York City officer works to hold heroin dealers responsible

Liz Evans Scolforo

Officer Tim Shermeyer knows about every heroin overdose that happened in York City over the past year-and-a-half.

He can discuss how hard it is to tell grieving family members that their loved one was using again but had somehow managed to keep that fact a secret.

He can speak with authority about how victims come from all walks of life, how some of them are college-educated professionals and how age is no barrier to heroin addiction and death.

And he can tell you firsthand just how frustrating it can be trying to solve those cases.

“It’s definitely challenging, that’s for sure,” he said.

Shermeyer investigates all fatal heroin and opioid ODs in York City, trying to trace the fatal dose back to the person who sold it to the victim, to determine whether criminal charges are appropriate.

Full-time job: That duty has occupied nearly all of Shermeyer’s work time.

After years of working as a patrol officer and in special squads including the Street Crime Reduction Unit, the York County Drug Task Force and the city’s gang unit, he was moved to the city detective bureau in fall 2013 to conduct intelligence work and provide investigative support for the detectives, he said.

It was in spring 2014 that investigating fatal opioid overdoses became his responsibility, he said.

“(I handle) as many cases as I can work on,” Shermeyer said. “Every one that comes in, I sit down and look at it.”

Who’s at fault? He said it’s his job to determine whether the fatal dose was sold to the victim by a drug dealer, as opposed to it coming from a fellow addict with whom the victim simply “went in with” on drug purchases.

That’s important because the York City Police Department isn’t interested in punishing fellow addicts, Shermeyer said.

“The ultimate goal is to get drug dealers off the street,” he said, by charging them with the first-degree felony of drug delivery resulting in death. The offense carries the same maximum sentence as third-degree murder — 20 to 40 years in state prison.

Users won't talk: But putting together enough evidence to file charges has been extremely difficult, Shermeyer said.

“You can find people who were there when it happened, but they don’t want to tell you anything,” he said. “So a lot of cases don’t go anywhere. ... It’s very frustrating. I had one case I spent almost a year working on that hit a wall.”

Shermeyer estimated he is able to make an arrest in only about 10 percent of York City’s ODs.

Some cases will never be solved “unless somebody comes forward,” he said.

And in some cases Shermeyer, can’t start investigating until after the York County Coroner’s Office receives results from toxicology tests, which can take two to three months, he said.

Heroin epidemic: But investigating heroin overdoses is important for a number of reasons, Shermeyer said, including the fact that “the numbers we’re getting are higher than they’ve ever been.”

Last year, he investigated about 50 heroin/opioid deaths, he said, and about 30 so far this year.

“A lot of that drop has to do with Narcan,” Shermeyer said. Also called naloxone, the medication acts as an immediate antidote to opioid overdose.

On April 1, the York County District Attorney’s Office began providing free Narcan to police departments throughout York County, and all police departments are using it, according to Kyle King, spokesman for the DA’s office.

Police around the county made 91 Narcan saves as of Nov. 30, King said, with York City police officers responsible for 25 of them.

“The ages (of the victims) would sometimes surprise you,” Shermeyer said. “We even had one victim who was in her 60s.”

All ages: Some of the dead were professionals with careers, he said. Most of those people became hooked on legally prescribed opioid pain medications, then moved on to heroin when they could no longer obtain or afford prescriptions, according to Shermeyer.

“I don’t see it stopping any time soon,” he said of the epidemic.

Shermeyer said the worst OD he’s investigated involved a  man in his 20s.

“When he was overdosing, there was a whole group in the house,” the officer said, but nobody called 911 to summon help.

‘A lot of lies’: That’s because drug dealers inside the house wouldn’t let the man’s friend call for help, and apparently took the friend’s phone, according to Shermeyer.

“I heard a lot of lies in that case,” he said.

Shermeyer hasn’t yet had a case in which a child or teen fatally overdosed, but that doesn’t mean the epidemic hasn’t affected children.

“Lots of kids are left without a parent,” he said.

Shermeyer said the hardest part of his assignment is interacting with the victim’s survivors.

“They want some kind of closure, and it’s difficult when you have to explain (the circumstances),” he said.

Most families know: Sometimes, family members are under the impression their loved one had kicked drugs and was clean.

“But most of the time, family members know their (loved ones) have a problem,” he said.

On Friday, Dec. 11, the York County Coroner's Office said there have been 49 confirmed heroin overdoses so far this year, and eight more cases are pending. Those numbers don't include fatal opioid ODs where heroin wasn't involved, such as when someone overdoses on prescription OxyContin or Percocets.

There have been a total of 75 overdoses in York County in 2015, the coroner's office said.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.

York City narcotics officers regularly seize large amounts of heroin and other drugs during drug raids.