THE WATCHDOGS: Heroin deaths — tragedy or murder?
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When police and paramedics arrived at her aunt’s apartment in Carol Stream, Adrianna Diana told them she and her friend Christopher Houdek had cooked and shot up heroin the night before.
Diana, 20, said she awoke covered in vomit, with Houdek, 21, next to her, unresponsive and “cool to the touch.” Her aunt called 911.
Paramedics rushed Houdek to a hospital, where he died. The DuPage County coroner ruled his 2013 death an accident by “heroin intoxication.” But prosecutors decided it was homicide — and charged Diana and two heroin dealers.
Diana never made it to trial. While free on bail, she overdosed on heroin and died.
Diana and Houdek’s deaths were among 2,112 fatal overdoses involving heroin in Illinois between 2013 and 2015, 132 of them in DuPage County, a Chicago Sun-Times examination found. Another 2,935 people across the state died from toxic doses of other drugs, amid what federal officials say is a growing national overdose epidemic.
The toll is prompting intense debate about the nation’s long war on drugs. Even many tough-on-crime cops are calling for sending users to treatment rather than prison. At the same time, some police and prosecutors say the dealers supplying deadly illegal drugs should be treated like killers.
In Illinois, prosecutors increasingly are filing drug-induced homicide charges against those who provide illegal drugs that result in fatal overdoses. In 2003, the first full year the law was on the books, no one was sent to prison on that charge. In 2015, 13 people were.
Chicago’s collar counties have taken the lead in charging people with that crime. And now the Chicago Police Department is considering expanding its so-far limited use of the charge.
But the deaths of Diana and Houdek illustrate the complexity of sorting out, after a fatal OD, who’s a criminal who should be prosecuted and who’s an addict who should get treatment, not a jail cell.
Houdek’s mother, Tina, told authorities he’d been drinking and possibly abusing prescription drugs after his father’s death months before his overdose. In addition to heroin, his body also tested positive for Xanax, Valium, marijuana and Ecstasy, records show.
Diana told the police she’d bought the heroin from two brothers, Christopher and Brandon Kanehl. Police found Christopher Kanehl, 26, shooting up in his car in the parking lot of a Meijer’s store.
He told them he’d sold Diana 10 packets of heroin for $100 — what he’d paid for 14 packets on the West Side. Kanehl said he typically bought 70 packets a day from his supplier he called D-Rush — for “dope rush.” Some was to sell, he said, but most was to use with his brother. He described himself as an addict and agreed to cooperate with the police.
Over the next three months, a drug task force targeted D-Rush — real name: Ricardo Bryant, 33, who’d served prison time on gun and drug convictions.
In 2014, DuPage County prosecutors charged Bryant, Christopher Kanehl and Diana with drug-induced homicide. Along with Kanehl’s brother, they also were charged with criminal drug conspiracy.
Diana posted $5,000 bail to remain free while awaiting trial. A judge ordered her to get treatment and attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. She cooperated with investigators, who were prepared to seek a sentence of probation.
But the morning of March 25, 2014, Diana wouldn’t wake up. Three days later, she died, when her parents took her off life support. She’d suffered irreversible brain damage from a heroin overdose.
Her father “felt that this was intentional because of the trouble with the police and the fact that she was informing on her friends,” the coroner’s report said.
That July, prosecutors dropped the drug-induced homicide charge against Kanehl in return for his cooperation against Bryant, and Kanehl was sentenced to five years in prison for drug conspiracy.
But while working with DuPage County prosecutors, Kanehl was arrested again, this time for dealing heroin in Kane County. That got him a nine-year prison sentence.
It also helped Bryant’s lawyer, Mark Lyon, an assistant public defender, challenge Kanehl’s credibility as a witness. In July 2014, a judge found Bryant not guilty of all charges.
Illinois legislators passed the state’s first drug-induced homicide law in 1988, saying they wanted to crack down on drugs by targeting dealers. But in 2002 — after the death of a Naperville teenager who took a synthetic drug she mistakenly thought was Ecstasy — legislators broadened the law. It now applies to anyone who delivers drugs involved in an overdose, including someone using the drugs with an overdose victim.
Since that law took effect, Chicago-area law enforcement agencies have used it only sparingly, considering that hundreds of people here die of overdoses each year.
Cook County prosecutors have approved drug-induced homicide charges just nine times since 2002, court records show. Eighteen cases have been brought in DuPage County and 40 in Lake County — counties with far fewer deadly overdoses.
The Chicago Police Department investigated the first four Cook County cases, between 2004 and 2006. Suburban departments handled the rest of the Cook County cases, all filed between 2008 and 2014.
But Eugene Roy, Chicago’s chief of detectives, says he’s now looking at whether the department should broaden its use of the drug-induced homicide charge to target drug traffickers who provide heroin that leads to fatal overdoses. Roy plans to meet with prosecutors in Will and DuPage counties “to talk about lessons learned and best practices.”
