News of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman catapulted the topic of heroin abuse into the national media this week, but South Jersey authorities, particularly in Ocean County, have been grappling with the epidemic for the past year.
Heroin found at the scene of Hoffman’s death in New York was stamped “Red Bull,” a stamp that has also been found in the last year in Ocean County, authorities said.
“Here’s an Oscar-winning actor, and he was constantly struggling,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato said. “Hoffman’s death is consistent with everything that has happened here in the last year. He’s just a celebrity.”
Hoffman is proof that your loved one, friend or neighbor could be suffering and you don’t even know, said Coronato, whose county saw 112 fatal drug overdoses last year, with about 80 percent heroin-related. That total was more than double the death toll in 2012, when there were 53. Cape May County saw 28 fatal drug overdoses in 2013.
So far this year, Ocean County has seen nine fatal drug overdoses — six of them from heroin, two from a combination of heroin and other substances, and the ninth from prescription pills, said Al Della Fave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
“This is not a crisis unique to Ocean County, the poor or celebrities. This cuts across all races and demographics,” Coronato said.
A private funeral service was held for Hoffman on Friday in New York. The actor, who has admitted in the past to drug problems, was found dead in his apartment Sunday with a syringe in his arm and what authorities said were dozens of packets of heroin in his apartment. Officials said more tests are needed to determine what exactly killed Hoffman, the father of three children.
Amid the investigation into Hoffman’s death, police on Tuesday arrested three people who were arraigned on drug charges. On Tuesday night, police executed search warrants at three apartments in New York City, where undisclosed quantities of heroin and marijuana were found in a lower Manhattan building, according to news reports. Law enforcement said at least one of the individuals had Hoffman’s cellphone number.
Lawyers for the three who were arrested say the men had nothing to do with Hoffman’s death.
Going after those who supply the drugs to overdose victims is nothing new to Ocean County authorities, who have been working for the last year to charge dealers. The Prosecutor’s Office created a task force in the wake of nine heroin overdose deaths in eight days last spring.
In 2013, three men were charged under the strict liability for drug death statute in fatal overdoses involving three Ocean County men.
Coronato has said for the last year that to fight the county’s heroin crisis, law enforcement needs to go after the predator: the drug dealer.
Last month, 33-year-old Kenneth Staunton, of Lacey Township was sentenced to 7½ years under the No Early Release Act on a manslaughter charge in the heroin overdose death last January of Raymond Farino, 27, of Lacey Township.
“I think what we’re seeing in the last week with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is that the rest of the country woke up and said we had a problem. It’s something that has to be done, and we’re doing it here,” Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Detectives Glenn Miller said.
Miller said that when a victim is found dead of a drug overdose in Ocean County, law enforcement immediately treats it like a homicide, and the Major Crimes Unit is sent to the scene.
Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor said the county will continue to prosecute under the strict liability act anyone they find connected to supplying drugs to an overdose victim.
“We’ve got to attack this epidemic from two angles, getting out on the education front. We’ve been doing presentations in the schools, but the message has to not only be to kids but parents as well. We have to attack it from a law enforcement angle by arresting as many drug dealers we can,” said Taylor.
Miller said a celebrity overdose death does help the cause and the fight against the heroin crisis locally. He said law enforcement seeking out and charging the individuals who may have contributed to Hoffman’s death helps even more and is identical to the message being sent in Ocean County.
“You could be 46 years old — like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who ... probably thought he was invincible — or a 26-year-old man in Ocean County. It doesn’t matter,” Coronato said.
John F. Moriarty III, northeast director of marketing at Sunrise Detoxification Centers, said his company will open a detox center in Toms River later this month.
The general population in New Jersey doesn’t really know how bad the heroin abuse problem is and what the drug does to the body, Moriarty said. Sometimes it takes a celebrity dying for people to pay attention, he said.
“But let’s look at the harsh reality of what happened here. Three children lost their father, and that happened 112 times last year in Ocean County when people died and their families lost them,” Moriarty said.
“If there were 112 deaths in Ocean County last year from influenza, there would have been helicopters circling the Department of Health asking for answers,” he said.
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