By DAVID C.L. BAUER Journal-Courier
March 31, 2014
Before Pike County, Ill., Sheriff Paul Petty received that urgent call.
Before mother and business owner Shanda Lopez lost the struggle between life and death.
Before a small town had to come to grips with the reality that drugs do not respect boundaries, social classes or the tight knit of a community's fabric.
“We have been aware that heroin has been on the rise in the large cities and has further introduced itself in our communities after several arrests in the past couple of years; however, for someone's life to be cut short due to this drug makes this an unusual case in our area,” Petty said.
Lopez was 47 when she died Sept. 26, 2012. Her Facebook page remains, with tributes still being added to her memory.
A vivacious outdoorswoman, Lopez was owner of a hunting outfitting business in a county where whitetail deer are more plentiful than people on some acres. Her vibrant blue eyes and inviting smile were almost a trademark, as was a personality many said was loving, caring and adventurous.
In Milton, a village of 269 people, it's hard to keep much quiet for long. Word quickly spread of the determination by forensic pathologist John Ralston that Lopez's death was the result of opiate intoxication.
Petty and his investigators tried to put together the pieces missing from their timeline of what happened. That led authorities to determine Lopez had ingested heroin sometime in the hours before her death.
Over the course of the next few months, two men would be arrested in connection with the death — one man accused of drug-induced homicide for providing the heroin and the other with obstruction of justice for being there at the time.
“Accountability must be a priority for everyone involved in this process. It is unfortunate and sad, but this is the result of the dangers of drugs and why our office has been so proactive in years past. Drugs don't just ruin lives, it takes them,” Petty said.
In less than a year, Petty would have to deal with another drug-related death.
Although it was cocaine authorities said that claimed the life of Judge Joseph Christ, 49, of O'Fallon, at a hunting lodge, it would prompt an investigation that ultimately led to the person who found Christ — fellow judge Michael Cook — admitting to being a drug addict.
Cook subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor heroin-possession charge and a felony count of having firearms while being a user of controlled substances. Cook had already stepped down as a St. Clair County judge.
Cook has not been charged in the death of Christ, a 49-year-old father of six who had been sworn in as an associate judge just a week prior to his death.
Questions about Cook's drug use led to convictions being overturned in two murder trials in which Cook was judge.
Some members of the Illinois State Crime Commission want heroin use declared a medical emergency. They refer to it as an epidemic.
Jacksonville, Ill., Police Deputy Chief Tim Shea said police have definitely noticed an upturn in heroin use, primarily because it was so rarely found just a decade ago.
“We have seen an influx in the last year or two,” Shea said. “Years ago, it was a '70s thing, and now it's made a return for whatever reason. I don't know if it's cheaper or easier to get ahold of. It's probable those factors are involved. In my career, I haven't seen much of it at all. There's more now than I've ever seen in the past 20 years.”
Chief Tony Grootens — who retired several years ago from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency — said heroin has been the cause of one death in Jacksonville, a city of about 20,000.
Grootens said heroin derivatives have been found to be made by cooking down medications with opium derivatives, such Oxycontin, and said certain time-release medications are often more fatal.
“Heroin is making a comeback, and it's always done that if you look at history. It peaks and valleys. But the Oxycodone, Oxycontin problem started in the early 2000s, and it's only getting worse,” he said.
Local police and the DEA are involved in active investigations into heroin trafficking.
Morgan County (Ill.) Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Mike Carmody said his agency has been working with state police and the Central Illinois Enforcement Group and concentrating more on heroin trafficking than in previous years.
“It does seem like (heroin) is getting more popular,” he said.
Grootens said the heroin being brought into the region originates in Mexico and comes here from the St. Louis area.
“It goes away for a couple of years, and then it comes back again, for whatever reason,” Grootens said. “We're going to have a drug problem long after you and I are gone. You just do your best to curtail it from the community because it's hard on the community. Hard economically, hard on the families that have problems with it and try to deal with it.”