In one of the highest-profile cases in Chicago, Corey Crump got 10 years in prison for supplying fentanyl-laced heroin to the 17-year-old son of a Franklin Park deputy police chief. The teenager, Joseph Krecker, was found dead just two days after graduating from Maine South High School in 2006. Crump, 35, is due for parole on June 5.
In another Chicago case, a taxi driver found a prostitute for a California man and sold him eight bags of heroin for $100. The 35-year-old buyer died in a downtown hotel room in 2005. The cabbie, Eric White, now 53, was sentenced to seven years for drug-induced homicide.
Suburban police and the sheriff’s office have investigated five other overdose deaths that resulted in drug-induced homicide charges in Cook County.
Of those, only one person — Cary Cohen — went to prison for drug-induced homicide. Three others went to prison for drug convictions after the homicide charge was dropped. One got probation on a drug conviction.
Cohen got a seven-year sentence for giving Laura Grace Riley the heroin that killed her in 2009 in Glenview. Cohen bought “bad heroin” and gave it to Riley, an acquaintance from high school who fell into a coma and died six days later, according to prosecutors.
“She could only see the good in people, never the bad, and it proved to be her undoing,” her father, James Burke, told the judge.
Kathie Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, views the drug-induced homicide law as dangerous, saying it could scare away heroin users from seeking help. And the line between user and supplier is often unclear, Kane-Willis says.
“When someone dies from a drug overdose, it’s very sad,” says Kane-Willis, a former heroin user. “But it might not be criminal.”
Nolan McMahon, 21, now in prison after pleading guilty to drug-induced homicide, says, “I think it’s ridiculous how something that most people would consider an accident is viewed as the highest form of felony and is considered a violent crime.”
In January 2015, McMahon, of Hanover Park, was sentenced to eight years. He’d been charged with selling heroin twice to John Dudek in the hours before the 15-year-old fatally overdosed at his Bartlett home in 2013.
In a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to questions, McMahon says he didn’t have any “malice when hooking up” people with drugs.
“If anything, you’re doing them a favor by saving them a trip to the ghetto,” he wrote. “You’re also not forcing them to ingest. They do it by their own choice.”
McMahon also sees the law as needlessly punitive. “By it being classified in such a way, it makes me ineligible for a lot of programs. I can’t get into treatment programs because inmates who get ‘good time’ are first priority. I also cannot get ‘work release,’ meaning when I have two years or less I could join a program where I’m set up with a job during the day but go back to prison at night.”
But some parents who’ve lost children to heroin embrace the tough law. John Roberts, a retired Chicago Police Department captain, lost his 19-year-old son Billy to a heroin overdose in 2009. He and another father whose son died of an overdose formed the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization to help addicts and their families.
“It still hurts bad that I lost a son,” Roberts says, choking up. “I can’t run from this problem.”
Like Kane-Willis, Roberts thinks users should get treatment, not prison sentences.
“We fill our prisons with people caught with small amounts of drugs,” he says.
Roberts says he worked with Kane-Willis to get the state’s Good Samaritan law passed in 2011. The law provides limited immunity from criminal charges for people who seek medical assistance for themselves or others after an overdose. If the person dies, though, the supplier can still be charged with drug-induced homicide.
Unlike Kane-Willis, Roberts supports that exception. And he thinks suppliers should be charged with drug-induced homicide more often — even in situations in which the person who dies got the drug from a friend who called 911. But he says that can be “mitigating factor” a judge can consider at sentencing.
Wider use of the law would send a strong message to traffickers, says Roberts, who points out that some dealers in Chicago have even marketed fentanyl-laced heroin with names that recognize how lethal they are, like “Drop Dead.”
“We still have to recognize that anyone who puts poison on the street is criminally responsible,” he says. “If they face a 20-year sentence, maybe we can reverse the trend.”
DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin says the heroin epidemic has prompted law enforcement to become “very aggressive in trying to find the source of the drugs killing our citizens” and to “work up the chain.
“There’s a difficulty in doing that,” he says, “because your witnesses are going to be drug users or small-time drug dealers, and they come with credibility issues. But that doesn’t deter us from trying to get the bigger fish.”
DuPage County’s drug court aims to divert users to treatment, Berlin says.
“We’re close to a 50 percent graduation rate, which is an excellent return,” he says. “It’s a better way of handling those drug-possession cases.”
Lyon, the assistant DuPage County public defender, says he understands why people want “severe consequences” for anyone who sells illegal drugs that prove deadly. Still, he says the drug-induced homicide charge should be used carefully.
“If the prosecutors want to go after these cases,” he says, “the law allows them to sweep up fellow drug users. I’m not sure that’s altogether fair.”
In Chicago, Roy, the chief of detectives, says that if the department expands its use of the drug-induced homicide law, it will be to target traffickers.
“We have to go after the higher-level people who are facilitating the delivery and overseeing the process where the drugs are contaminated with an adulterant like fentanyl,” Roy says. “Those are the people who are truly responsible for drug-induced homicides.”