SOUTH BEND — The Pacific County Prosecutor’s Office has taken the somewhat unusual step of charging an alleged heroin-provider with the overdose death of his friend.
Jeromy Jeffcoat, 31, of Tacoma, was arrested in late June, after being charged in May with controlled-substance homicide, a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, $20,000 in fines, or both. Jeffcoat, a paper mill worker, was also charged with three counts of theft of a firearm and three counts of second-degree unlawful firearm possession.
Jeffcoat was charged for his alleged role in the 2016 death of 24-year-old South Bend resident Derik Nissell. According to court documents, Nissell’s mother discovered his body when she went to check on him at his apartment on March 3, 2016. Evidence at the scene made it clear that Nissell, a recovering heroin addict who had reportedly been clean for about two years, had relapsed before his death. He had been dead for about two days.
The victim’s mother noted several items appeared to be missing from his apartment, including a video game system and several guns. She declined to comment for this story, but said she is thankful law enforcement officials are pursuing the case.
After Nissell’s death, Jeffcoat’s girlfriend told South Bend Police she believed that Jeffcoat — also a recovering heroin addict who had relapsed — might have been with Nissell shortly before he died. She showed police a Feb. 29 text message exchange between Jeffcoat and Nissell. Jeffcoat had allegedly agreed to provide heroin to Nissell. Jeffcoat’s girlfriend and her mother also found items in the girlfriend’s home that appeared to belong to Nissell, including ammunition and a shoe.
In April 2016, a Tacoma woman told South Bend Police that while they were drinking together in a bar, Jeffcoat told her he’d been getting high with Nissell when Nissell overdosed. Jeffcoat allegedly described reviving Nissell by hitting his chest with his fist. According to a probable cause statement, Jeffcoat allegedly left the apartment, and came back later to check on Nissell. Although he allegedly saw that Nissell “was not doing well,” he reportedly left again. When he came back a while later, Nissell was dead. Jeffcoat allegedly took Nissell’s belongings and left.
Jeffcoat reportedly told his female drinking buddy that Nissell had given him the missing guns.
Jeffcoat’s girlfriend turned over more evidence to the police, including a screenshot of a Google search for the terms, “South Bend,” “overdose,” “criminal charges” and “guidelines for homicide charges on overdose deaths.” She also showed police a text message conversation in which Jeffcoat allegedly arranged to sell a video game system on Craigslist.
In May 2016, South Bend Police Chief Dave Eastham interviewed Jeffcoat in Tacoma. According to Eastham, Jeffcoat was surprised to learn that a medical examiner did not find any fentanyl in Nissell’s blood. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is increasingly used alone, or in combination with heroin. It is many magnitudes stronger than heroin, and is partly responsible for a rise in overdose fatalities in recent years.
Jeffcoat agreed to give a recorded statement to Eastham. However, he allegedly cut off the interview after learning that Eastham knew there were guns missing from Nisell’s home, saying, “No, if I get caught up in anything to do with guns, I’ll get 20 years in the pen.”
Pacific County Prosecutor Mark McClain and Deputy Prosecutor Don Richter secured a $100,000 warrant for Jeffcoat’s arrest on May 31, 2018. Deputies arrested Jeffcoat in South Bend on June 22. He hired Long Beach attorney Nathan Needham.
Jeffcoat’s criminal history includes several previous drug-related offenses and property crimes, but no violent offenses. He was last convicted of a felony in 2013.
In a July 3 motion, Needham argued Jeffcoat should be released from jail while awaiting trial, because he isn’t considered a flight risk. Needham said Jeffcoat is engaged, has been employed at a Tacoma paper mill and has been participating in drug and mental health treatment since early 2017. Needham provided letters from several providers stating that Jeffcoat has stayed clean and complied with treatment. Needham also provided letters to the court from Jeffcoat’s supervisors and coworkers that praised his work ethic.
In July, Pacific County Superior Court Judge Doug Goelz dropped Jeffcoat’s bail to $50,000 and allowed him to be released with the condition that he must wear an electronic monitoring device. Jeffcoat was allowed to continue working and to attend medical and attorney appointments.
Washington is one of about 20 U.S. states that have laws allowing for the prosecution of those who cause a death or deaths by providing drugs. In most states, the killing does not have to be malicious or even intentional to meet the standard for prosecution, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. Historically, states in the Midwest and South have used these laws more aggressively. Until recently, charges like the one against Jeffcoat have been relatively rare in the Pacific Northwest. However, since around 2013, more states have begun trying to pass similar policies, and prosecutors around the U.S. are using them more.
Proponents say the harsh penalties associated with controlled substance homicide convictions are a powerful deterrent to prospective drug-dealers. They also believe punishing dealers, rather than street-level users, is a more efficient way to reduce crime caused by the epidemic of opioid addiction that has devastated many U.S. communities.
“These homicides may not be easily discovered, investigated, prosecuted or proven, but they still deserve attention, Mark Neil, of the National Association of Attorneys General, wrote in a February journal article. “For that to happen, a paradigm shift in thinking by law enforcement officers and prosecutors is required, away from attitudes focusing on accident to thinking and treating overdoses as homicides.” Controlled substance homicide laws are not “a silver bullet,” Neil argued, but can be used to crack down on “drug dealers who take advantage of those who have become addicted to opioids.”
Opponents of these laws, including the Drug Policy Alliance, say deterrence has never worked, and never will. They argue that people like Jeffcoat are also victims of addiction who make decisions based on their need for drugs, rather than the potential consequences of providing them. DPA also argues that users may be less likely to call 911 when someone overdoses if they fear prosecution.
According to the report, “There is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities. In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases. As just one example, despite 10 full-time police officers investigating 53 potential drug-induced homicide cases in Hamilton County, Ohio in 2015, the county still recorded 100 more opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016 than in 2015.”
McClain and Needham did not respond to requests for comment before publication deadline.
Jeffcoat is tentatively scheduled for a three-day trial in early September.