This article concludes a series of articles that began in December, examining illegal drugs in Fayette County.
Two longtime law enforcement officers believe the drug problem in Fayette County has gotten far worse in recent years, but they refuse to give up the fight.
Fayette County Chief Detective James Caccimelio and Magisterial District Judge Mike Metros collectively have served more than 50 years fighting crime on the front lines.
They agree that, while Fayette County, as with anywhere else, has endured a drug problem for many years, drugs are more widespread now because of prescription drug abuse and heroin. Despite serving in the trenches in a war that seemingly has no end, they are not cynical but resolved to stand their ground to preserve and protect their community.
Past is prologue
Caccimelio, 54, served with state police for more than 26 years before taking another post as chief detective. His experience isn’t limited to Fayette County but various state police detachments near and far which include Bedford, Media, Hazelton, Waynesburg, Chambersburg and a stint as a patrol officer for State College Borough. Caccimelio said that, by far, Fayette County has one of the worst drug problems in the state.
“This is the most unique place I’ve ever worked, among other things, based on the drug activity here,” he said.
Caccimelio said, while the violence associated with drug activity has been worse, the drug problem is more widespread now. Back in the 1980s and 90s, he recalled Ron Whethers’ reign as a drug kingpin. Whethers was convicted in 1996 for selling or distributing more than 393 pounds of cocaine from Edenborn.
Metros, 60, served with the Uniontown police for 33 years before being elected as a magisterial district judge in 2010. He, too, remembers wars between gangs from New York and Cleveland, Ohio. Metros said 18 people were murdered one year during the 1980s when cocaine and crack were the drugs of choice. He said in the 1990s oxycotin, among other prescription drugs, took over. Metros said those pills were expensive, so people turned to heroin within the last decade because it is much cheaper.
While recalling the local violence from those days, Caccimelio spoke of an odd footnote about what happened after William Michael Lewis of Monessen was killed in 1993 by Whethers’ gang. Whethers ordered Lucas to be beaten in order to recover a kilogram of cocaine that he was accused of stealing. Lucas lived for seven days after the beating. When Lucas died, his heart and liver were donated to former Gov. Bob Casey, who was dying of a rare genetic disease.
Political and criminal footnotes aside as they relate to Whethers’ era, Caccimelio said, though the violence of that time period was much worse then than it is today, there is more crime now as an increasing number of addicts seek the means to feed their habits.
Noting the comparison, Caccimelio said there was a concentrated effort by law enforcement to take down Whethers’ organization, but law enforcement tactics have had to change as prescription drug abuse has replaced cocaine and crack.
“Sure, there’s drug dealers still operating in Fayette County, but not on a scale of what Whethers had,” he said. “There’s no drug kingpin. That all changed with the prevalence of prescription drug abuse.”
That doesn’t mean the murders have stopped, Caccimelio said, because many local homicides are a result of drug use directly or indirectly.
“There have been numerous incidents where people have been injured or killed because of drug or alcohol abuse,” he said.
Caccimelio remembered the case of Mark Edwards, who was convicted of slaying a North Union Township couple and their 17-year-old pregnant daughter before setting their house on fire in April 2002. As a state police corporal, Caccimelio was among those who assisted state police Trooper John Marshall in the investigation. Marshall now oversees the cold case investigations for the state police station in Uniontown.
Caccimelio said Edwards was reported to be under the influence of drugs when he committed these crimes, for which he was sentenced to death in 2004.
Caccimelio said today’s drug problem has become more widespread among different levels of society. He said instead of cocaine, people become addicted to prescription pain medication and later heroin because it is cheaper.
“That’s how I’ve seen it change,” he said. “A large portion of our cases revolve around drugs. People sell, possess and steal to buy more drugs. It’s crazy.”
Metros agrees that prescription drugs and/or heroin usage are widespread so as to have replaced cocaine and crack.
“Heroin seems to be the drug of choice because it is cheap and plentiful,” he said.
Metros sees the direct and indirect effect of drug usage each day in his courtroom.
“A conservative estimate — but 85 percent of the cases that come before this court have some form of substance addiction,” he said. “Look at the crime statistics. An overwhelming number of crimes are drug-related.”
Caccimelio gives credit to state police among other local law enforcement agencies for keeping the drug problem from getting worse.
“The finest troopers and local law enforcement work here in Fayette County,” he said. “From a law enforcement standpoint, they are giving the best service available.”
Caccimelio said that a long time ago, Fayette County was a prosperous area where there were many jobs, but that changed as the steel industry folded, coal mines closed and coke ovens cooled. He said the long-term downturn, not just recent economic recession, have had an affect on society. Caccimelio said as things got worse, people turned more to substance abuse. The fabric of society began to fade.
“Society, in general, has lost its moral compass,” he said. “Years ago, society was more orderly. People went to church, had good jobs and there was the nuclear family — mom, dad and kids. Along the way, society has lost that moral compass; lost pride in themselves. When you do heroin, crack cocaine, it takes your soul away.”
Metros said there was always a certain element of society attracted to drugs, but things have changed in recent years so that drug usage is more widespread among all levels of society. Access or the ability to purchase drugs are no longer the factors that they once were, he said.
Metros said addiction tends to run in families. He said children see their parents’ abuse drugs, so they learn to abuse drugs. He conjured up an image of a family struggling to survive, when a parent with $10 chooses to buy heroin instead of a pizza to feed the family that night. And later, that kind of broken home leads children to become addicted to drugs as young adults.
Metros said look at the obituaries most any given day when there may be a listing for a young person.
“Look at how people are affected — and it has come from the family,” he said. “Look at the obits. Anyone under the age of 25 who has died of an overdose — chances are that they come from a family with a history of substance abuse.”
In the past, Caccimelio said, few would have dared to feed their addiction the way they do now when the consequences mean less and less.
“Someone — to feed their need for heroin — might steal from their grandmother. A normal person does not do that,” he said.
Caccimelio said society needs to find a way to reduce or eliminate the demand for drugs, but, as long there is the demand, someone will fill that demand. Change has to come from within. He said that change comes when an addict “bottoms out,” either by being arrested or through personal tragedy, he said.
“People have to take it upon themselves to restore and maintain their values,” Caccimelio said.
Metros said he is not a big fan of rehabilitating drug addiction through other drugs, such as heroin dependency being treated by methadone.
“People go through rehab, but it doesn’t take, so they end up doing the same old, same old,” he said.
Metros’ contention is that a person has to treat all aspects of addiction, not just expect a dosage from a clinic to do the trick. Metros was familiar with William Addis, a former drug addict who quit cold turkey and now advocates a drug-free lifestyle without methadone. Metros said taking a pill is easy when compared to the amount of work it takes to change a person’s ways.
“Individuals choose to decide their own fate,” he said. “Until they come to that point in their lives — hit bottom — they will have to make that decision for themselves if they are going to keep doing it.”
Why fight on?
These two longtime legionaries have been serving on the front lines for decades, but little if anything has changed in the drug war, so why fight on?
“There’s always hope,” Caccimelio said. “Somebody has to keep on doing it or else we’ve just given up. But the solution to the drug problem can’t just come from law enforcement, but attacked from several different directions.”
Caccimelio said education is the key to solving the problem.
“People have to educate themselves and make sure their children are getting educated — making sure that their kids are not only going to school, but working hard in school,” he said. “I encourage people to seek the best education available for their children, whether that is public or private. Generally, educated communities are more well-behaved.”
Metros echoed the same sentiment about why he stays day after day on the front lines of this fight.
“The bottom line is — you can’t give up,” he said. “The situation, if left to its own, will overtake society which it may do 20 years down the road if we don’t continue to fight.”