SNOW HILL — In what could be the first of many similar cases in the ongoing battle against the growing heroin epidemic, a Berlin man was found guilty of manslaughter and other counts this week for supplying the drug to a fatal overdose victim last November.
Robert Franklin Skinkle, 26, of Berlin, on Tuesday was found guilty on all counts including manslaughter, distribution and possession of heroin and reckless endangerment, after an investigation determined he supplied the drug to another Berlin man who fatally overdosed at his residence last Nov. 13. Skinkle faces as many as 20 years for the distribution conviction and 10 years for the manslaughter conviction pending the outcome of a pre-sentence investigation. Judge Thomas C. Groton III later said “this was an easy decision” for him after hearing the defense attorney’s closing statements.
Holding a known distributor accountable in fatal overdoses is certainly not a new tool in the tool box for prosecutors. There was a case in Ocean City in 2011 when a heroin addict on vacation in the resort knowingly supplied a female companion with methadone on which she fatally overdosed while the defendant watched.
However, with the growing heroin epidemic on the Lower Shore and across the country, prosecutors are more frequently seeking manslaughter convictions for suppliers. Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby said on Wednesday the case against Skinkle and similar cases were becoming more common frequent and there were already more pending cases in the prosecution pipeline.
“We’re certainly going to continue to pursue these cases as the heroin epidemic comes to the forefront,” he said. “The Sheriff’s Office and allied law enforcement agencies have generated their own internal policy or protocol with the goal of identifying the source, in this case heroin.”
Oglesby said with this community, and the entire country, in the midst of a heroin epidemic, education will continue to be a key in deterring new users, but new and unique approaches to solving the problem have to be imagined and implemented, including prosecuting those who supply the drugs.
“This verdict sends a clear and unmistakable message to drug dealers,” he said. “If you choose to profit from the misery and suffering of others, we will find you, and should the unthinkable tragedy of a fatal overdose occur because of your sale, expect a knock on your door with an arrest warrant for manslaughter.”
Just before midnight last Nov. 13, a Berlin Police officer responded to a residence on Pitts Street to assist EMS with a cardiac event. The officer arrived and learned the victim, a 50-year-old Berlin man, was deceased in the kitchen of the residence and that his passing was the result of an apparent heroin overdose. Once the officer determined the victim had died of an apparent overdose, the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team was called to assist with the death investigation.
When the Criminal Enforcement Team detective arrived, the Berlin Police officer provided him with a hypodermic syringe and metallic spoon recovered from the victim’s pocket. Also provided to the detective was the victim’s cell phone, from which some of the details of his final hours were revealed. The detective viewed one of the last phone numbers the victim contacted and determined the phone number was associated with Skinkle.
The detective called the number and had a conversation with Skinkle, who told police around 5 p.m. on Nov. 13, the victim called him and asked if he could obtain some heroin. Skinkle told police he and another friend picked the victim up at his residence and drove him into Delaware where the victim purchase heroin. Skinkle told police he and his friend then drove the victim back to his residence in Berlin and they parted ways.
The next day, the detective called Skinkle again and told him one of law enforcement’s main goals during drug overdose investigations is to identify the source of the heroin. Skinkle agreed to cooperate and again told the same story about picking the victim up to drive him to Delaware to purchase heroin. Skinkle also told police he called his contact in Delaware and arranged the buy. The detective then seized Skinkle’s cell phone as evidence.
A search and seizure warrant was obtained for Skinkle’s cell phone, allowing a search for electronic data within the phone. During the subsequent search for data, the detective located a text message conversation between Skinkle and the victim on Nov. 13.
During the conversation, Skinkle agreed to supply the victim with five bags of heroin for $50. The text message conversation also revealed Skinkle delivered the heroin to the victim at his residence at 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 13. Further investigation of Skinkle’s cell phone data revealed he was still at the victim’s residence after the victim used the heroin and showed a chilling account of what happened next.
For example, Skinkle’s cell phone records revealed an Internet search for “help my friend is overdosing right in front of me” at 6:07 p.m. At 6:08 p.m., Skinkle pulled up a website on his phone that included information on how to recognize opioid overdose symptoms. Six days later on Nov. 19, Skinkle called the detective and asked about getting his cell phone back.
When told about the evidence found during a search of his cell phone data, Skinkle told police he did not know what to do when the victim lost consciousness. When asked why he did not call 911, Skinkle told police he was scared. Skinkle also told police he himself had a bundle of heroin a day habit and needed help. He also told the detective “when I left [the victim’s] house he was already dead.”
Based on Skinkle’s own testimony and the evidence collected, including the cell phone data, he was charged with manslaughter, distribution and possession of heroin and reckless endangerment. Following a bench trial in Worcester County Circuit Court on Tuesday, Skinkle was found guilty on all counts and a pre-sentence investigation was ordered.
The felony distribution count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, which could be enhanced by Skinkle’s prior record. The manslaughter conviction is also a felony, but ironically carries a lesser sentence of 10 years. The possession and reckless endangerment convictions are misdemeanors and carry sentences of four and five years respectively.
Oglesby said the case against Skinkle illustrates how local law enforcement is pursuing investigations in overdose cases.
“What’s happening now, maybe in the past a road officer would show up with the EMTs to assist and keep the peace if need be, but there was no real criminal investigation,” he said. “Now, they’re treated as crime scenes and evidence is collected and interviews conducted to help identify the source. It’s now a full-blown criminal investigation.”
Tracking the source of heroin and other drugs for victims of fatal overdoses is akin to finding a smoking gun, Oglesby said.
“The facts in this case are more and more common,” he said. “We know that there has to be a source and when we can identify the source, the source will be held accountable.”
Oglesby said there is ample precedent for prosecuting known dealers in fatal overdose cases and gaining successful outcomes is not always difficult.
“What makes these cases successful is that there is no adult in this community or in this state or anywhere in this country that isn’t aware of the dangers of heroin,” he said. “The national slogan is ‘heroin kills.’ For someone to distribute heroin to another person, knowing they are going to use it, and claim they are not aware of the dangers hold no credibility with me or a 12-person jury.”
Oglesby said he hopes Skinkle’s conviction for supplying the fatal heroin that claimed the victim’s life will send a clear message to dealers in the community. Of course, it goes without saying there is obvious personal accountability for an individual who chooses to use heroin and other dangerous drugs, but it now appears the suppliers will share that accountability.
“It is obvious to me that this community expects and deserves that criminals are held accountable,” he said. “Dealers should be aware if they engage in criminal behavior, they will be held accountable. We are prepared to do everything we can to make sure that happens.”