Akron police expand unit investigating heroin deaths

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Akron detectives investigated three times as many heroin deaths as homicides last year.

The heroin death toll has gotten so high that the Police Department has a special unit whose only job is to look into who provided the deadly dose of drugs.

When Akron Police Chief James Nice created the heroin unit in April 2014, he wasn’t sure how well it would work.

“I figured I would take a team of folks with an investigative background and see if we can do this,” Nice said in a recent interview. “I was hopeful.”

Nice was so pleased by the efforts of the two-detective unit that he expanded it this year, adding a third detective on a temporary basis to help with cases that date back to 2015. He hopes to eventually add at least two full-time detectives.

Detectives Tim Harvey and Mike Schmidt, the officers first assigned to the unit who have a combined 26 years of police experience, investigate every heroin death in the city, besides those involving people dropped off at a hospital. They looked into 85 deaths in 2015, triple the 28 homicides in Akron that year.

Of the 28 indictments for involuntary manslaughter for heroin deaths in Summit County in the past three years, 22 were Akron cases.

Sometimes, the detectives said, there is nothing left behind to determine who supplied the heroin to the person who died.

“There is fear from the person who survived about being arrested,” Schmidt said. “They withhold information or get rid of the evidence. It’s a big hindrance for us in an investigation.”

The officers weren’t inclined to talk about the evidence they do find that helps to build a case, fearing that revealing too many details could further hinder their investigations. Nice said the detectives talk to all the relevant people, collect evidence and get the toxicology results from the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Harvey and Schmidt said they try to determine everyone involved in providing the heroin to the person who died.

“We take it as far as the evidence and witnesses will take it,” Schmidt said.

“We want the big fish,” Harvey added. “Sometimes, we settle for the small case.”

The “big fish” are the drug traffickers, rather than users who share heroin with fellow addicts. They said some of those big fish include Trevon Thomas, sentenced to seven years in prison for the death of a 28-year-old Akron woman; Maycon Alvarez, serving eight years for the death of a 32-year-old Akron man; and Alfonso D. Lujan Jr., sent away for seven years for the death of a 59-year-old Akron man.

Schmidt said Lujan was peddling drugs to people at Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“He was selling heroin and fentanyl to people he was supposed to be helping,” Schmidt said.

Fentanyl is a powerful painkiller often added to heroin. A person buying heroin doesn’t know if it is heroin, fentanyl or both.

The Akron detectives generally don’t investigate deaths involving people who die after being dropped off at local hospitals. Schmidt said the toxicology results typically take seven to eight weeks and, by then, any potential evidence is long gone.

While Nice is happy with the work of the heroin unit as well as other efforts like the Summit County Opiate Task Force, he’s disappointed that the endeavors don’t seem to be working, with heroin deaths on the rise. He agrees with people who say you “can’t arrest your way out of a problem,” but also thinks police must respond when so many people are dying.

“At least we can do our share of arresting some of the people killing folks,” he said.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, or on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.

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