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Fentanyl Charges Parallel Overdose Rate Uptick in Knoxville

by Cedric Dent

July 20, 2022
Police officer escorting perpetrator to police cruiser on pending fentanyl charges for selling drugs that led to a fatal overdose.

Knoxville Law Enforcement Agencies Target Dealers of Synthetic Opioids

About 40% of illegal drugs being sold in Knoxville include synthetic components, increasing the likelihood they contain the deadly substance fentanyl, according to a recent report from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). A trend in fentanyl charges prosecuted parallels the steady rise in drug overdose deaths. In 2020, Tennessee  lost over 2,000 people to possible drug overdoses involving fentanyl. That marked a more than 50% increase from 2019. In the same year, the country saw a 30% spike in fentanyl overdoses. Tennessee’s overdose rate appears to be higher than the rest of the country, from a year over  year standpoint. 

Knoxville and the surrounding area is chocked full of drug suppliers, who are largely responsible for the overdose increase, according to law enforcement agencies.. The DEA reports that the increase in counterfeit drugs drives the mortality rate higher. Karen Pershing, executive director of the Knoxville Metro Drug Coalition, claims fentanyl started showing up in autopsies in significant numbers in 2016. She also said that a single pill can cause an overdose when fentanyl is involved. Fentanyl is 50 times as potent as heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

“One pill can be deadly. The next pill you take could be the last pill,” Pershing explained. “It’s compounding it seems like daily and it’s getting more and more powerful too.”

Severity of the Situation: Overdose Rate

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) has publicly expressed alarm over the rising mortality rate connected to fentanyl. David Rausch, a former Knoxvillle Police Chief who now serves as director of the TBI, said the fentanyl that physicians legally administer in hospitals isn’t the same as what’s being sold on the street.A worried, alleged drug dealer buries his face in his knuckles from the witness stand as a lawyer speaks entre nous with the judge about his fentanyl charges and the fatal overdose connected to his activities.

“People need to know that fentanyl is one of the most dangerous drugs we have ever seen,” Rausch said. “We don’t have scientists mixing these drugs. What’s happening is we have drug dealers mixing it up and distributing it.”

According to the Knox County District Attorney General’s office, total suspected deaths for the month of June in the area was already at 14 as of June 7. That marked two fatalities per day connected to fentanyl. To date at that point, there were 200 fatal overdoses in the county for the year. That means the county averaged little more than one death per day until the first week of June. That augured poorly for not only the rest of the month’s outlook but the rest of the year’s.

The average age for drug overdoses in the Metro Knoxville area is between 18 and 24. Usually, it’s a result of people taking what they think are just Xanax or pharmaceutical opioids that they don’t know also come with fentanyl. Substance abuse disorder is riskier now than ever. If you or a loved one are in the throes of addiction, Landmark Recovery of Knoxville can help. Call 865-448-5174 to talk to a recovery specialist today.

Heroin Dealer Sentenced to Life  in Fentanyl Overdose Case

According to law enforcement officials, 42-year-old Stacey Edward Williams, Jr. sold heroin to a resident of Kodak, Tenn. in 2018, which contained fentanyl. The resident overdosed on Nov. 22 that year, which was Thanksgiving morning. Around the same time, Williams unwittingly sold drugs to confidential informants on several occasions. Law enforcement seized the aforementioned drugs plus a firearm with ammunition and more than $10,000 in cash.

Williams was convicted by the federal jury for conspiracy to distribute heroin, fentanyl and acetyl fentanyl. He was separately convicted for possession and distribution of the same substances .Earlier this year, Judge Katherine A. Crytzer of the U.S. Eastern District Court in Knoxville sentenced Williams to life in prison. 

Prosecution of this case was part of a Department of Justice program that aims to “reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in high impact areas and to identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers.” Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge inherently highlights and directly opposes the reported uptick in synthetic opioids; much of which is attributable to fentanyl.

More Fentanyl Trafficking

Last month saw a guilty plea from 32-year-old Avery Westfield for more fentanyl trafficking in the U.S. Eastern District Court of Tennessee. U.S. Marshals originally arrested him for outstanding warrants from Blount County back in 2020. Those warrants were for the sale of heroin and possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony. They picked him up while he was in possession of 24.5 grams of heroin.

In April, a federal jury in the same court convicted 31-year-old Bryan Cornelius for trafficking several substances with fentanyl. Cornelius was convicted for trafficking heroin, meth and marijuana — all in felony quantities. Evidence presented in trial revealed that Cornelius ordered narcotics from disparate California sources by mail. He maintained multiple Knoxville addresses to stash narcotics, firearms and money to sustain his distribution network.

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