Will charging opioid dealers with murder prevent fatal overdoses? NC prosecutors hope so.

In April 2016, Cindy Patane found her son unconscious in his bedroom, needles on the table nearby, beaten by a disease he could not conquer.

After years of struggle to stay clean, including a six-month stay at a halfway house, Matt Eyster ground up and injected Opana, a synthetic opioid so powerful and addictive it is no longer sold by pharmaceutical companies. The drug left him brain dead at 21.

In their last moments together before Matt was taken off life support, Patane pressed her forehead to her son’s face as he breathed through a tube. Then she went to her Eastern North Carolina home, took a shower and started searching through Matt’s phone records, his Facebook account and his deleted texts.

Through those messages, Patane retraced the fatal Opana pill to the moment of the sale. Within six months, the woman who sold the drugs to Matt would be indicted for second-degree murder, largely due to Patane’s investigation. The prison sentence for Melinda Chaulk, now 40, on a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter: four years, 10 months.

Cindy Patane leans over her son Matt Eyster, who died of an opioid overdose in 2016. Courtesy of Cindy Patane

Charging opioid suppliers with murder in fatal overdoses is increasingly common in North Carolina. No one keeps track of the total across all 100 counties, but prosecutors have brought at least 20 cases in the last two years as the state’s opioid crisis worsens.

Opinions differ on whether tougher sentences can steer dealers away from drugs with a deadly history, especially the cheap, synthetic opioid fentanyl. Disagreements also abound on whether dealers need longer prison time when many are addicts themselves. But for mothers such as Patane, nothing but a murder charge could fit the crime.

“That’s the only way you can fix it,” said Patane, a second-grade teacher with two other children. “You just want accountability. Somebody did this to my boy. Just because Matt made a bad choice doesn’t make your crime less of a crime. Matt had consequences. She should have consequences as well.”

Matt Eyster. courtesy of Cindy Patane

North Carolina saw 2,323 people die from opioid and other drug overdoses in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated, nearly double the number who died in car crashes. That total rose 14.5 percent from 2016 — one of the most dramatic increases in the country.

The scope of the crisis — both the numbers killed and the socio-economic lines the fatalities cross — put opioid drugs in a different class, said Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.

Given the deaths and the media attention these drugs have drawn, she said, it is harder for a drug dealer to plead ignorance about the risks — especially with prior arrests. Some cases are cloudy. Multiple drugs may be involved in an overdose, and they might have come from different places. But with opioids, it is easier for prosecutors to draw a direct line between a sale and a death.

Freeman has two such murder cases pending in Wake County. In one of them, 19-year-old Bryan Michael Spain overdosed on a poisonous fentanyl mixture while traveling home from Appalachian State University, where he was a criminal justice major and had the “self-assurance of someone 6 feet tall and bulletproof,” according to his obituary.

The defendant, 27-year-old Benjamin Franklin Steele Jr., has a history of drug and robbery convictions. Freeman said she has never taken a drug overdose murder case all the way to a jury, and there is no telling how one might respond.

Still, she said, “It certainly is our intent to make it clear to people who would traffic these drugs that we are going to use every tool in the toolbox.”

Classmate and Facebook friend

In Sneads Ferry, a small Onslow County town outside Camp Lejeune, Patane knew her son was an addict. He had been an avid soccer player since age 3, earning most-valuable player awards and making all-county teams. He started smoking marijuana in high school, his mother said, and gravitated to pain pills through older athletes.

Patane and her son fought about it, and he went to live with his grandmother to resist his mother’s rules.

High school experimentation turned to ugly addiction for all to see. Matt Eyster went to rehab for 20 days. He spent six months in a halfway house. On the night he overdosed, Patane told herself to send him a text reminding him how much she loved him. She had been riding him hard all week.

Matt Eyster had a classmate at Dixon High School near North Topsail Beach: Jason Westberry Sapp IV, whom everybody called “Wes.” Unlike Matt, Wes kept hard drug use hidden from his family.

Jason Westberry Sapp IV, also known as “Wes.” Courtesy of Vanessa Sapp

He had been an A student until he went to East Carolina University and pledged at a fraternity, where his grade-point average dropped to 0.0, said his mother, Vanessa Sapp.

