Eyewitness News continued it's special initiative on Wednesday called "A Community in Pain." We're teaming with the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor's Office and the Mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force to address the ongoing opioid crisis in the Tri-State area.
The focus on Wednesday is on where several opioid addiction cases tragically come to an end, and that is the county morgue.
Brad Byrd talks with Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear and Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann about the rise in opioid addiction deaths.
Transcript of interview:
Brad Byrd: Welcome to In-Depth. Tonight, we continue our special initiative "A Community in Pain." Eyewitness News is teaming up with the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor's Office and the Mayor's Substance Abuse Task Force to address the opioid crisis. Our focus this week is on where several opioid addiction cases tragically end up and that is in the county morgue. And I'm joined tonight by Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear and Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Nick Hermann. And you know what happened after tonight's broadcast at 6:30 ... we were broadcasting from 4 p.m. to about 7 p.m. tonight from the coroner's office and the Vanderburgh County Prosecutor's Office was that you two were called to the scene of a death investigation, responded to the scene that we reported at the top of the hour stemmed from a police chase. And my gut reaction when you came in was was this drug related? We really don't know. We can't confirm anything right now. But it kind illustrates the fact that either way it's not the situation where you're just fighting this opioid crisis. There are other crimes in the community, alleged crimes, and it's really sapping the resources from both offices in ways. I'll let you respond to that first, Steve."
Steve Lockyear: "Well, mine is an end result where everything has failed. When someone has died, that is an end result. Mr. Hermann has to deal with the after effects and the continual effects of having these drugs throughout the community."
Brad Byrd: "And Nick, we asked you earlier tonight the homicide rate is up this year in Vanderburgh County. And chances are a lot of these crimes or deaths are tied to some type of drug abuse. And that affects your office in the job you do as a prosecutor, as a law enforcement officer."
Nick Hermann: "It's certainly not uncommon to see people that commit crimes be intoxicated or high on drugs. We certainly see a lot of people that fit that category. But when you look at the overdose deaths that we've had, you got to keep in mind that doesn't county the deaths that are attributed to prolong drug abuse that result in a more natural cause and also all the people we're bringing back through Narcan with all the different agencies that are carrying Narcan now. This number could be quite a bit higher."
Brad Byrd: "Alright, and this whole initiative is to get people to start talking about raising awareness. People generally do not like to talk about heroin, Fentanyl, addiction, and this epidemic. So, how do you get them to start talking?"
Steve Lockyear: "It may not just be the person addicted themselves. It may be family members that learn to recognize what's going on and urge them to seek treatment or to reach out and contact somebody on how to arrange treatment."
Brad Byrd: "And Nick, sometimes though it's hiding in plain sight with family members. We've talked to representatives of a group called 7 Sisters, and some said 'Yes, we though something was wrong. The loved one did not want to talk about it.' And there was that stigma, and it's tragic that it's still a stigma in this day and age. We're not talking about people dying in the back alleys here. It's happening in their homes."
Nick Hermann: "Right, it's always I think we want to assume the best people around us or we want to ignore problems. But this is an issue that can certainly take people's lives and take the lives of your loved one. So, I think it's very important to get a grip on this and to interject into people's lives if you suspect they are getting mixed up in this."
Brad Byrd: "And how do you interject? I know for you it's too late often in your cases, Steve. And Nick, it's usually a work in progress. But what do you tell? What lessons are learned in that autopsy room?"
Steve Lockyear: "You learn that family members are codependent and sometimes you have friends or family members of the victim that may also be struggling. So, ignoring the problem may get worse within a family, so it's something they have to address."
Brad Byrd: "And this got an impact on all agenices. It's got an impact on the jail, it's got an impact on the prosecutor's office, the EPD, the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office. And your situation as Vanderburgh County Coroner, Steve, I saw two autopsy tables down there today. And so far, 64 confirmed deaths due to drug addiction, and we're not even toward the end of 2017 yet. How's that taxing your deputy coroners?"
Steve Lockyear: "Well, they're at their limit. They're out all the time based on these, and that's not just on the drug overdoses. There's suicides. We've had 43 suicides this year, and a vast majority of those are when someone is under the influence of something."
Brad Byrd: "And total coroner cases at that morgue, how many?"
Steve Lockyear: "We're pushing 400 this year."
Brad Byrd: "400. How does that compare to 20 years ago?"
Steve Lockyear: "It's almost doubled. We were in the low 200s back then. We're at almost 400 now. Same facility, same staff, and we're pushed to our limits."
Brad Byrd: "Case loads at the prosecutor's office and the impact at the Vanderburgh County Jail ... it opened up more than a dozen years ago, and already here we have been talking and Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding sat here and brought this up constantly the overcrowding problem at the jail."
Nick Hermann: "We seen a rise in very serious crimes. You mention the number of murder cases this year. A murder case may last a year and a half or two years. And so when you see a sharp increase in those types of cases, it's very tasking on the staff. There's so much work that goes into each of those."
Brad Byrd: "And why should people who ... you know everyday citizens in Evansville who think 'This doesn't affect me. This doesn't affect my family. It's somewhere else.' But it does have an impact on this entire community."
Steve Lockyear: "I don't think you have to stretch very far to find someone who is affected by this ... either a family friend, or a friend of a friend, or someone at work that hasn't had a family member die in the past 10 years. I think in the last 12 years we've had 500 people die in Evansville of drug overdoses. And these numbers are going up, and so it doesn't take very long to find someone who is affected by this."
Brad Byrd: "And finally, Nick, as prosecutor, this initiative did not end with this broadcast tonight. This is going to spread into the coming year. What do you see this doing let's say in the next 12 months?"
Nick Hermann: "Well, like you said, we're trying to bring attention to this. We're trying to break a stigma. We're trying to encourage people to get help for themselves, get help for their family members, and know the path of working to recovery because ultimately that is what we need to do. We need to break these addictions, and get these people living healthy lives."
Brad Byrd: "Alright, we didn't even have time to talk about the impact it has on our future, and we're talking about our kids. But it does anytime someone comes into the Vanderburgh County Morgue."
(This story was originally published on November 29, 2017)
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