HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — An Ohio man who sold heroin laced with an elephant tranquilizer that caused more than two dozen overdoses in West Virginia was sentenced to more than 18 years in federal prison Monday.
Bruce Lamar Griggs, of Akron, was "in this just for the money" when he sold the heroin mixture that sickened 28 people on Aug. 15 in Huntington, U.S. District Judge Robert Chambers said.
"Heroin is like driving intoxicated," Chambers said. "You may not mean harm to anybody, but you have to serve a sentence commensurate with the harm you did."
Griggs, 22, apologized to the community and to his family as he read a statement before sentencing.
"I have made some costly and stupid decisions," he said.
After sentencing, Griggs wiped tears from his eyes and his family members wept.
Laboratory tests of the victims' blood and urine showed heroin mixed with fentanyl and carfentanil — considered cheaper synthetic opioid alternatives that heroin dealers use to stretch their supplies. Several victims implicated Griggs, who was arrested a week later.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning in March 2015 that fentanyl, a powerful prescription painkiller, was a threat to public health and safety. And last September, the DEA warned the public and law enforcement nationwide about the health and safety risks of handling carfentanil, which is considered 10,000 times stronger than morphine. It is used as an elephant tranquilizer and is not approved for human consumption, according to the DEA.
"This is purely mercenary conduct on your part," Chambers told Griggs. "You knew this was a good place to sell heroin. That's the only reason you were in it."
West Virginia has the nation's highest drug overdose death rate by far, with 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, the latest year available, compared with a national average of 16.3.
In Cabell County, where Huntington is located, 70 people died of drug-related overdoses that year and more than 900 overdoses occurred. Communities in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana also have seen recent spikes in overdoses.
"The heroin problem is worse than any of the other drug problems that we have faced," Chambers said.
Authorities have said two people died of heroin overdoses in Huntington around that time — one man at a Huntington hospital that night and another found dead and alone days later. But Chambers said none of the deaths were from Griggs' sales.
"You're lucky. If that happened, you'd be facing far worse" penalties, Chambers said.
Authorities have credited quick-thinking emergency responders who administered the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone to multiple victims.
In seeking a lighter sentence, defense attorney Carl Hostler wrote in a presentencing memo that Griggs was "just a pawn in a bigger scheme" and did not know who combined the drugs.
"Obviously, the most culpable criminal in this case is the person who mixed the concoction," Hostler said.
But the judge noted Griggs had made several trips to Huntington to sell drugs.
"You're not some 22-year-old who suddenly made a mistake and sold heroin," Chambers said. "You decided to take the shortcut of drug dealing instead of trying to build a real life.
And now, "your three kids are going to grow up without a meaningful relationship with their father."