Alarming jump in fatal overdoses in New Orleans tied to synthetic drug often stronger than heroin _lowres

St Tammany Police dept photo provided of Heroin and needles

Chelsea Tullier Stewart died six months ago in Baton Rouge of a drug overdose from a mixture of heroin and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

With the help of a cooperating witness, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's detectives tracked down and arrested the Baton Rouge man they say distributed the narcotics to Stewart and the witness last September.

Now, in a rarely seen prosecution in the parish, Deandre Refeal Jenkins has been indicted on a second-degree murder charge in the 30-year-old's death.

Jenkins, 36, of the 10700 block of Industriplex Boulevard, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted as charged in the March 4 indictment. He is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.

A sparingly used provision of Louisiana's second-degree murder statute allows authorities to arrest someone on that charge if distributing or dispensing an illegal drug is the direct cause of the death. Prosecutors are not required to show a defendant specifically intended to kill.

In 2015, Jarret McCasland, of Denham Springs, became the first -- and still only -- person convicted of second-degree murder in East Baton Rouge under that provision when he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in the 2013 heroin overdose of his 19-year-old girlfriend.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Thursday that the level of fentanyl in Stewart's blood was "twice that of a fatal dose."

"In this matter the state will rely on a witness to the overdose event who will identify this defendant as the dealer of the deadly drug which lead to the death of the victim," he said.

A December arrest warrant affidavit states that the drugs Jenkins "distributed and dispensed" to Stewart on Sept. 18, the day she was admitted to a local hospital, directly caused her death on Sept. 21. She had been declared brain dead, the warrant says.

There were a record number of 245 lives lost to drug overdoses in East Baton Rouge last year, the vast majority involving opioids, coroner's officials have said.

The "overwhelming culprit" is the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has dominated the drug scene in Baton Rouge in recent years, according to Coroner William "Beau" Clark.

While the overuse of prescription drugs and heroin marked the early days of the opioid crisis, Clark has seen more and more deaths where dealers either combine fentanyl with heroin or pass it off as another drug — both with deadly consequences.

Jenkins' arrest warrant says the cooperating witness described Jenkins as a "long time heroin supplier" for the witness and Stewart. The warrant adds that Jenkins distributed heroin to Stewart "minutes prior to her deadly overdose."

After receiving the heroin from Jenkins in the parking lot of his apartment complex, Stewart and the witness immediately traveled to the parking lot of a nearby business to inject their individual doses of heroin with their personal syringes, the witness told authorities.

Stewart also injected methamphetamine that were already in her possession, the witness told sheriff's detectives.    

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

"The victim immediately became unresponsive," the warrant states.

The witness administered to Stewart doses of Narcan, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, but it proved unsuccessful. He then took her to the hospital, according to the warrant.

Narcan can be obtained at a pharmacy without a prescription.

At the time of his arrest, Jenkins was on parole for a conviction for possession with intent to distribute marijuana, the warrant notes. Online court records indicate he also has other unrelated drug charges pending in Baton Rouge state court. The drugs involved in those cases include heroin and cocaine.

In late September, shortly after Stewart's death, narcotics agents conducted supervised controlled purchases of heroin from Jenkins with the assistance of their witness. The agents also obtained a search warrant for Jenkins' residence and seized assorted narcotics and a pill press with power residue, the warrant says.

The heroin and powder tested positive for fentanyl, according to the warrant.

Gregory Brown, a detective in the East Baton Rouge sheriff's homicide division, stated in the warrant that "purported heroin and Fentanyl mixtures have increasingly contributed to drug-related deaths."

Jenkins admitted in recorded interviews to distributing heroin for several years, the warrant adds.

A toxicology report indicated, as Moore said, that Stewart had a fatal level of fentanyl in her system. The level of methamphetamine in her system was non-fatal, the warrant says.

"The Coroner's report declared the victim's death as an accidental death due to mixed drug toxicity," the warrant states.

The so-called drug-induced homicide statute under which Jenkins is being prosecuted was intended to crack down on dealers. But there have been fewer than 15 such arrests in the parish in the past decade.

There are several reasons for this. Police say it's hard to meet the high standard of proof for a murder arrest in most drug cases; and prosecutors say the charge isn't always appropriate.

Most arrested for providing drugs to an overdose victim have either avoided indictment or been convicted on lesser charges, such as heroin possession or negligent homicide.

Several years ago, for example, Marc Roussel, of Baton Rouge, was sentenced to five years in prison in the 2014 heroin-related overdose of his friend, Guy Koontz Jr. Roussel was initially booked on a second-degree murder count but was indicted later on charges of heroin possession and possession with intent to distribute heroin. He pleaded guilty to those charges.

Roussel told police Koontz gave him money to buy heroin, and that he injected Koontz with the drug. Koontz was found dead in his home. He died with multiple drugs in his system. Police also discovered heroin in Roussel's home.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.