Overdoses surge in Seaford, crime in Long Neck

Brian Laurenzi started using and selling drugs with his mother when he was 14 years old.

“My parents never paid much attention to me,” the 32-year-old said. “Drugs were something we could do together. I finally felt like I was a part of something.”

With using drugs came committing crimes, and it wasn’t long before he was arrested and sent to a year-long juvenile offender program in Iowa. He came home to Long Neck at age 16 and his mother picked him up at the airport.

“I never went back to school,” he said. “From then on life was one big party, every day.”

The party didn’t last long. That same year, a fight with his stepfather resulted in a no-contact order, and Laurenzi became homeless. He went to jail as an adult at 18 and was in and out of jail throughout his twenties, accumulating 11 years total. He spent six of those years at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna. Laurenzi’s stepfather died during that time, so when he was released he moved in with his mother on Clay Road in Lewes.

“We were celebrating my homecoming and got some heroin and some pills,” Laurenzi said. “My mom was a big lady, she couldn’t shoot herself up so I ended up doing it for her.”

Around 11 a.m., Laurenzi noticed his mother had nodded out, but didn’t give it a second thought. He continued to get high with some friends in a bedroom. Six hours later, one left the bedroom to get a drink, and Laurenzi heard a scream.

“It ended up killing her,” he said. “Overdosing was no big deal; when I was a kid we’d just throw people in the shower. But it had been six hours. She was dead.”

Laurenzi gathered up all the drugs in the house, called 911 and left.

“A detective called me and I told him we went to McDonald’s and when we came back she was dead,” he said. “But I had taken all the prescriptions and her drugs, so it looked real suspicious. And then one of my cousins told the detective my mom didn’t shoot up, so someone else must’ve done it. It turned into a homicide investigation.”

However, Laurenzi was never charged, due to an inconclusive autopsy. Three weeks after his mother’s death, he met a girl.

“I was in a really bad place and I really needed someone in my life,” Laurenzi said. “I was getting high out of my mind every day to deal with the pain. I had lost my mom and my home and I didn’t have anyone or anything. The drugs were a bandage. They covered up the pain.”

About a year later, Laurenzi’s first child was born in prison. He picked up the infant without a clue as to how to care for it and took it to a Rehoboth hotel room.

“My girl still had 10 months to do so I had to pick up the baby,” he said. “[The Delaware Division of Family Services] kept calling and I kept ignoring them; finally the state police busted in the room and caught me with a needle in my arm, the baby next to me. They took her into foster care and I went to jail.”

Later, with both Laurenzi and his girlfriend out of jail, the two continued to use drugs and were homeless.

“I played middleman, you know, got some other people drugs to get myself something out of it, but mostly I was committing crimes to get drugs,” he said. “When you don’t have drugs, you’re gonna get sick. You’ll do anything to not get sick.”

One fateful day, Laurenzi stole some items from a Walmart and was charged with robbery.
“That would have been my fourth felony,” he said. “I knew that was it; I wasn’t going to get out of jail for a long time.”

He pleaded with the prosecutor and got a break – a plea that would drop the robbery charge in exchange for 15 days in jail. Laurenzi took it.

“When I got out I had no money, no job, no family, no place to live, no hope,” he said. “But I finally had some determination. From then on I just did whatever seemed right and tried to be the best person I could be. That was 2014.”

Laurenzi and his girlfriend started staying at Code Purple shelters, but they were clean. One night, a kind soul gave them some money for a hotel room. Laurenzi used it to buy a tent, which he set up in the woods near his methadone clinic.

“Eventually, we started to obtain things,” he said. “We started to get ourselves back, just fighting every single day. We both had jobs; I ended up working for a couple weeks in exchange for a moped. Then my girl got pregnant again and we were living in a tent. It was almost winter, so that was just more motivation.”

Shortly after, Laurenzi and his girlfriend moved into a house in Seaford.

In another twist of fate, The News Journal reached out to Laurenzi about a year into his sobriety and asked if he would go public with his story. He agreed; his story could help others. But the day after the article came out, he was fired from his job at a vending company.

“I had just saved up enough money for a car,” he said. “I had rent coming up and a little boy at home.”

Since he’d quit using heroin, Laurenzi had been going to Connections Community Support Programs for daily doses of methadone. They called him and asked him to come in for an interview.

