Law enforcement have arrested a Cincinnati man believed to be the source of at least 12 heroin overdoses in Kentucky last week and may be linked to as many as 170 in his hometown.
DEA agents arrested Robert Shields on Friday for distributing fentanyl, a painkiller up to 50 times stronger than heroin. Other dealers are thought to have cut their batches of heroin with Shields’s fentanyl, leading to some 12 overdoses Kentucky. At least one of the overdoses was fatal. At the same time, nearby Cincinnati, where Shields was based, saw over 170 heroin overdoses during the week, an “unprecedented” spike that leveled off after his arrest, the AP reported.
Shields went by “Sosa,” according to a criminal complaint filed Monday in federal court. While the alleged dealer didn’t use his real name with clients, one said he was upfront about the substance he was allegedly pushing. But by the time the drug filtered down to the streets, it was marketed as heroin.
Kentucky-based client Wesley Hamm told police he bought fentanyl from Shields and sold it to a third dealer, Tracey Myers. Hamm and Myers had a long-running business relationship, they told police. Myers would give Hamm money, and he’d cross the Ohio border into Cincinnati to buy heroin, which Myers would then sell on the streets.
But they ran into trouble when Hamm’s go-to heroin dealer got arrested. Left in the lurch, Hamm struck up a relationship with Shields,. Hamm told him he was looking for fentanyl for his personal use, but he apparently cut the heroin he was selling with the prescription painkiller to stretch the stash. Hamm’s regular clients didn’t know the product had changed.
Myers told police she wasn’t sure what she was peddling. She’d asked Hamm to buy heroin, and she’d passed the drug off as heroin. While she knew some dealers mixed fentanyl into their product, she was “unaware if the ‘heroin’ she sold to the victims contained fentanyl or not,” a Drug Enforcement Administration affidavit reads.
The bad medicine soon wreaked havoc on users in Montgomery County, Kentucky. From August 24 to August 25, police reported 12 serious overdoses. The crisis followed a trend of 174 similar overdoses in Cincinnati, where Shields had allegedly been dealing. Both waves of overdoses occurred early last week, and came to a halt after Shields’s Friday arrest.
At least one of the Kentucky overdose victims died; survivors told police they’d purchased what they believed was heroin from Myers.
DEA agents rounded up Myers and Hamm, but still hadn’t stemmed the flow of the fentanyl sales. For that, they’d need to take down Hamm’s source “Sosa.” So with Hamm’s help, police set up a sting.
On a recorded call on August 26, Hamm asked to meet Shields in Cincinnati to buy five grams of the “same stuff.” They met up, with police on their tail. After a car chase and an arrest, Shields led police to a Cincinnati home that contained multiple ounces of the same fentanyl he’d been supplying Hamm.
Charges filed in a U.S. District Court in Lexington, Kentucky on Monday reveal that Shields admitted to knowingly selling fentanyl. But he’d told police that the drug had been his only option.
“That’s all that’s around,” he told a DEA officer. The powerful drug had been easier to buy than heroin.