HAMMOND, Ind. - Drug overdoses in the United States hit record high numbers last year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 100,000 Americans died from an overdose in 2021 — that’s a 15-percent increase from the previous year and that’s one overdose death every five minutes.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are the top causes, followed by cocaine, meth and other stimulants.
As those deaths skyrocket, so has the frustration for some families when their loved one’s death is not charged as a drug-induced homicide.
"She had trusted somebody, trusted them at their word," said Rachel Carlisle.
Her daughter, Mariah Rachel Earp, died May 14, 2020, from a drug overdose.
Now, Carlisle is trying to bring awareness to the drug epidemic by putting her picture on a billboard in Hammond. Carlisle says her daughter was 27, under stress and self-medicating at the start of the pandemic.
"Sadly, what she took was a pill and it was illicit fentanyl," said Carlisle. "I was in complete shock. I was in denial. I was just led to believe that she had taken something knowingly and that it was an overdose."
Carlisle did some digging on her own and thought police should be investigating it as a drug-induced homicide. She browsed her daughter's phone, which she says police didn't initially look at. She looked for clues as to who gave her the deadly dose.
In DuPage County, State's Attorney Bob Berlin says his office assists law enforcement with *every overdose investigation, seeking evidence to prove a homicide."
"It's really comes down to resources and devoting the resources and conducting a full investigation. We do that and you can see by the numbers how difficult these cases are," said Berlin.
He says since 2014, his office has charged 19 drug-induced homicide cases — that's compared to hundreds of overdoses in recent years and rising.
Berlin says to get the charge, they have to prove an offender delivered the drugs to the victim and those were the drugs that caused the victim’s death.
"Oftentimes you're using drug dealers as witnesses to try and get bigger drug dealers to bigger fish in the drug dealing business, and we try and work our way up the chain as far as we can," explained Berlin.
Retired Dallas police officer, Byron Boston, trains officers on how to investigate overdoses as drug-induced homicides.
"Very, very complicated because oftentimes, you will have an individual that has multiple drugs in their systems," said Boston, with Professional Law Enforcement Training or PLET.
He says detailed toxicology reports and experts are now key, which is very different from solving violent crimes.
"With your traditional homicide cases, you do have workable leads, you have gunpowder residue, you have, you know, firearm analysis," said Boston.
He led a class in Chicago recently for officers, which retired cop Terry Almanza also attended.
"What detectives should look for and how they should process the scene and search warrants that need to be written. These phones are a treasure trove of evidence," said Almanza, who is also a mother of overdose victim 18-year-old Sydney Schergen. She took a pill and died in 2015.
Her case was ruled accidental and immediately closed, but Almanza pushed police for charges and she got a conviction.
"Law enforcement tells you ‘hey, your kid made a choice.’ Well, Sydney never made a choice to die, and the dealers are making a choice," said Almanza, whose foundation helps families nationwide encourage homicide investigations and fight for awareness and closure.
"I know that she is pretty damn proud of me for getting up every day, dusting myself off, like my tears, and saying alright, I’m going to keep on fighting," said Carlisle.
So how often do state’s attorneys bring drug-induced homicide charges? From the years 2019 to 2021, Will County had four cases, Lake County, Illinois had three and McHenry County had 43 drug-induced homicide cases charged.
The Hammond Police Department released the following statement on the Mariah Earp case:
The hearts and thoughts of the Hammond police department are with Mariah’s family and friends. This is a terrible tragedy. The family deserves peace of mind and justice. This is an open investigation so I cannot speak directly on the circumstances of the case. However, Hammond detectives are vigilantly working to determine the facts surrounding this case.
Cell phone records, and reports from the corner and toxicology lab all take time, but I assure you that detectives are doing everything they can to find anyone who may be responsible. At the conclusion of the investigation, the Hammond police department will present evidence to the Lake County prosecutor’s office in hopes of charges being filed. Thank you.
Lt. Steve Kellogg
Hammond Police Department