.
As the heat was turned up by the police, the leaders of the Bloods gang moved their operation back to Brooklyn.
When a user needed a fix, he would call a number and place an order in Brooklyn.
A local dealer in Altoona would be apprised of the order and would give the drugs to a “minion,” (as McTigue described them) who would make the actual delivery.
The money for the transaction would be transferred back to Brooklyn each day.
The leaders believed that they had double protection from discovery, but the pressure on the drug world came to the point where police knew when drugs were coming from Brooklyn and, as McTigue stated, at one point the heroin supply locally began to dwindle.
Police eventually worked their way to the top and launched a drug bust in which 29 dealers were arrested, including seven members of the Brooklyn Bloods.
The drug sweep put an end to the $2 million drug operation.
Thomas Corbett — at that time Pennsylvania’s attorney general — confirmed through New York authorities the seven suspects were members of the Bloods organization.
As for stopping the violence, McTigue gave an example.
Police one night served one of their many search warrants at a Bell Avenue home.
They separated the people inside the home for interviews, and as luck would have it, an informant was inside.
The informant told police that night that a gang from Pittsburgh was going to kill gang members from New York, or as McTigue put it, “Pittsburgh was going to kill New York.”
The attack never happened.
Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks believes in tough law enforcement and in stiff sentences for drug dealers, pointing out that relationship between the drug world and crime.
Weeks said he supported the way McTigue went about his job in 2006-08, when the Altoona officer retired.
Before coming to Blair County to fill a new position in the district attorney’s office, Weeks worked in Lawrence County where he was tutored by Senior Deputy Attorney General Mike Awesh, who emphasized the relationship between drugs and crime.
Weeks said he became passionate about his belief that law enforcement must make drug dealing more costly than whatever benefit the dealer gains by practicing his trade.
That means long, very long, sentences for drug gang leaders.
Blair County judges have supported that theory over the years, and many such leaders who came to Altoona to sell drugs are now in the state prison system serving decades in jail.
Weeks’ theory of addressing the drug problem through harsh sentences was challenged several years ago by the now-deceased leader of the Blair County Chapter of the NAACP, Don Witherspoon, who maintained the long sentences were having a devastating effect on the African American community.
Weeks, however, emphasizes his office does not focus on race when it comes to sentencing, and he continues to seek long sentences for those who deal drugs, particularly for repeat offenders.
Blair’s district attorney noted that the first four homicides he ever prosecuted as DA were drug-related.
He believes in treatment options and other programs, but he stressed the safety of the community is his top priority.
Drug war continues on many fronts
Weeks was hired in Blair County to fill a new position in the DA’s office funded by a novel organization, Operation Our Town.
It’s a one-of-a-kind program that sets Blair County’s approach to the drug issue apart from most other counties.
As McTigue was in the process of dealing with out-of-town gangs, a group of businessmen and others were upset with the impact of drugs on the community.
Ron McConnell, who was then the chief operating officer of Altoona Regional Health System (now UPMC Altoona), was quoted by the Mirror in March 2007 as stating, “We are angry and fed up with what is going on in our community.”
Michael Fiore of the construction firm of L.S. Fiore said, “We’ve all seen what’s happening in our neighborhoods because of the rise of illegal drug use. As everybody knows, drugs breed crime, often violent crime, and the cycle of drugs and crime can destroy a community.”
Operation Our Town rallied the community to confront the drug problem through law enforcement.
Our Town also provides financial assistance to agencies that seek to prevent drug abuse among the young, last year providing grants to the Altoona Area School District, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Center for Independent Living, the Gloria Gates Foundation, Leaders of Tomorrow and the 18th Street Community Church, Sanctuary Recovery House, as well as others.
The Operation Our Town charter was signed by Fiore, Phil Devorris, chief executive officer of Blair Companies, and Joe Sheetz, the former CEO of the Sheetz Inc.
It has provided grants for programs and assistance to law enforcement for the past 15 years.
“Operation Our Town is a fantastic benefit to us,” Weeks said as he lent his support to an Our Town program that gives young people what he calls “a good environment” to go to after school.
“That’s what we should all look for. It gives people hope in life. It keeps kids from using drugs,” he said.
Another strong supporter of Operation Our Town is Randy Feathers, a former Altoona police officer who eventually ascended to the position of director of the State College Regional Office of the Attorney General’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigations and Control.
In referring to Operation Our Town, Feathers commented that by 2006, shootings, gang activity and drug overdoses were escalating.
“It was like a poisonous disease, a cancer that spread quickly throughout our neighborhoods, impacting our youth and endangering the lives of many,” he said.
He said a group of concerned citizens, in studying the problem, concluded law enforcement did not have the resources needed to deter and reduce the impact of criminal behavior in our neighborhoods.
The battle is not over, and in many ways it has just begun.
“If we, for one minute, let our guard down, we will find ourselves back where we started,” Feathers said. “We must remain unified as citizens.”
NEXT WEEK: Operation Our Town tries to help local law enforcement stem the influx of drugs.
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