Rare charges filed in overdose

U.S. accuses 2 of supplying methadone that killed Md. teen

October 03, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

BOONSBORO -- Laureen Angle tried to save her son.

She drove him to substance abuse counseling after his drunken-driving arrest at 16. She noticed when he was skipping school in this Western Maryland town and called him on it. She even wrote to the judge, asking for help after the court-ordered intervention programs failed to stop his drinking and pot smoking.

The mother of three lost her battle in late July when 17-year-old Harry L. "Trey" Angle died in his sleep from a fatal combination of alcohol and methadone - a drug prescribed for heroin addiction that she never knew he was abusing.

But this week, Laureen Angle and her grieving family found some hope in an announcement that federal prosecutors in Baltimore had charged two people with supplying Trey the prescription medication that killed him.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, the state's top federal prosecutor, said the indictment was only the second such case in Maryland since the early 1990s in which a suspected drug dealer has been charged with a federal crime based on the death of a drug user.

Despite the hundreds of overdose deaths in the state every year, filing the charge is rare, according to federal authorities. It can be difficult, they said, to link a drug-induced death directly back to the specific supplier who sold the fatal dose.

"I thank God that it was transferred from the county to the state to the federal level," Angle said. "I was thrilled that they were going after them for Trey's death."

A grand jury indicted Robert Carroll Eichelberger, 36, of Hagerstown, and Kathleen Ann Harris, 38, of Olney, on drug-trafficking charges in the distribution of methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone in Western Maryland to high school students.

"This law was designed for a case just like this," said Rosenstein, whose office is leading the prosecution.

If convicted of the death-related charge, each defendant faces a minimum of 20 years in prison.

According to the four-count indictment returned Sept. 25 and announced Monday, Eichelberger and Harris worked together since the start of the year to distribute prescription-only medication - methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Eichelberger is also charged with one count of distributing the painkiller Percocet on Sept. 13 and one count of distributing methadone on Sept. 14.

"I believe that their arrests will have a very significant impact," said Kyle Williamson, resident agent in charge of the Hagerstown office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "They were selling a lot of dope, and a majority of the customers were young adults."

Williamson added that this type of investigation can be challenging because "you don't have the guy on the street. You have to really dig deep to find him and where he's selling."

Federal officials declined to talk on the record about how the case came together other than to say that it began with Trey Angle's death. His father said phone calls may have been a critical part because investigators pored over Trey's cell phone records. Assistance from other students familiar with Trey and the local drug scene, authorities said, has also been instrumental in building the case against Eichelberger and Harris.

At a hearing Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, a magistrate judge ordered Eichelberger held in custody and Harris to be confined to her home on electronic monitoring. Court records show that Harris suffers from depression and a bipolar mental condition. She requested access to her medications, including methadone.

Her attorney did not return a call for comment yesterday.

In this week's charging documents, authorities alleged that the sale of methadone July 25 resulted in the death of a juvenile in Boonsboro.

Williamson said this type of death-related charge would be used more often "if we could. But we have a young victim with a lot of friends, and it gave us a lot of opportunity" to assemble a strong case.

Court papers never named the victim. But Boonsboro Police Chief Jeff Hewett said the overdose death of Trey Angle "became the talk of the town," which is nestled at the foot of South Mountain in Washington County.

"We'd be burying our head if we think that there aren't drugs here," Hewett said of the town, population 3,200, though thousands more claim a Boonsboro address. "But we're still not seeing the magnitude of drugs that you are in larger towns like Hagerstown and Baltimore."

A recent search for drugs at Boonsboro High, the chief said, came up empty. Mostly the drug-sniffing dogs hit on traces of marijuana, he added.

Maryland has seen a drastic increase in the number of methadone-related deaths, according to an analysis by the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park.

There were 24 methadone-related deaths in 1998, according to Erin Artigiani, the center's deputy director for policy. That number jumped to 177 last year, including five in Washington County.

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