People started dying soon after Joseph Coronato stepped into the role of Ocean County prosecutor a year ago.

Eight deaths were recorded in his first month in office. It wasn’t just the sheer number, but the manner of the deaths that shocked the career prosecutor, who had done stints as a prosecuting attorney in Atlantic County, the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“Every day we’d wake up and another person died of an overdose, and my reaction was, ‘What? Why?’ When you see a young woman taking 50 packs of heroin a day and (she) dies in a transient hotel room, how does that happen?” he said.

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It was not the way Coronato saw his tenure starting, but it was the reality of what his office faced: Ocean County was in the grips of a heroin epidemic.

“When I was sworn in I didn’t think I would be faced with this problem, but I’m not going to ignore it. I have a duty,” Coronato said.

The next 11 months became a sprint for Coronato’s office as his staff tried to stem the overdose deaths through enforcement, legislation and education throughout the county. And though the battle’s still an uphill one, his office’s efforts to fight the heroin problem have brought state and national attention

As the overdose death toll rose in 2013, Coronato rolled out a Drug Task Force from the Prosecutor’s Office that was assigned to the northern and southern parts of the county and would partner with local police departments.

The units allowed police in southern Ocean County, an area that Coronato said has typically lacked enough officers to be proactive in drug enforcement, to aggressively go after drug dealers, those whom the prosecutor calls the true predators in this epidemic.

The drug task force proved effective, making 294 drug-related arrests last year, compared to 183 in the county in 2012.

“All of this is a form of consolidation. For example, in Little Egg Harbor or Stafford Township there may be just one or two officers to work on a case, but now I have 12 of my own guys down there working with them,” he said.

Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Chief of Detectives Glenn Miller said the most important thing that was accomplished last year was bringing the reality of the heroin epidemic in the county to the public.

The heroin issue in Ocean County had been a dirty little secret, but that has changed, said Miller, 59, a former chief of the Richard Stockton College Police Department and a 27-year veteran in New Jersey State Police, where he retired as a major who oversaw field operations.

“I think when they start to see their neighbors dying from heroin right in front of them they realize it’s a serious problem. If you ask anyone in Ocean County today if there is a heroin problem here, they’re going to say,’Yes,’” he said.

Miller said the prosecutor’s energy for the task has also caught on with local police departments, who have called asking for training.

“The prosecutor’s intention is to hold people’s feet to the fire and I love it. He’s got this office pumped and they’re working their butts off,” he said.

Little Egg Harbor Police Chief Richard Buzby said the level of law enforcement focused on the issue in southern Ocean County is unprecedented, overdue and welcome. He credits Coronato.

“I am proud of him. I’ve known him for a long time. We’re in the middle of a war and he’s a warrior,” Buzby said.

Aggressive enforcement has resulted in even more aggressive prosecution as Coronato pursued the rarely used strict liability for drug death statute in fatal overdoses. Over the last year, six have been charged under the statute and six are pending grand jury, Coronato said.

Coronato has also worked to change the law to target drug dealers at the center of the heroin trade so they face lengthier sentences. Coronato called on 9th District legislators, who drafted a bill last spring to target drug dealers.

The bill, which is still being reviewed, calls for a new classification of certain drugs to grade the severity of a drug distribution offense by the number of dosage units involved, instead of the current system that is the actual weight of the drugs.

Even as the arrests, warrants, drug, cash and vehicle seizures increased over the last year, the deaths continued, more than doubling over 2012, from 53 to 112.

In response, Coronato successfully lobbied to get county police officers to carry the heroin antidote naloxone, also called Narcan.

Officers were trained in February on its use, and earlier this month, a waiver cleared the last hurdle to allow police with EMT training to carry it on duty.

Coronato said his next goal is to make sure every police officer in the state will carry Narcan.

Contact Donna Weaver:


@DonnaKWeaver on Twitter

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Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.

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