SNOW HILL — In yet another small victory in the ongoing battle against the growing heroin epidemic, a Berlin man last week was found guilty of supplying the drug that led to a man’s fatal overdose and was sentenced to a combined 35 years in prison.
Patrick Thomas, 59, of Berlin, last week was found guilty of manslaughter, distribution of heroin and possession with intent to distribute heroin after an extensive investigation last summer identified him as the dealer that supplied the drug to another man that ultimately led to a fatal overdose. Thomas was sentenced to 20 years for the distribution of heroin conviction and 10 years for the manslaughter conviction, which will be served concurrently. He was also sentenced to 15 years for the possession with intent to distribute conviction, which will be served consecutively, resulting in a total sentence of 35 years.
Holding a known distributor accountable in fatal overdoses is certainly not a new concept. Just last month another Berlin man was found guilty of manslaughter and distribution of heroin for supplying the drug in a fatal overdose case. There was another 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.
However, with the growing heroin epidemic on the Lower Shore and across the country, prosecutors are more frequently seeking manslaughter convictions for suppliers. While education and rehabilitation remain the key components in the battle, unique, proactive approaches are now being implemented, including prosecuting those who supply the drugs.
The case against Thomas and others already in the judicial pipeline illustrate a change in the way local law enforcement is pursuing investigations in overdose cases. Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby said in the past, a police officer might accompany EMTs to overdose cases in order to keep the peace if need be, but now they are being treated as full-blown criminal investigations to identify the source of the drug akin to finding a smoking gun.
“A tremendous amount of credit goes to the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Criminal Enforcement Team,” Oglesby said. “They are treating each overdose as a crime scene with a very intensive, extensive investigation. That proactive posture is the reason we’ve been able to pursue these cases and identify the source.”
The victim overdosed last June 26 and Thomas was quickly identified as the source of the heroin that led to the death. Last July 2, detectives initiated a search and seizure warrant for Thomas and his residence, an outbuilding on a larger property on Cathell Road that had been converted to livable quarters. Detectives found Thomas sitting on a chair with the front door open. On the table next to Thomas, police found 60 individual white wax paper bags stamped with a “Banshee” emblem that were found to contain heroin.
Following his arrest on possession with intent to distribute heroin, a Worcester County grand jury indicted Thomas on manslaughter charges after determining he supplied the drug to the victim of the fatal overdose back on June 26. The indictment reads Thomas, “did feloniously and without malice aforethought kill and slay the victim,” and distributed heroin that “created a substantial risk of death of serious physical injury” to the victim.
Oglesby said Thomas’ conviction continues to reinforce the message that local law enforcement will pursue manslaughter charges for those identified as dealers in overdose cases.
“The message continues to be if we can identify individuals dealing this poison in our community, we’re going to pursue them aggressively and hold them accountable,” he said.
At sentencing, Judge Thomas C. Groton III pointed out Thomas’ extensive criminal history, including five convictions for driving under the influence, to illustrate how extensive incarceration was a measure of last resort.
“Well, for a second let’s put aside the terrible consequences of this last case at look at Mr. Thomas’ past, which is a terrible past,” he said. “He now, as a result of subsequent offenses, has over a dozen criminal convictions. He has five driving under the influence cases, which certainly presented a danger to people on the highway and a situation where he could have had the same result, and by that I mean he could have killed somebody as a result of his drinking and driving.”
Groton pointed out luckily none of the prior DUI cases resulted in fatalities or injuries, but supplying the heroin to the victim of a fatal overdose finally caught up to Thomas.
“Because of his actions, generations have been affected as a result of this loss — the victim’s mother, his grandmother, his daughter and, of course, him because he’s no longer here,” he said. “The representation by the state to the court that Mr. Thomas is a danger to society and to the community is not a theory or a proffer. It’s been proven that is a danger because of the fact, as a result of his actions, the victim is dead. So, I likewise view him as a danger to the community.”
Following each of his prior convictions, Thomas was given every opportunity for probation, treatment and rehabilitation, but never followed up on them, a point not lost on Groton who sentenced him to the maximum recommended by Oglesby.
“Never did Mr. Thomas take his convictions or his violation of the law seriously because he continued to violate the law,” he said. “In any number of his sentences that were imposed, he was placed on supervised probation. The problem with that is, he violated his probation on numerous occasions, so obviously he didn’t take seriously the attempt at rehabilitation and assistance through the probation department.”
Oglesby this week agreed Thomas ignored every opportunity for rehabilitation following his prior convictions.
“His record is replete with opportunities for court supervision and court-ordered treatment,” he said. “He never followed through and he never took it seriously.”
Oglesby said when all opportunities for rehabilitation fail, the only recourse is to remove the suspect from society for the longest period of time allowable.
“Public safety is going to trump rehabilitation,” he said. “When you’ve been given every opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation and you’ve failed to follow through or ignored it completely, we need to remove you from the community. That’s essentially what happened with this case.”