A mass killer: St. Louis heroin deaths hit new high


ST. Louis Post reports

ST. LOUIS • After a long decline, Eric Bearden finally hit bottom in an abandoned building on South Grand Boulevard that thousands of people pass every day.

Bearden, 28, who once dreamed of being a chef, was victim No. 11 among a class of 256 fatal overdoses that quietly tore across the city of St. Louis in 2016.

One year later, a spent syringe lay discarded in the busy alley near where he died. Windows and doors have been boarded up, but the only thing that seems to have changed is the message posted in front of nearby Fanning Middle School.


Heroin in St. Louis
A discarded syringe is left in an alley behind a dilapidated apartment building on South Grand Boulevard in St. Louis on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. A year earlier, heroin user Eric Bearden, 28, died of a heroin overdose inside the apartment building. The alley is still known for it’s drug use. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

David Carson

“We do so they can,” the sign reads. “Every child deserves a champion.”

Heroin has made that much harder, as its death grip destroys more addicts, families and communities than ever in the region.

It has always been a hard-core and dangerous drug. But today longtime addicts and new users are facing unprecedented risks.

Earlier this month, Ashley Johnston plunged a different syringe into her arm, her beating heart then pumping the dope through her pregnant body.

Johnston, 31, said two of her children had been born addicted to opioids. A third was not. She lost all of them to state custody.

Less than three months from another delivery date, Johnston suffers from a mental illness that public health advocates describe as substance use disorder.

“I am keeping it, and it’s going to live with me,” Johnston said of her unborn child. “It’s a boy.”

The region’s insatiable appetite for heroin has been well documented in the past decade, especially as the drug’s wrath moved out of the urban core and into the white suburbs.

Never has the drug been more deadly, nor this cheap. Purity levels have skyrocketed, while prices have plummeted on the street to $5 to $10 a button (dose).

And now, a lethal new twist has flooded the market: fentanyl. The cheap synthetic opioid is 50 times stronger than the real stuff. A little bit on the tongue can kill you.

Heroin historically has been mixed with inert substances such as baby powder and cornstarch to make it go further. Now fentanyl is thrown in the mix.

A dealer with a conscience might sell fentanyl-laced heroin with a warning: “Be careful with that.” But, if anything, that only fuels appetites among buyers, driving much of the dramatic spike in the death toll.

More than 650 people died from opioid overdoses in the St. Louis region in 2016, more than four times the number in 2007. Toxicology results continue to come in.

Franklin County had 29, an 81 percent increase in one year. Jefferson County had 62, a 35 percent jump.

But while heroin is a growing crisis across the region, in the city of St. Louis it is an explosive epidemic.

The city logged 256 deaths, a whopping 94 percent leap from the previous year. Annual opioid deaths have catapulted ahead of homicides. The city’s opioid death rate of 80 overdoses per 100,000 people is more than twice the rate elsewhere in the region.

2016 opioid death rate
Per 100,000 people

St. Clair CountyMadison CountyWarren CountyLincoln CountyFranklin CountyJefferson CountySt. Charles CountySt. Louis CountySt. Louis city13.

SOURCE:National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Post-Dispatch; NOTE: Death data is incomplete due to pending toxicology reports. Warren County rate based on most recent year’s data (2014).
St. Louis city80.39797
St. Louis County15.248734
St. Charles County11.780613
Jefferson County28.0041193
Franklin County28.4827532
Lincoln County7.42666172
Warren County3.03039486
Madison County25.00943
St. Clair County13.11082


The typical victims are in the prime of their most productive years. And they are diverse. The city’s death pool included 183 males, 73 females; 138 Caucasian, 117 African-American and 1 Asian.

“We have a huge problem,” said Michael Graham, medical examiner for the city.



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