Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at what’s being done to address the heroin epidemic in the community. For more on the issue, click here.

At least eight people have died in Onslow County from drug overdoses this year.

The community, made more aware of the drug issue the county faces thanks to those affected speaking out, has decided they’re tired of seeing their friends and relatives’ names in the obituary section of the newspaper.

They’re speaking up. They’re taking a stand and letting drug dealers know that snitching isn’t something they’ll shy away from.

Seeking justice

“This is an epidemic,” Cindy Patane said.

Since her son’s death in April, Patane’s voice has been loud, her hope to prevent further deaths and offer support for those struggling as her son did.

Matt Eyster, 21, was taken off life support on April 7 after his mother found him unconscious from a potential drug overdose, Patane told The Daily News at the time.

Just hours apart, Eyster’s friend Jason Sapp, also 21, died as a result of an overdose. His autopsy confirmed the cause of death as a multidrug toxicity of fentanyl, oxycodone, codeine and alprazolam.

Sapp’s family recently received the news that their son’s alleged dealer, 21-year-old Jarred Michael Eddington, was charged with second degree murder in connection with Sapp’s death.

His mother, Vanessa Sapp, said she’s seen people question the charge of murder in connection with an overdose death although she’s received support from fellow Sneads Ferry residents, she said.

If the dealer had killed someone else, Patane said, everyone would want him charged.

If Sapp had been 10 years old, for example, the outcry might have been louder, Vanessa Sapp added.

“Just because they’re an addict doesn’t mean they don’t deserve justice,” Patane said.

Investigating dealers

In the event of an overdose death, the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office begins looking for the dealer, according to Maj. Chris Thomas.

“We look for the source of the drugs,” he said.

If the person died from prescription medications — purchased from a pharmacy legally and then abused — their hands are tied, he said. But that’s not the case with illegal substances.

“In North Carolina if someone unlawfully distributes opium, cocaine, or a derivative either substance, or methamphetamine, and ingestion of that substance causes the user’s death, the defendant can be charged with second degree murder,” District Attorney Ernie Lee said.

Any illegal drug is fair game for investigating, but it’s far from an easy task, according to Thomas. Those who overdose and survive rarely divulge information and those left in the wake of death have to be found before they can be questioned. Even then, information can be hard to find.

“Most of the time when someone is using a controlled substance . . . they’re very secretive about where they get theirs from because it is an illegal situation,” Thomas said.

But then sometimes the pieces fall in place and there is enough evidence that the case can move forward, it just takes time. In the case of Jason Sapp’s death, it was just four months of investigating, which Vanessa Sapp said seemed like quick work.

Thomas said there’s always the hope that the investigation is quick.

“We get impatient just like the public does,” he said.

But law enforcement has to think in terms of getting a conviction, and though Thomas said he may know what the “word on the street” is about where drugs are originating and even have some evidence, if they don’t have enough to convict the officers will hold their cards close and keep investigating.

“We’ve got to make sure we put the best case forward that we can,” he said.

Effects of a murder charge

Since Eddington’s arrest, information has been pouring into the sheriff’s office about dealers changing locations and tips on where they’re selling now.

Thomas believes charging an alleged dealer with murder is part of the reason. It’s a deterrent where probations and paying fines didn’t work.

But the price of heroin likely won’t rise since it’s not originating in Onslow County, Thomas said. Heroin is coming in from the New Jersey and New York area.

“That heroin comes to Wilmington and the folks in this community (typically) go to Wilmington to where the dealer is to buy the heroin, then they’ll bring it back up here,” he said.

Users also get heroin from Greenville and Kinston, he added.

There is the possibility, Thomas said, that because most heroin dealers are users themselves, they may resort to other criminal activity to pay for the drugs.

Breaking and entering, which Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller said is often associated with users trying to make money for drugs, may potentially rise, Thomas said. However, someone charged with a property crime has the potential to bounce back and change their life.

Someone who dies does not, he said.

Dangers of street drugs

“By far right now heroin is the biggest problem,” Jacksonville Police Chief Mike Yaniero said.

It’s the deaths that make it such a dangerous problem to have, he continued. Jacksonville has had one death as a result of an overdose this year, a 27-year-old woman.

But the police department is fighting back, fighting to help where it can; and Yaniero said all patrol officers are now trained in the use of Narcan and carry it with them on their belts.

Officers have used Narcan — a drug that reverses the effects of a drug overdose — to save the lives of seven people this year, Yaniero said.

The problem now isn’t just heroin, Yaniero said. It’s fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a lethal drug that has 20 times the potency of heroin, according to Yaniero. Dealers are adding it to their heroin stash in order to make a bigger profit.

Drug problems go through cycles, said Media Liaison Beth Purcell with the police department. Right now in Jacksonville, it’s heroin.

But for Richlands, Police Department Chief Ron Lindig said there is more meth-related activity.

Most of what officers run across in Richlands is residents purchasing more than the legal amount of Sudafed, Lindig said, which is used to make methamphetamine.

“We don’t really have a big (drug) problem, but it comes through our town,” Lindig said.

Since heroin and meth aren’t government regulated, users have no idea what they’re getting when they buy drugs on the streets.

For those selling within Jacksonville city limits, Yaniero said the police department would charge dealers with murder if the investigation leads them that direction.

Community involvement

These cases are “extremely hard” to investigate, Thomas said, and involve a lot of talking.

Officers talk to witnesses, he said. They talk to the user’s best friends and relatives. They track the movements of the user to determine places they went, and then they interview people there.

The good news is community input is rising, and it’s an invaluable asset for law enforcement.

At the August Crime Stoppers monthly meeting the board approved a substantial amount of rewards money for multiple tips that came in, resulting in a high number of drug arrests.

Numerous tips came in about Joshua Grappo, 30, who was arrested on July 22 after allegedly being found in possession of 107 bindles of heroin. His brother, Gregory Grappo, 36, was arrested Aug. 15 after officers allegedly found him with 106 bindles of heroin.

Overall, 191 drug tips have been sent into Crime Stoppers between January and July of this year.

Yaniero encouraged the continued use of Crime Stoppers by residents.

“This is not a law enforcement problem, this is a community problem,” he said. “The more information we get from our community, the more effective we can be.”

Residents can be vital sources for the police department, Lindig said, tipping officers to where drug activity is high or who may be involved.

The police department, Lindig said, can’t do their best work without the public’s assistance.

“Just let us know,” he said. “We’ll do the work.”

Crime Stoppers offers cash rewards of up to $2,500 for information leading to apprehension or arrest. Call Onslow County Crime Stoppers at 910-938-3273. Callers to Crime Stoppers are not required to reveal their identities. Information can also be anonymously texted via Text-A-Tip by typing TIP4CSJAX and your message to 274637.