BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Perhaps the most alarming thing when an assistant prosecutor with the Second Judicial District told his boss three people in Kingsport had died of drug overdoses in one night was this: District Attorney Barry Staubus wasn’t even that alarmed.

The longtime prosecutor’s lack of surprise is down to one thing: fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s 100 times more powerful than morphine, cheap to produce and showing up laced into everything from other opioids to methamphetamine and even cocaine.

Second Judicial District DA Barry Staubus says the fentanyl scourge is more dangerous than any other wave of drugs he’s seen, including crack cocaine and methamphetamine. (WJHL photo)

“We’re frankly overwhelmed with the amount of drug cases we have in the area and fentanyl has taken over the number one position,” Staubus told News Channel 11. He and Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy are part of a coordinated effort that includes the public health and education sectors.

Multiple agencies are working together each time a drug overdose death occurs. Their goal is to gather information and move up the distribution food chain to gangs they say are trafficking huge amounts of fentanyl and other drugs into an area where they can make better margins.

Despite a cohesive approach, efforts to gain lengthy sentences against the high-level dealers, and even pursuing second-degree murder charges against people they can prove provided a drug that included enough fentanyl to kill someone, the pair say they often feel like they’re swimming against the tide.

“You could actually go in and do a huge drug investigation every day of the week, you know, just walking out here talking to people really,” Cassidy said. “I mean, it’s just amazing, just the drug transactions that [are] taking place in parking lots and grocery stores and stuff like that. You can see it every day.”

And whether it’s in the form of pressed pills purchased by people seeking an opioid high or cut into meth or coke because that increases dealer’s margins — dealers are often tied to large out-of-area gangs, Staubus said — that fentanyl is causing overdoses; lots of them.

Overdose deaths in Sullivan County, Tenn. are shooting upward with fentanyl largely to blame. (WJHL photo)

Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) data only runs through 2020. It shows 40 overdose deaths in Sullivan County that year, the highest total of any year going back to 2016. A task force that’s begun closely tracking the fentanyl problem estimates there were 59 deaths in 2021 and 31 in the first nine months of 2022 — and assistant DA Josh Rose, who helps track the numbers, said the 2021 and 2022 numbers are probably undercounted.

“We just have to wait [and] see how it goes this year but if we’re like the national statistics I think we’ll probably, unfortunately, see more deaths,” Staubus said. “Not only because there’s more use of it but as people use fentanyl the likelihood of dying becomes greater because the harm and the risk [are] greater.”

Staubus has seen wave after wave of drugs come and go. Crack in the 1990s, homemade meth that sent hazmat teams into homes. He said fentanyl’s impact, particularly in terms of deadly and disabling overdoses, outstrips what’s come before.

“From what I’ve seen in my career this is probably the most dangerous for a number of reasons,” Staubus said.

“One, just the deadly nature of the medication, and two the fact that the pill presses allow them to camouflage the drug to create the additional risk,” he said. “And I think the other thing is that we have no border control so these drugs are being flooded into the United States and pills are much easier to distribute, and keep and store and send throughout the country than pounds of meth.”

Yes, Northeast Tennessee, there is a gang problem

The local media may not be flooded with stories about big-city gangs working in the Tri-Cities, but that’s exactly what’s happening, Staubus said.

“A lot of people think that there are not gangs here,” he said. “There really are gangs that actually do move a lot of drugs here, and they have guns and they bring a lot of the crime along with them.

A bin containing fentanyl in Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department’s evidence room. The opioid is the number one drug problem in the region. (WJHL photo)

“Anybody in law enforcement would tell you. Patrol, detectives, vice, administration, they all have to deal with the consequences of gang violence and gang activity and drug activity.”

Fentanyl is cheap, it’s being made in huge quantities, and for some opioid users, it’s quite the attractive high — provided it’s not their last, which is often a possibility even with Narcan around as a fallback to reverse overdoses when it works. That makes it an attractive component of the high-level drug trade.

“There’s so many different branches, you can go into one thing that you’re looking into and it can branch off into Atlanta, Georgia, Ohio, other people bring it into this area,” Cassidy said. “And I mean, you can work a case for two or three years to finally come up with some individuals to indict or arrest or it can even prolong even further than that. So it’s very labor intensive.”

Staubus said it’s all about opportunity and business for the gangs.

“It’s based on earnings, making money, and they come to smaller markets and flood the markets because those markets [where they’re from] are full,” he said. “They create a new market and make more money. And that’s what we see. We see gangs from Atlanta. Detroit, New York, come to this area, because it’s a new market, and they’re in it for money.”

Often that means diluting their products, and when something’s cut with fentanyl and not baking soda, the results are what’s being seen in the overdose data.

“Diluting it with cheaper other items, if that makes the profit margin larger, they’re going to do it,” Staubus said. “And there’s no quality control. You could get a set of pills [one] day and survive and [the] next day, the fentanyl amount could be larger, and it can be fatal. And nobody knows what’s in them.”

Sullivan County Sheriff Jeff Cassidy said authorities, educators and public health groups are throwing everything they can at the fentanyl problem and it’s continued to grow. (WJHL photo)

While they painstakingly pursue charges against major traffickers, the partners are also looking to build second-degree murder cases when they can prove someone provided the drugs that resulted in a deadly overdose.

“We work that just like a homicide,” Cassidy said. “So we come out there, take all the evidence. We send their bodies off for autopsy to see what toxic levels of what drug caused the overdose. We’ll get their phones dumped or [see] what kind of information we can gather from that.”

Those investigations can sometimes help find bigger fish, but they also provide an opportunity for the system to send a message — sell someone else a bag of dope, and whether you knew what was in it or not beforehand, you could go to jail if they die.

“It is hard to prove, but if we can prove that that individual sold that fentanyl that caused or related to the death of an individual, we can charge them with second-degree murder then,” Cassidy said.

Staubus said he has no qualms about prosecuting someone for murder despite the fact that the victim willingly ingested drugs despite the obvious risk.

“People … have the idea, ‘well, if they asked for the drug, they get what they deserve.’ But the law says if you furnish somebody a schedule one [or] two drug and they die as a result of that, you’re culpable for second-degree murder.”

Even with all the tools at their disposal and a coordinated effort that extends far beyond just their offices, Staubus and Cassidy both say the anecdotal evidence in 2022 shows the peak of the fentanyl scourge hasn’t yet arrived here.

“I wish I had the answer,” Cassidy said. “And I think what we’re doing is a huge answer. You know, we’ve gotten a lot of resources, but … that’s just the depth of these drugs that’s, you know, taking control of these resources that we’re offering.”

Cassidy said he’s on every group and board possible in the county that’s trying to combat the scourge.

“We all inform each other what’s going on, and I can’t think of anything else that we can be doing,” he said. “Boy, if I did I’d interject it into society because I just don’t know what else we can be doing.”

Staubus said a drug overdose death task force with multiple partners is the best method to address the problem — and still, it persists. (News Channel 11 will provide a later report on the task force, including interviews with additional members.)

“I think it’s the best format, the best method that we can address the problem and of course, we’re still overwhelmed with the problem.”