A jury trial set for next week will decide whether or not a local heroin trafficker is guilty of involuntary manslaughter after an overdose death in December of 2015.
As previously reported by The Times-Gazette, Tracey O’Cull was initially indicted in June 2016 on one count of involuntary manslaughter, a first-degree felony, and one count of corrupting another with drugs, a second-degree felony, after an incident in December 2015 wherein Benjamin Hahn overdosed and died.
The first count in the indictment alleges that O’Cull, who is currently serving a prison sentence for separate heroin trafficking charges, “did cause the death of Benjamin Hahn as a proximate result of Tracey O’Cull committing or attempting to commit a felony.” The second count of the indictment states that O’Cull “did knowingly by any means administer or furnish to another or induce or cause another to use a controlled substance.”
According to Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins, the case is new for Highland County, and part of a paradigm shift in the local justice system’s approach to combating the opiate epidemic.
The O’Cull case can be seen as a signal of change in both the drug problem itself and the way prosecutors intervene, Collins told The Times-Gazette. With street use of the prescription opiate Fentanyl and its more dangerous cousin Carfentanil – often used as a tranquilizer for elephants and other large animals – on the rise, it’s more dangerous than ever to be a heroin user.
“It’s not just a situation where people are using too much of something and dying,” Collins said. “Typically, overdoses happen because they’re buying what they think is one thing, but it turns out to be something else. When we see overdoses in Highland County, they’re often Fentanyl-related overdoses. A person goes to buy heroin, and what they get is a heroin and Fentanyl mixture.”
Collins said drug traffickers often mix heroin and Fentanyl, known on the street as a “cut,” effectively increasing the amount of sellable product.
“You take 50 grams of heroin and 50 grams of cut, and now you have 100 grams,” she said. “It makes it a lot more valuable.”
The mix can be extremely dangerous, and in many cases lethal, Collins said, because not all drug users have a tolerance for Fentanyl.
“Suddenly, you’re using something that you don’t have the tolerance for,” she said. “That’s another thing in an overdose, you maybe do a cap of heroin, then work up to two caps, then three caps, then four caps. If it turns out to be half of that or three-fourths of that is Fentanyl, your body isn’t prepared for it.”
The shift has sparked a new trend in local justice systems, Collins said. Instead of seeing overdoses as accidental deaths, some Ohio prosecutors have gone after the person who sold the drugs, holding them responsible for their customers’ overdoses.
While unconventional, the strategy has been effective in some cases. Collins said there have been convictions in these types of cases, most being resolved by a plea agreement rather than a trial. The only other similar case Collins could remember that ended with a trial and conviction was a case in Warren County.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, that case was resolved in December 2015 when a Warren County jury convicted Austin Wells, 26, of involuntary manslaughter after he sold what he thought was heroin, but that toxicology reports later revealed was actually a lethal mixture of heroin, Fentanyl and cocaine, resulting in the buyer’s death from overdose. Wells was convicted after a three-day jury trial.
In Highland County, the O’Cull case isn’t the only one Collins is pursuing as an involuntary manslaughter case. A more recent indictment alleges Brittany Rae Wallace, 29, Hillsboro, caused the death of Ashley Ronsheim by selling her heroin last September.
Attorney Lee Koogler, who represents Wallace, said Thursday that his client shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of others.
He said there is “some measure of accountability to the individual” who took the drugs.
“My client did not stick the needle in her arm,” said Koogler.
The case is currently working its way through the Highland County court system and is set to go to trial March 30, according to court documents.
O’Cull is currently serving time on a separate heroin tracking conviction. She will be represented by defense attorney Susan Zurface. The trial will begin next Thursday, with jury selection beginning at 8:30 a.m.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.