“I never even put in an application,” he said incredulously. “They expedited the process and I was working the next week.”

Laurenzi is a peer counselor at Connections, where he works individually with other addicts and supervises group sessions. He’s in school, working to obtain his alcohol and drug counselor certification. His daughter lives with his wife’s mother; he and his wife are raising their son.

“Most people have issues from the past, like myself,” Laurenzi said. “Until you deal with those wounds, you’re gonna bleed. You can bandage it with alcohol or sex or drugs or whatever, but eventually those wounds are gonna bleed through and affect your life.”

On Feb. 18, Laurenzi celebrated three years of sobriety.

Nationwide problem

“It started in Vietnam,” said Michael Barbieri, director of the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. “A lot of soldiers came back involved with opiates and it was a significant problem at that point. More recently, physicians started evaluating patients for pain and pain management became a big concern. Drugs are obviously an effective approach to dealing with that, but not necessarily a good one.”

Barbieri went on to describe the storm that followed: pharmaceutical companies promoted opiates as non-addictive, when they were, in fact, very addictive. Doctors prescribed the drugs without caution, perhaps overprescribing, and people inevitably became addicted. Those who were lucky enough not to develop an addiction kept their leftover pills in their medicine cabinets, where they became accessible to teens and anyone else who might be curious. One thing led to another.
“So then we realized what was happening,” Barbieri said. “And doctors started prescribing less. But people were already hooked, so they had to go get the drugs on the street, and of course, heroin is much cheaper than oxycodone.”

America’s heroin epidemic took hold and has yet to let up. No corner of the country has been spared, including Delaware, conveniently located just a short drive from multiple major cities and major drug traffickers. In Sussex County, two affected areas have stood out recently: Long Neck and Seaford.

“In western Sussex County, we’re seeing a lot of activity and arrests in that area,” Barbieri said. “Arrests as well as overdose deaths. It’s a very significant problem.”

In late April, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services and the Delaware State Police issued a warning about a spike in heroin overdoses in western Sussex County. On the record, EMS responded to seven reported overdoses in a 24-hour period, but first responders and people close to addicts in the community said there were nearly 30 overdoses the weekend of April 23. Most attributed the phenomenon to a batch of heroin labeled “Blue Devil.”

Though he could not confirm its presence in western Sussex, Barbieri said carfentanyl has been detected in the region. Carfentanyl is the much stronger relative of fentanyl, a drug that’s made headlines by showing up in batches of particularly potent and overdose-causing heroin.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. It is used medically for surgical and hospice patients. Carfentanyl is an elephant tranquilizer 10,000 times more potent than fentanyl. Barbieri said the substance was likely brought in from China. Police west of Pittsburgh, Pa., found the substance in a May 3 raid.
Robert Stewart, director of Sussex County EMS, acknowledged an increase in activity in western Sussex and Seaford in particular.

“Our people are very empathetic and caring, but like anyone else they get frustrated,” he said. “If you keep going to the same place for the same people multiple times, and you can’t get through to them or get them the help they need, it wears on you. But they still do their job, day in and day out, to help people through the crisis for that day and move on to the next call.”

Another hard-hit area, Long Neck, has seen an uptick in crime likely fueled by addiction. Hundreds of citizens showed up to a May 1 town hall-style meeting to discuss the problem with legislators.

“It didn’t go very well,” said Long Neck resident Rebecca Steele. “Residents’ biggest concern was getting a [police] substation out here. People talked about drugs, how overdoses around here have gone up.”

Just an hour or two after the meeting, there was an attempted robbery at the Angola Shore Stop, a short drive up Route 24 from Long Neck. About 45 minutes later, a suspect fitting the same description with a handgun robbed the Dash-In at Route 24 and Long Neck Road.

Laurenzi said the robberies were likely motivated by drugs.

“I would be willing to bet all my clean time those crimes are due to heroin,” he said. “There was a big drug problem, even when I was there.”

Master Cpl. Gary Fournier of the Delaware State Police said they have no plans to establish an outpost in Long Neck, but they will continue to deploy resources and utilize special units like the Governor’s Task Force to control crime.

“We’ve found from our burglary arrests and recent robbery arrests in that area that these defendants are heroin users,” he said. “[The heroin epidemic] is our major crime driver.”

