The death of a 34-year-old mother in northwestern Virginia was not a mystery. She was found slumped on the floor of her grandparent’s bathroom, a heroin-laced syringe nearby. In years past, police would have conducted a fairly rudimentary investigation, but the 2013 death came amid a wave of overdoses. Frustrated investigators decided to embrace a relatively radical approach: treat her death as a homicide and go after the dealer, reports the Los Angeles Times. It led to an exhaustive 10-month probe in which investigators raced against the clock to identify the source of the drugs even as his deadly heroin claimed more lives. They would dispatch informants 100 miles away, down an East Coast interstate dubbed “heroin highway” by police, to purchase drugs from the man they suspected in at least a half dozen overdose deaths.
A 10-member regional narcotics task force was one of the nation’s first to investigate such cases as homicides, starting a trend that seeks to hold dealers criminally responsible for their customers’ overdoses. Police and federal officials say the new approach was born partly out of desperation as they seek new ways to combat an epidemic that shows no signs of abating. It remains unclear whether the new legal tactic is discouraging dealers, but at a minimum law enforcement officials say it is saving lives. “With meth and cocaine, you occasionally see an overdose or two,” said Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Virginia. “But with heroin, you get an entire bad batch and people die with greater frequency in groups. And that is why catching one dealer can have a broad impact.”