Sheriff concerned about rising heroin use
Epperly: 'If you do heroin, you're either going to jail, or to the grave to an early death'
Sheriff Mick Epperly has been fighting the distribution of illegal narcotics for more than 20 years, and while two successors vie to take his place come January, Epperly is concerned how drugs will be handled because he believes that heroin may be heading into Barry County.
Epperly said he has fought hard to get meth off the streets, but heroin is another story.
"I've dealt with meth since I've been here," he said. "We're seeing more deaths with heroin, and I've seen where people seem to overdose on it more. It's cheaper than meth, too. It just takes one time [using it], then your body is asking for it, the same as if asking for a drink of water. It's no kind of lifestyle, and if you do heroin, you're either going to jail, or to the grave to an early death."
According to Epperly, the drug has been in the Springfield area and northward for some time, and according to sources, there have been two confirmed heroin-related deaths in Barry County this year.
"I see it moving into the county the same way meth did when I started," he said. "I encourage everyone to pay attention to these drugs and talk to their kids about it."
Epperly said heroin can destroy your body, family and the economy.
"These people should be working, but once they start a heroin habit, they've got to get their high," he said. "And, they support their habit by burglaries of our citizens. It always comes back to that. The drugs is where stealing starts."
Epperly encouraged individuals to think long and hard before turning to drugs.
"I've seen a lot of children and families suffer from it," he said. "I just ask people to think about their situation first, and not be pressured -- because it could be their life after that. I've seen deaths from heroin, and people going to the pen without parole. There's no advantage to it. I just hope and pray people think 10 times before they use heroin, or any drugs. There's nothing that bad out there they can't adjust to or turn to God and ask for answers."
Another problem, Epperly said, is that Barry County is not equipped to handle heroin addiction.
"We don't have long-term treatment for these people," he said. "There's a 96-hour hold system for short-term alcohol and drug problems, but that's not every time."
His advice to keep drugs like heroin out of the community is more manpower, education and school resource officers.
"It's going to take more narcotics officers than what's out there [to take the big drug dealers off the street], and following up on leads," he said. "We've also got to make people aware of what's around them. It takes everyone's eyes and ears."
During his time as sheriff, Epperly said he and his staff have taken many meth labs and dealers off the streets.
"I feel my staff has worked very efficiently and my officers in looking out for the drug tips," he said.
But whoever is elected will have their hands full, he said.
"It's a busy county with tons of work," he said. "I wish that the next sheriff does a great job of fighting drugs and keeping our communities safe."
Sheriff candidates Gary Davis and Justin "Dave" Ruark have different approaches to addressing drugs.
"I agree that it's coming," Davis said. "It's just a matter of time before we start having problems. There's no doubt because the Mexicans are pushing it, and it's the logical progression of drugs I've seen throughout my career. Heroin is an opioid and you can get a hit for like $10. It's cheaper than meth and pain pills. Dealers will discount it to get you hooked, then raise the price."
Davis' strategy to keep the community safe is to stake out then eliminate dealers.
"The things I am proposing requires nothing more than a diversion of our [officers] for a short period of time," he said. "I can increase law enforcement, but citizens have got to say we're willing to pay more taxes. We average half an officer per every 1,000 residents in the rural areas. The national average is two. I'd be happy just to get the one, because it would double what we've got.
"The scary thing to me is, we have a lot of young people who use pain pills, and you can get a bag of heroin one week, then one the next the same size but it might be laced with fentanyl that's many times stronger. A lot of heroin in the bigger cities is commonly laced with that, and it will kill you."
A synthetic opiate, fentanyl is so lethal it is changing the way narcotics officers in St. Louis work, where officers must wear gloves on heroin raids, and are no longer allowed to field test drugs, due to risk of instant death from contact with the substance, which is what the late musician Prince died from.
According to an Associated Press article from June, a few grains of fentanyl can kill a 250-pound man if absorbed through the skin or it becomes airborne, and the street version is 40 to 50 times more potent than heroin.
"The only way you really know you have a heroin problem is with the overdose calls you get," said Chad Allison, commander of the Ozarks Drug Enforcement Team (ODET), which covers Barry, Barton, McDonald and Jasper counties. "It trickles down from bigger cities like St. Louis to Springfield, and that's when it starts being seen in our areas. We do see a lot of the fentanyl being mixed with heroin. You find it in pain patches."
Allison advised citizens to be aware of odd behavior.
"Someone high on heroin or meth will act differently," he said. "They stick out like a sore thumb. They will have a lot of quirks, like twitching, or sores. Citizens should report it to local law enforcement and steer clear of them."
Ruark says heroin is already here.
"Monett has had some cases, and I've heard of a case in Wheaton," he said. "We've got to make sure people stay safe."
His strategy to keep the community safe is to get additional manpower not through more taxes, but through grants.
"I want to go after grants to add personnel and K-9 units," he said. "No one wants to raise taxes. We look at from the standpoint that if the dollars we spend here can save a human life, it's worth it, especially if it's someone's kid, and every person in Barry County is someones's daughter, son, brother or sister."
One grant he is researching provides funding for three years, then the county must fund the fourth year.
"Some candidates will say anything just to get their vote," he said. "I'm raising my kids here just as I was raised here, and my main concern is to make the county safe for everyone's children."
To anonymously report drug tips, residents may call 417-624-9365 or 1-888-635-8477.