Between Friday, August 6, and Sunday, August 8, five people in Santa Barbara overdosed on what is presumed to be heroin. Three of them died and two were hospitalized.
Based on evidence found at the scenes and statements taken from friends and family, the county coroner says it’s highly likely heroin was the culprit, but toxicology reports are pending that will confirm or disprove speculation.
While it’s not atypical for there to be a few heroin-related deaths per year in Santa Barbara, said police spokesperson Lt. Paul McCaffrey, the fact that the three probable cases occurred in such a short period of time is not normal, and may indicate that an unusually strong batch of the drug is right now being doled out on the streets. “It was definitely unusual to have what looked like three heroin deaths in just a couple of days,” McCaffrey said in an interview with The Independent.
The first fatality took place at around 2 a.m. on Friday, reported McCaffrey. Police and medical units responded to a residence on the Mesa and found a 20-year-old man who was soon pronounced dead at the scene. Authorities found drug paraphernalia nearby consistent with heroin use, and the victim’s roommate told responders the victim had been using heroin, alcohol, and Xanax.
At 4:50 a.m. on the same day, authorities responded to an overdose case at a residence in the Hidden Valley area. A 31-year-old male resident — who reportedly had a history of drug abuse, but family members said had recently cleaned up his act — was pronounced dead at the scene. Police again found drug paraphernalia nearby consistent with heroin use.
Two days later on Sunday, reported McCaffrey, a 30-year-old man was found dead in the bathroom of a downtown residence. His uncle told authorities both he and the victim had been using heroin. The uncle also showed symptoms of heroin overdose and was rushed to Cottage Hospital for treatment.
Later in the day, police were called to the Cottage Hospital Emergency Room on a suspected drug overdose case. An unresponsive 23-year-old woman who lives on the Mesa was hurriedly dropped off by two men who immediately left the area. After the woman was treated for heroin overdose, she was reportedly uncooperative, refusing to say how she got the drug and who drove her to the hospital.
During the conversation with McCaffrey — who reiterated that toxicology reports are pending, but added, “There was ample evidence in each of these cases that heroin was the drug they used” — he noted it’s been exceedingly difficult to track down the potentially lethal batch of heroin, as it is with most cases like this.
“A lot of times it’s not possible [to find the drug or its source] because people are extremely resistant to talking about it,” he said, remarking that overdose witnesses will sometimes even try to clean up evidence before police and medical personnel arrive. And McCaffrey stated people, before ingesting heroin one way or another, can’t really tell what they’re putting in their bodies until it’s already there. “When you buy it,” he said, “you kind of know how strong it is, but you don’t really know.”
McCaffrey went on to note that there may, in fact, not be a “bad” batch out there, and that victims’ drug history and tolerance (or lack of tolerance) to the opiate may have played a factor in their deaths. He said some addicts will kick the habit for a period of time, but — if and when they start using again — will try to take the same amount as they had before and overload their system.
Mixing drugs is also a common cause of death, he said, as heroin overdose victims will oftentimes be found to have a potpourri of narcotics in their systems. “When you mix heroin with other drugs, which a lot of people do, that can be wildly unpredictable,” said the lieutenant. “It might work okay and get you what you want, and then it might kill you the next time.”
When trying to track down the number of heroin-related deaths countywide in recent years, Sgt. Sandra Brown with the Coroner’s Bureau advised that it’s impossible to differentiate between illegal, street heroin — which is synthesized from morphine — and medically prescribed morphine, as both substances simply show up as morphine in toxicology results.
However, according to Coroner’s Bureau records on drug and alcohol related deaths that occurred in Santa Barbara County in 2009, 22 victims — out of 115 tallied — had some form of morphine in their systems. In almost all of the 22 cases, one or more prescription or illicit drugs were found in addition to morphine.
Of the 39 people who reportedly died due to alcohol or drugs in 2008, eight were using morphine. And the narcotic was found in 13 people who died in 2007. (This year’s figures could not be tracked down as of press time.)