113 overdose deaths in 2 years as fentanyl ravages region

Maiden Police Chief Tracy Ledford keeps an obituary in his desk. The cutout is a memorial to the life of a 17-year-old who died of an overdose in Maiden Parish in February.

Ledford said he is keeping the obituary to remind him that drug overdoses can happen anywhere. He said this case was difficult for him as a parent of two teenagers.

“We’re starting to see younger and younger people experimenting with drugs in ways that we haven’t seen in the past,” Ledford said. “Because now fentanyl may be available in pill form, which they interpret as safer than drugs they’ve seen in the past. It’s not a needle. It’s not a pipe. It’s a pill.”

At least 113 people have died from drug overdoses in Catawba County in the past two years. The majority of those deaths were attributed to fentanyl, law enforcement officials said.

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Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid used as a pain reliever.

Maiden Police Capt. Jamey Fletcher said the pills can come in different shapes and colors, so there’s no way to tell which pill contains fentanyl until it’s too late. Jaleel Smith, an investigator with the Maiden Police, said the opportunity to make an arrest in connection with the teen’s death brought some satisfaction to the department.

Madison Dare Winslow, 23, of Lincolnton, is charged with death by distribution in the death of the Maiden teenager. Winslow will also face four counts of conspiracy to traffic in opium or heroin, possession of a Schedule II controlled substance with intent to sell or supply it, maintenance of a vehicle, home or place of use or sale paraphernalia charged with a controlled substance and possession of a drug.

Winslow is one of three people charged with death by distribution in Catawba County, said Capt. Aaron Turk of the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office.

Turk said death by distribution is a relatively new charge. Turk said NC Statute 14-18.4 allows law enforcement to charge people with death by distribution if it can be proven that a person sold drugs that resulted in an overdose causing death.

When investigating an overdose death, officers gather evidence at the scene, interview witnesses and look at cell phone records to determine who sold the drugs, Turk said.

“When we get to the point where we can determine that the person in question died of a drug overdose and we can identify one or more dealers,” Turk said, “then we start looking and seeing if there’s one.” There is a connection between a purchase and death through a finite timeline.”

Another important component of investigations into overdose deaths are autopsy and toxicology results, Turk said.

Turk said the sheriff’s office warns people not to use or come into contact with fentanyl because it is the most dangerous drug anyone could ingest. He said a single dose of fentanyl could be deadly.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, 2 milligrams of fentanyl is enough to kill a person, depending on body size, tolerability, and previous use.

Darien Brooke Greer, 28, is charged with death by distribution in the overdose of Brianna Culpepper, 25, of the city of Catawba.

“Our family is hurt. It’s just awful,” said Culpepper’s aunt, Julie Wright. “It’s just a terrible situation overall. Fentanyl needs to get off the streets and those responsible should go to jail.”

Culpepper’s family has been campaigning for Greer’s arrest since her death, Wright said.

Wright said on Jan. 19, 2021, her son went to check on Culpepper and found her dead on the bed in her RV. Wright said she had been dead for several hours.

“We just wanted answers. We weren’t told anything,” Wright said. “(Investigators) confiscated her phone and were able to get information from there. Next thing we hear, they have a grand jury indictment. But I think my sister had to keep raising the issue until someone was held accountable for selling that fentanyl.”

Wright said that Culpepper struggled with substance abuse, particularly alcohol, in the past, but was working to improve her life. She said Culpepper relocated from Florida to North Carolina in September 2020 for a fresh start. Culpepper had a car, a job, and an RV on her family’s property, Wright said.

Culpepper was on parole and passed all her drug tests, Wright said. The family stayed in touch with the parole officer assigned to Culpepper to make sure she stayed sober, Wright said.

“I hope that more people will be charged with the death penalty,” Wright said. “I hope more people will be held accountable for this because it kills these children.”

The third person charged with death by distribution in 2022 was Manuel Alejandro Acevedo.

Acevedo, 34, was arrested by the Hickory Police Department on September 16. He is being charged in connection with the death of Jenny Powell, who died on February 7. Acevedo was also charged with possession with intent to manufacture, sell or supply heroin, selling heroin and violating the suspended sentence.

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