VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – It’s not a new drug, but it’s back in style, and people are dying from it. Investigators say heroin is a serious problem throughout Hampton Roads.
In 2013, police say 62 people overdosed on heroin in Virginia Beach, 25 resulting in death. 42-year-old Brad Nichols was one of them.
“[The officer] said ‘we need you to come to your son’s apartment at the Mayflower. We are here now, and we need you to come as soon as possible,’” said Starr Nichols, Brad’s mother.
A little more than six months ago, the nightmare began with a phone call from Virginia Beach police. Brad, a successful real estate agent, was found dead in his apartment.
“You never want to go in and identify anyone who’s been dead for a couple days,” said Clark Nichols, Brad’s father.
Initially, the Nichols weren’t sure how he died, though drugs and needles were found next to his body. Months later they would know for sure.
“In March, when the toxicology report came in, the cause of death was changed from pending to heroin intoxication,” Starr Nichols said.
Deaths like Brad’s started to increase in Virginia Beach in late 2012, according to Lieutenant Ken Dimitry, who works in the Virginia Beach Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit. That was when the department decided to change the way overdoses are investigated.
“We interviewed victims’ family members, people there, who were present when they had their overdose,” Dimitry said. “If they died, we were able to obtain telephone [records] to see who their last contact was.”
By tracking every overdose, investigators’ goal was to track where the drugs originated from — to find the dealers.
“[Narcotics] detectives spent many hours conducting surveillance of known heroin dealers, interviewing heroin users and witnesses and reviewing records, analyzing the information gathered from every reported overdose and drug related death,” said Tonya Borman with the VBPD.
And that’s exactly how police investigated Nichols’ death. Detectives traced text messages on his cell phone from two nights before his death to 20-year-old Stephen Martin. Now Martin is accused of selling the heroin to Nichols that resulted in his death.
Six months later, Nichols’ parents are still dealing with the pain of losing their son. They know he made the choice to put a needle in his arm, but they also say the person who sold him the drugs is equally at fault.
“[Martin] did not care,” Clark Nichols said. “If he cared, he would have done something. All he cared about was selling that drug.”
Martin was first charged by Virginia Beach police, and now the U.S. Attorney’s Office has taken over the case. If convicted, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years in prison and a maximum penalty of life in prison.
And there are other cases that have resulted from the police departments renewed approach to overdose investigations.
Borman said detectives were able to garner leads on heroin dealers and seize heroin, fetynal, cocaine, marijuana, firearms, vehicles and cash — all related to heroin cases, one of which involved a large-scale heroin distributor throughout Hampton Roads.
In just a year and a half, detectives made 51 arrests directly related to heroin overdoses or deaths. Four other cases are being prosecuted federally by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“At a time of distress, people are pretty willing to talk, and it actually benefited us greatly,” Dimitry said. “We were able to obtain quite a bit of information on who the source of the heroin was, and our guys were able to follow up on those leads.”
And the numbers that spiked in 2013 seem to be coming down. So far this year, there have been only 12 heroin overdoses in Virginia Beach, two causing death.
“It’s bad. It’s about as nice as I can put it. It’s bad and it is here and we are doing what we can to limit its availability in this area,” Dimitry said. “[An arrest] gives the victims’ family some closure. It’s not going erase everything, but if they know that we are taking the steps to find the person who supplied their son, their daughter, their cousin those drugs and we can make an arrest based on that, we’re going to.”
“This absolutely sends a message that there is a penalty to pay,” Starr Nichols said. “You are going to pay if you are going to distribute the drugs. At whatever level, there is going to be a penalty.”
10 On Your Side checked with other local police departments to get their statistics on heroin overdoses. Most of the departments lump all drug overdose cases in the same category and could not provide numbers specifically for heroin. However, Norfolk police say officers responded to three heroin overdoses in 2014 and seven in 2013, none of which resulted in death.