05 Jul Police target drug dealers as fatal opioid overdoses mount
When she died of an overdose inside the bathroom stall at the small Norwich restaurant where she worked, Carolyn de Wit’s death laid bare the reality that the powerful painkiller fentanyl had arrived in Southwestern Ontario.
It also signalled the opening of a new front in the justice system’s fight against the opioid drug crisis sweeping the region and Ontario. William Knapp, de Wit’s cousin’s husband, was charged with manslaughter in the January 2016 death of the 32-year-old mother of three.
Knapp had sold de Wit a single 50-microgram patch of the powerful painkiller from his own prescription. By pleading guilty to criminal negligence causing death, a conviction that sent him to prison for two-and-a-half years, he admitted he knew how dangerous the drug could be.
Since Knapp’s case, there’s been a spike in manslaughter charges laid across Ontario against people whom police allege supplied the drugs to overdose victims. Ontario has joined other provinces and several U.S. states looking to the courts to punish drug dealers pushing the drug, which is 100 times more powerful than heroin.
The movement of those yardsticks in the face of the deadly opioid crisis is no coincidence.
“The evolution of the trend has a lot to do with the evolution of the crisis,” said OPP Supt. Bryan MacKillop, the director of the provincial police force’s organized crime enforcement bureau.
“As increased numbers of overdoses occur, you’re going to see increased enforcement, increased number of charges and increased targeting of the people who are trafficking these drugs.”
The target, he said, is “on the people who are trafficking, selling, importing and manufacturing these drugs that are killing people.”
In Ontario, since de Wit’s death in her Oxford County town, manslaughter charges related to overdoses have been laid in Norfolk, South Simcoe, Lambton, North Bay, Perth, Huron, Bruce, York Region and the Sudbury area. Most of those charges were laid this year.
“We’ve got a responsibility to hold criminal offenders accountable,” said Greater Sudbury police Chief Paul Pederson, the incoming president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.
“From a policing perspective, we’re really getting our heads around the fact that people who are manufacturing (the drugs), the people who are then dealing in these illegal and deadly substances, have to be held to the highest level of accountability possible.”
The reasons are as plain as the skyrocketing statistics. Opioid-related deaths have been increasing since 2003, but took a huge leap in 2015 and 2016. Public Health Ontario reports that 1,394 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2018, up from 2017.
The OPP say there was a 35 per cent increase in overdose deaths in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same period last year. They note in a recent report that other areas of Canada have seen even greater increases in the number of deaths.
The spike in charges relates to the OPP and other police forces taking a new investigative approach. MacKillop said the police have embedded the definition of overdose – cited in Canada’s Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act – into their policies and are embarking on “comprehensive and consistent investigations of all overdoses across the board,” with a clear eye on targeting the traffickers.
Pederson said any charges are laid in consultation with local Crowns. What’s necessary is “a clear line” from purchase to the consumption of the drug and a cause of death that is directly related to the opioid.
Fentanyl can kill a first-time user with as little as two milligrams. It’s dangerous enough on its own, but more troubling is the ease with which it can be mixed with other street drugs. Some of it comes from prescription medication, but a powerful illegal fentanyl from overseas labs, with unregulated dosages, is being smuggled into the country.
Added to the crisis is the introduction of carfentinil, a fentanyl-related opioid that’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine.
“It really is a deadly game of Russian roulette” for street drug users, Pederson said.
MacKillop said the ultimate goal is to tear down distribution channels both nationally and internationally. But fentanyl trafficking has unique features and has changed the definition of the typical drug dealer.
The opioid crisis includes “cyber-enabled criminals who are able to order synthetic opioids over the dark web and have it delivered right to them,” he said.
“It’s a new type of drug dealer, who doesn’t necessarily have to take advantage of or be part of the larger drug distribution network we’re seeing in organized crime.”
Enforcement is only one prong in the approach to help the addicted and punish the pushers.
Since the OPP adopted its new policy in September, there have been more investigations “because we are trying to attack this from both sides.
“The overarching goal, as we deal with these investigations consistently and thoroughly across the province, is that they fuel larger-scale investigations,” MacKillop said.
Opioids have created “a whole new world,” and manslaughter charges are a logical offshoot given the number of deaths, one Southwestern Ontario expert says.
“It’s a killer drug,” said Brian Farmer, a retired Crown attorney and law professor. “This is no different than walking down Dundas Street with a loaded handgun, just shooting it off. You’re going to kill somebody.”
What the courts will have to sort out, particularly during the sentencing in such cases, is making “a distinction between the big-time dealers and the petty-ante, the little ‘I’m-going-to share-with-you dealers,’” Farmer said.
But there’s concern that the legal moves aren’t necessarily getting to the heart of the problem.
