Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 30, 2011

Newsmakers: Overdoses present 'huge problem'


TRAVERSE CITY — Several Grand Traverse area residents died from drug overdoses in 2011, continuing a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

At least five people in the region died of overdoses this year. Some of the victims abused methadone or other prescription medications, while others took fatal doses of heroin or other illicit narcotics. Dozens of people throughout northern Michigan overdosed in the past several years.

"It's certainly a huge problem in our area," said Jim Heinrich, detox manager at Traverse City-based Addiction Treatment Services.

Authorities vowed to seek criminal charges against those who provided the victims with drugs, but few cases have been prosecuted in recent years. Investigations are ongoing in most instances, and authorities said they're not always easy.

"Your best witness is dead, and now you've got to work backwards," Benzie County Sheriff Rory Heckman said.

Benzie County had three overdose deaths this year, including Michael Everett in March and Nikita Cheyenne Wheeler and Noah Thomas Maxwell in May. Everett, 21, and Wheeler, 20, died of heroin, while Maxwell, 25, had a mixture of methadone and morphine in his system.

The multi-jurisdictional Traverse Narcotics Team continues to investigate those deaths, Heckman said. It's likely the cases will end up in federal hands because there's indication some of the drugs involved may have come from outside the state. He's "optimistic" charges eventually will be issued.

Prosecutors in March declined to issue charges tied to the Jan. 20 death of Drew Hemingway, 25, who died of an overdose in a residence on Cochlin Street in Traverse City. Authorities eventually determined he died from "mixed drug toxicity," city police Capt. Brian Heffner said, with heroin and cocaine found in his system.

Grand Traverse Prosecutor Alan Schneider determined there wasn't enough evidence the suspect in the case intentionally provided drugs to Hemingway.

The city alone had four overdose deaths in 2009, and charges still haven't been filed in any of those cases. Heffner said it can be difficult to prove that a suspect caused another individual's death, especially if multiple drugs are found in the victim's system and it's not clear if the person who provided the drugs did so intentionally.

"There are multiple variables involved here," Heffner said.

Prescription painkillers have plagued the area for years, but heroin use also has been on the rise, Heinrich said.

"It used to always be Oxycontin and methadone and things like that, but recently we've seen a number of people (in which) heroin was the drug of choice," he said.

All of this years' Benzie victims were in their 20s, as were two of the city's 2009 victims. That's not unusual, Heinrich said.

"I see so many young people coming through our doors addicted to heroin or other narcotics, and it's just devastating," he said.