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Butler County Drug Task Force chief, DA look back on changes in drug use

Drugs through the decades
Chief Detective Tim Fennell in the District Attorney’s Office in Government Center in downtown Butler on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle

When Butler County first implemented a drug task force in 1996, Chief County Detective Tim Fennell recalls crack cocaine becoming a major problem for law enforcement.

“(The task force) became a necessity in the 1990s when crack flooded the United States,” he said. “We didn’t really have any major ‘drug of choice’ until crack came in.

“That became our entire focus.”

Since then, his focus has shifted, again and again. Fennell recalled marijuana and LSD were the only concern when he began serving as a Butler City police officer in 1979.

Then came the crack cocaine crisis, but it wasn’t long before another drug appeared.

Over the course of his career, Fennell watched certain narcotics rise in circulation and use and consistently found new threats to contend with here in Butler County.

Fennell had significant experience as a police officer when he saw crack cocaine become a concern in the 1990s.

Then, heroin was on his radar in 2012 when he became the county chief detective, a position which has since kept him constantly up to date on the latest threats, which have come to include xylazine, fentanyl and meth.

District Attorney Richard Goldinger said he also has noticed a shift during his time in office. Elected in 2008, Goldinger saw heroin as the most prominent drug used in Butler County.

“About five years ago, we started seeing fentanyl … heroin disappeared from the streets,” Goldinger said.

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Fennell recalled that the drug was brought into Butler from Pittsburgh in the early 2000s. Early heroin buyers, he said, would alter their routes on major highways like Route 228 and Interstate 79 to avoid being pulled over by police.

“Virtually every (heroin user) from here would drive to the north side of Pittsburgh. We had no dealers here,” he said.

But as the drug became more prominent, small-level dealers showed up in Butler, selling drugs as a way to support their own addictions, Fennell said.

One way the task force stays up to date on dangerous narcotics, Fennell said, is by analyzing toxicology reports from those who have died of an overdose. This was what tipped the force off to fentanyl, which dealers started mixing with heroin for a stronger high.

“Before it was always heroin coming back from the labs, then in 2015 to 2016, we started seeing the occasional mix,” he said. “By December 2022, we saw virtually no heroin in overdoses.”

Looking at the toxicology reports, Fennell said the change is staggering.

“It’s very clear. You can see heroin, heroin, heroin, and then a little bit of both,” he said, “and then, boom, fentanyl.”

Overdose deaths

Fentanyl is a factor in the majority of overdose deaths in Butler County, according to statistics shared at the Butler County Opioid Overdose Coalition conference held in August 2023.

In 2017, there were 92 overdose deaths in Butler County, with 66% attributed to fentanyl.

Overdose deaths decreased to 73 in 2020, but 84% involved fentanyl.

“Fentanyl could be mixed with crack cocaine or heroin, and it’s a concern for those with a substance abuse disorder,” Goldinger said.

Fennell said there were 65 deaths caused by overdoses in 2022. Of that number, 62 were attributed to opioids, and 22 of those deaths were connected to xylazine.

According to Fennell, xylazine started to appear in toxicology reports in late 2022. The biggest threat posed with xylazine, he said, is that the effects of it cannot be reversed by Narcan.

Its presence seems likely to continue, considering in 2023 with 65 overdose deaths, xylazine was a factor in 14 of 42 fatal overdoses attributed to opioids.

“It would be mixed with fentanyl,” Fennell said. “When you mix drugs, they magnify each other.”

Fennell said fentanyl is likely more valuable to dealers than heroin, as drug dealers can sell smaller doses for a more powerful high.

“If they can manufacture a drug cheaper that still gets people addicted, that’s what they’ll ship,” he said.

The cost also accounts for the constant change in circulating drugs, he said, adding that methamphetamine use is on the rise for that reason.

“Meth is coming back into prominence because it’s easy to produce,” he said. “It’s a way better, faster high than crack.”

This change comes with its own unique problems for law enforcement, Fennell said.

“The rise of crystal methamphetamine brings societal dangers. It causes paranoia, violence. It makes (the user) stronger, crazier,” he said. “It puts the officer in more danger. It’s a new facet of the job.”

Goldinger also highlighted the dangers for law enforcement when it comes to handling fentanyl, as improper exposure could result in sickness or even an overdose.

And crack cocaine hasn’t gone away. The drug that hit its prime in the 1990s still has a presence today, meaning law enforcement must be ready to encounter its use, too, Fennell said.

How to report drug activity

Fennell said the task force currently has 112 members, and any municipal officer in Butler County can participate.

“They see things on the street day by day,” he said.

The community, however, may notice signs of drug activity in their area and report them to police.

“Ten short term visitors or more in an afternoon, people parking vehicles away from where they’re walking to, seeing residents of those houses walking to the same corner or same alley multiple times,” Fennell said, listing a few signs of drug activity.

Fennell said any information the public can provide them on drug activity in the community is valued.

“If (the public) is giving us information, no matter how small it may seem, it may be one piece of the puzzle. That’s how we end up making an arrest or serving warrants,” he said.

Those interested in submitting a tip to the drug task force can contact 866-363-3784.

Signs of drug activity

The following are indicators of possible drug activity:

■ Ten short term visitors or more in an afternoon

■ People parking vehicles away from where they’re walking to

■ Seeing residents walking from their house to the same corner or same alley multiple times

■ Drugs or drug paraphernalia in the area

■ Strange smells coming from the property.

Chief Detective Tim Fennell Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle
Chief Detective Tim Fennell works Friday, Feb. 9, out of the District Attorney’s Office in Butler County Government Center in Butler on Friday, Feb. 9. Kyle Prudhomme/Butler Eagle

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