London defence lawyer Andy Rady, president of the London Criminal Lawyers Association, said the risk of charges may be an effective deterrent for law-abiding people, “but a lot of people who are involved in criminal activity aren’t deterred by much.”
Rady agrees “the plague of fentanyl” and “the way people are dying all the time, including in and out of jail, it’s been seen as: Something serious has to be done about it.
“There’s never really been a drug before, in my experience, that has been this deadly and has caused this much of a problem,” he said.
Already, some trends emerging.
In the Knapp case, and in cases in Lambton and Brant, there have been guilty pleas to criminal negligence causing death, a charge with the same legal construct as manslaughter. While the latter sounds more serious, for a conviction both charges require proof there was no intent to kill. Both also carry maximum sentences of life in prison.
Rady said the Crown can get convictions to manslaughter by proving criminal negligence, but not necessarily the other way around. The decision to accept a guilty plea to criminal negligence might come down to “legal esoterics.”
“In a lot of people’s minds, manslaughter is worse, when it isn’t,” Rady said, adding they’re two of the most serious charges in criminal law.
“Arguably, you’d rather plead (guilty) to criminal negligence than to manslaughter, and from the Crown’s point of view, they’re still getting a conviction for something that will result in probably a hefty jail sentence.”
When Knapp was sentenced a year ago, Superior Court Justice Thomas Heeney warned not to use his decision of two-and-a-half years in prison – a joint sentencing submission by the Crown and the defence – as the precedent in other drug manslaughter cases, because de Wit’s death came at the beginning of the opioid crisis when communities were just learning about the danger.
Since then, there have been sentences as long as six years in prison. The sentences will likely get even longer as the crisis deepens.
“The (sentencing) tariff, as we’re learning more and more about how horrible fentanyl is, is going to go up,” Rady said.
The police will leave that to the courts. They remain single-focused.
“The message to all people who are trafficking in these drugs is: ‘You’re killing people and we will try everything within our power to hold you accountable for that,’” McKillop said.
FENTANYL AND MANSLAUGHTER IN SOUTHWESTERN ONTARIO
April 2018 – Carolyn de Wit, 32, dies in a bathroom stall in the Norwich restaurant where she worked on Jan. 25, 2016, after her cousin’s husband, William Knapp, 37, sold her a single fentanyl patch. He was the first in Ontario to be charged with manslaughter at the start of the fentanyl crisis. In April, 2018, he pleaded guilty in Woodstock court to criminal negligence causing death and was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
September 2018 – A judge sentences long-time drug dealer Andrew Earl Allison, 35, to 10 years in prison – one of the harshest penalties recorded for fentanyl-related deaths – for criminal negligence causing death and other drug charges. He’d been charged with manslaughter in the death of Anthony Micro, 46, in Brantford in September 2017. Allison had mixed up baggies of soft cocaine and fentanyl he had in his pockets when he sold drugs to Micro. Six years of the sentence was allotted to the criminal negligence conviction.
March 14 – Norfolk OPP charge Morgan Daniel Fick, 21, with manslaughter, possession of fentanyl and other drug-related charges in connection with the death of Ashley Gravelle, 35, of Port Dover, who died on March 2. On May 1, Carilyn Michelle Deming, 23, also was charged with manslaughter in connection with Gravelle’s death.
May 3 – Karen Edel-Savage, 59, pleads guilty to criminal negligence causing death in a Sarnia court after facing a manslaughter charge in the death of Daniel Lapointe on Aug. 9, 2017. She’d sold crack cocaine to Lapointe and his partner, calling the drugs “a real head-spinner.” Her sentencing hearing is slated for September.
May 27 – Terry Collins, 54, makes his first court appearance in Stratford on a manslaughter charge in connection with the Dec. 21, 2018 death of a 48-year-old Stratford man.
June 7 – Kayla Field, 27, of Central Huron and Brandon Weitzel, 28, of Goderich are charged with manslaughter in connection with the death of David Spies, 42, of Central Huron, who was found unresponsive at a home on Cut Line. More charges were laid June 14 against Stephen Feddes, 49, of Central Huron, who is facing accessory after the fact, and other charges. Field and Weitzel had additional criminal negligence causing death charges added.
Manslaughter charges have been laid in cases in Sudbury, Barrie and Collingwood.
- Highly addictive painkillers, also called narcotics, made from opium poppies or synthesized in a lab
- There are many different kinds of prescription and illegal opioids with varying strengths, including morphine, heroin, hydromorphone, oxycodone and fentanyl.
- Prescription opioid pills, often prescribed as painkillers, can be abused by patients or diverted to the streets, where they may be smoked, crushed and snorted or injected by drug users.
- Opioids have been implicated in more than 11,500 deaths nationwide since 2016.