Efforts to rein in the epidemic

Barbieri said the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health is doing a number of things to combat the problem.

“Under Secretary [Rita] Landgraf, with the National Governor’s Association, we established a data exchange group,” he said. “Law enforcement, the office of the medical examiner, EMS, DSAMH WHAT IS THIS, CDC – they’re all providing information and we use it to find out where drugs are being sold, where arrests and overdoses are occurring. So we can use that information to drive some action.”

In addition, the Division of Public Health and the Medical Society of Delaware formed a partnership, the Prescription Drug Action Committee, to recommend strategies to curtail the heroin epidemic and to make available state-of-the-art pain management resources.

“That group has really come together to develop best practices and promote information,” Barbieri said. “I think physicians are doing better because of it.”

He also had some advice for active addicts.

“If you want help, get in touch with our withdrawal management programs, either in Harrington or on Kirkwood Highway [in Wilmington]. Based on the drug you’re using, they can guide you on a course of treatment and maybe start you on a maintenance drug,” Barbieri said.

Medication-assisted treatment

Despite considerable efforts, in 2016 overdoses in Delaware claimed 308 lives, according to DHSS. There were 228 in 2015 and 222 in 2014. Overdoses involving fentanyl doubled in 2016.

“We have to strengthen our prevention activities, educate our physicians and strengthen treatment options,” Barbieri said. “One of the things we’re struggling with is many of our patients are interested in medication-assisted treatment, which would be methadone or buprenorphine, and you need more physician time in those cases, for evaluation and prescribing. Physician time available doesn’t meet the demand, so that’s a significant problem.”

Methadone and buprenorphine are safe, doctor-monitored alternatives to heroin and opioids. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, methadone works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain, lessening the symptoms of withdrawal and blocking the euphoric effects of other opiates. It’s proven very effective for heroin addicts, but methadone itself is an opiate and requires daily trips to a licensed dispenser. SAMHSA cautions methadone should be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan with counseling, and Laurenzi agrees.

“I currently take methadone, but I’m in process of coming off it,” he said. “Methadone helps you deal with life without cravings, and I have a back problem and methadone helps out with my pain. But I encourage anyone on methadone or Suboxone … to work on their issues while they’re on it. The medication is not going to heal you.”

Buprenorphine, or Suboxone, does not require daily trips to the doctor. Like other opiates, it can cause feelings of euphoria, but weaker than those associated with heroin and morphine. It has proven to be an effective alternative to heroin.

Barbieri also recommended another medication, slightly different than methadone and buprenorphine, for addicts looking to pursue medication-assisted sobriety.

“Vivitrol, it’s a very good drug,” he said. Vivitrol is also known as naltrexone and comes in several different forms, including a monthly injection and a daily pill. It is not an opioid. “It shuts down the reactors and eliminates the cravings, but you have to be drug-free to take it. If you have opioids in your system, it will induce withdrawal.”

If an addict is not interested in treatment, Barbieri said, “I’d ask them to make sure they have Narcan or a friend has Narcan.”

Narcan, or naloxone, reverses the effects of an overdose and is often administered by first responders, but anyone can take a short class to become licensed to carry the drug. Find out more at helpisherede.com.

“I’m praying that we’re at the peak and things are going to start getting better,” Barbieri said. “What excites me is that people who normally wouldn’t talk are talking. We’re starting to see communities get involved, particularly in Seaford.”

An end to addiction

Everyone agrees that there is no easy solution.

“I don’t know that anyone has a magic answer,” said Sussex EMS Director Robert Stewart. “But there are a lot of resources available. Treatment centers, Narcan, hotlines, therapy, rehab - whatever it takes.”

Barbieri hammered the fact that addiction is not a personal choice, but a disease.

“It changes your body chemistry,” he said. “Willpower won’t cure it, just like willpower won’t cure diabetes. You can work to control it but you’ll always have the underlying issue.”

Laurenzi is speaking out, hoping to deter others from going down the same path, but he admitted he doesn’t have all the answers.

“If you can spark someone to want to do better, to connect them to a purpose in their life, they’ll start doing better,” said Laurenzi. “But someone like myself, with parents like mine, that’s hard. Kids need to be loved; everyone needs to be loved. When you’re not, you’re gonna do anything to fill that void.”