He came home to Onslow County, got depressed and tried to kick the marijuana habit he had developed. He talked about joining the military, got a job at a sports bar and saw a doctor to talk about the anxiety he felt after quitting pot. He didn’t like the way he felt on medication doctors prescribed, saying he preferred marijuana, Sapp said.

Until he died at 21 from a fentanyl overdose, one day after drugs killed Eyster, his mother had no idea he was using opioids.

The man who sold the fatal dose — Jarred Eddington — was a classmate and Facebook friend. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in February and received a minimum seven-year sentence. His father Harold spoke tearfully at the sentencing, thankful his son is alive and hopeful he can return “to a better community,” according to the Star News of Wilmington.

“We’ve had so many parents reach out,” said Sapp, who has three daughters and has met with Gov. Roy Cooper about how to address the crisis. “ ‘Why your child? Why didn’t they follow up with my child?’ It comes down to evidence.”

‘The worst of the bad cases’

North Carolina law allows murder charges in the case of opioids, cocaine and methamphetamine, and while the statute is not new, it took an epidemic before prosecutors brought many of these cases.

In Union County outside Charlotte, “We started to have so many overdoses that they weren’t even newsworthy,” said District Attorney Trey Robison. “It was happening so often it wasn’t routine, but it was common.”

Even with such a law on the books, trying a supplier as a killer isn’t simple. A prosecutor needs to show malice, which Robison defined as “complete and utter disregard for rights and safety” — a drug transaction so dangerous you knew or should have known you were going to kill somebody.

“I’m talking about the worst of the bad cases,” he said. “I’m talking about the cases where there’s something in there where the jury is going to be mad.”

That anger drove Patane to investigate. After her son’s death, she said, she used his email password to get into Facebook and reset that password. She got into his iTunes and iCloud accounts and could see detailed messages about the fatal Opana sale, right up to the moment he pulled into the dealer’s driveway.

His dealer knew he was an addict, Patane said, and she found threatening messages on his phone insisting that he help sell pills. “I could feel his fear,” she said.

Patane helped Sapp dig into her son’s digital life, and she found pictures he took of the drugs that turned out to be fatal. She said he had posted questions about what he was actually buying.

“Drugs are usually hush-hush,” Sapp said. “Our boys were pretty young and naive.”

With a murder conviction in her son’s death, Sapp declared “neither side won.” The classmate who sold her son drugs was an addict himself, and when he apologized, she got all she wanted.

“I kind of took it like it might have saved his life,” she said. “He’s not using right now. His father can go visit him. I can’t go visit my son.”

‘Dangerous ground’

The reality that many dealers operate to feed their own addiction makes some drug policy analysts question the effectiveness of tougher sentencing.

The nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, a New York group with the goal of reducing arrests and increasing treatment, notes that research consistently shows severe punishment does not deter illegal drug behavior. Friends or family may fear calling 911 out of worry of being prosecuted along with an addict, the group said.

In Raleigh, the criminal defense firm Kurtz & Blum posted an essay on its website last year that called the murder charge trend “dangerous ground.”

The essay echoed the oft-cited case of a 28-year-old Philadelphia addict profiled in Slate who was so mentally ill she systematically pulled out her own eyelashes until providing a fellow addict with fentanyl and catching a homicide charge.

“People who are suffering from addiction will do anything they have to,” said Seth Blum, partner in the Raleigh firm. “Until we treat drug addiction as a medical condition, I doubt this will make a dent.”

Treatment is a priority for both Patane and Sapp, who formed Sneads Ferry HOPE shortly after their sons died. The group has been active in Narcan training, which helps addicts’ friends and family administer drugs that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose.

But with their sons’ cases finished, they return to the pain that does not fade. Sapp keeps a trunk full of Wes’ belongings in the living room: his sweatshirts, sports trophies, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book.

She and Patane sat on it to pose for a portrait, showing off the tattoos they got as a memorial to their children: Sapp a “W” for Wes on her arm; Patane a soccer ball and Matt’s signature on her foot.

“I got it from one of his court papers,” Patane joked, smiling at the friend adversity brought, admitting, “We’re not tattoo people.”

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08