Although some believe the height of the opioid crisis is behind Cabell County and Huntington, Cabell Sheriff Chuck Zerkle said Thursday that he fears for what is to come after detailing the strain the opioid crisis has placed on the governments’ resources.
Zerkle’s testimony was given at a Charleston trial in which the governments accuse the “Big Three” drug wholesalers — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — of sending excessive shipments of opioids into the area for eight years, before a reduction in the number of pills shipped made users turn to illicit drugs.
The defendants point to the Drug Enforcement Administration, doctors and West Virginians’ poor health as the culprits.
At the questioning of Cabell County attorney Anthony Majestro, Zerkle — who started his career in 1985 with the Huntington branch of the West Virginia State Police before serving as Milton police chief for two years until 2015 — testified that the opioid crisis started around 2007, when Huntington doctors were flooding the county with pill prescriptions.
“It’s long from being over,” he said. “I fear for what comes for my grandchildren and the next generation. This is not about me. I’m an old guy. I’m done. What comes down the road, that’s what I worry about.”
With pills, Zerkle said there was not a large number of overdoses because people were taking pills they could trust. As heroin abuse raged, dealers started cutting it with stronger drugs like fentanyl, which caused overdoses and deaths.
Deputies started carrying naloxone, not only for the public, but for their own protection.
“When I was a young trooper, it was a rare occurrence when I saw a dead body,” Zerkle said. “In one day, my deputies encountered four deaths. That in itself took a toll on our people.”
It makes it hard to recruit, he said.
Zerkle said opioid abuse left the jail system overwhelmed.
Since 2017, Cabell County has had a jail bill deficit of about $3.3 million, with a monthly bill of about $360,000. Cabell officials started removing people with petty property crimes and putting them in home confinement, he said, which went from 60 to 70 people to 150 to 160 today, saving about $1.4 million a year.
The crisis takes up his deputies’ time, he said, with deputies serving on a drug task force, writing grants and five more serving as school resource officers. Zerkle’s deputies must be present in courtrooms as well, which has been a strain on his staff since the crime rate exploded.
About 10% of the deputies are school resource officers and participate in the “Handle With Care” program, which helps the school know when an officer has had to go to a student’s home. Zerkle said he would like to double that number, but it’s not possible. He also wants to expand the drug unit, but those officers are taken off the road patrol, which hurts.
He is also worried about the mental health of his deputies, he said, and is applying for a grant to help, but grant money is inconsistent and they cannot rely on it.
The Cabell County Sheriff’s Department also has the sole role of serving mental hygiene warrants, which takes about 10 to 12 hours of a deputy’s time. Cabell County receives about 700 a year, more than all other West Virginia counties combined, Zerkle said.
As the county’s tax collector, Zerkle has seen the impact economically.
“We’ve got this publicity of being the opioid epicenter. This ain’t good publicity. This is bad,” he said. “If you were a major company, would you want to come [here] knowing what you look at?”
He said people are moving out of the county. The state of West Virginia owns 350 homes in Huntington alone — homes Zerkle was unable to sell on the courthouse steps after the owners fell behind on taxes.
Those houses lead to other crimes, such as trespassing, theft and fires.
Gretchen Callas, an attorney for AmerisourceBergen, said Zerkle ignored the prevalent meth abuse in West Virginia, which he acknowledged during his time with the Milton Police Department, and cannot connect the distributor’s role in the closed drug system to heroin abuse.
A McKesson attorney pointed to drug trafficking organizations that have fueled illicit drug sales in the county for at least two decades as the cause for the opioid epidemic.
Callas said while Zerkle said the county is momentarily overwhelmed, the jail bill and crime is decreasing and the county has a surplus of $500,000, which could be allocated to the sheriff’s department. Zerkle had no statistics to show how many of the crimes were related to drugs, she said.
Zerkle said the surplus was for a Rainy Day Fund and there were a lot of rainy days ahead for Huntington and Cabell County. He pointed to an influx of overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.
Dr. Lyn O’Connell, associate director of addiction sciences at Marshall Health, took the stand for about an hour Thursday to start her testimony on Huntington’s road to recovery, much of which centers around the building of programs since 2009 and de-stigmatizing people who suffer opioid use disorder.
Her testimony, which will continue Friday morning, is to show the resources the governments have had to put into recovery programs to fight the opioid crisis over the years.
The programs included educating youth, faith leaders and first responders of opioid use disorder, but also included preventative care programs, like the Cabell-Huntington Health Department’s harm reduction services and Huntington’s Quick Response Team. It also included Proact, a recovery hub offering a variety of services.
Before the local officials took the stand, the defense continued to seek the blockage of the testimony from James “Ralf” Rafalski, a retired diversion investigator at the DEA, from being entered into the record for the trial.
Rafalski had testified the defendants should have flagged anywhere from 20% to 99.8%, most categories showing more than 50%, of their shipments, but reported 415 of 189,100 transactions.
The defendants said Rafalski’s findings were based on the analysis of another person, which left room for human error. His report was incomplete and only focused on what the plaintiffs had asked him to find. He left out how doctors, pharmacies and manufacturers had contributed to the opioid crisis, they said.
Senior U.S. District Judge David Faber said he was shocked when Rafalski suggested 90% of the pill shipments should have been blocked in some instances, but Cabell County attorney Paul Farrell Jr. said the data did not necessarily mean it needed to be blocked.
“What that indicates is when the fire alarm gets pulled, it stays on until someone stops it,” he said. “He’s not suggesting those pills should be blocked — what he is saying is that with the absence of due diligence, the fire alarm stays on.”
McKesson attorney Paul Schmidt said that would only be correct if no due diligence had been done by the companies to see if the threshold rising was justified.
Faber said Rafalski’s testimony was “crucially important to the case” and asked the sides to submit written arguments for him to review.