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Street killer: Fentanyl seen as root of Janesville overdose deaths


Heroin addicts crave it, even though it could kill them.

It’s fentanyl, a drug created for medicine but now manufactured illicitly and mixed with heroin.

Fentanyl was found in the blood of all 14 people who died of overdoses in Janesville last year, police said.

The deaths are a new record and represent more deaths than all of Janesville’s homicides and traffic deaths combined, said Police Chief Dave Moore.

Fentanyl kills because it’s many times more powerful than heroin, said Dr. Jay MacNeal of Mercyhealth, EMS director for Rock County.

Local heroin users are well aware the drug they buy could be laced with fentanyl, said Janesville police officer Chad Woodman, but they use it, anyway.

“When it’s broadcast that there is a strong dose of heroin mixed with fentanyl or a strong batch of heroin going around in the community, people who are actively using are likely to seek that drug out, even though people are dying from it,” said Claire D., a local woman who counts herself clean of drugs for the past two years.

Dealers will even advertise when they have a potent batch of heroin, said Claire, who asked that her full name not be used.

“What it means is, it’s probably going to provide a really good high, and they’re willing to risk that,” Claire said.

Addicts always are chasing the high they got the first time they used heroin, but they eventually don’t get high at all. They just need the drug so they don’t suffer horrible withdrawal symptoms, Claire said.

MacNeal agreed: “Their only thought is how to get the next dosage of the drug so they don’t feel miserable.”

It’s the nature of the disease of addiction, said Mike R., another recovering addict who works in a 12-step recovery program.

“In our meetings, we have discussions about how you can die if you use one more time, and they’re all aware of it,” Mike said. “People say they’ve ‘died’ several times, and they’re tired of it.”

Offer a dose to a group of addicts and tell them it might kill them, and 99 percent would take it, Mike said.

It’s similar to an alcoholic who is told he has cirrhosis of the liver and that if he drinks, he could die.

“Most alcoholics are still going to drink,” Mike said.

Reviving the ‘dead’

Local emergency medical responders often are the ones bringing overdose victims back from near death. They’ve had to change procedures in recent years to combat fentanyl, MacNeal said.

Heroin, fentanyl and similar drugs all slow breathing. If the dose is strong enough, the brain is starved of oxygen, and the person dies, MacNeal said.

Part of the problem is that addicts never know how potent their latest dose might be, MacNeal said.

Naloxone, known commonly by the brand name Narcan, can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. But fentanyl-laced heroin can be so strong that it may overpower even two doses of naloxone.

Emergency responders have increased their initial dose of naloxone, and they’re inserting an airway sooner to get more oxygen to the brain, MacNeal said.

But waiting for EMTs can be fatal in some cases. Addicts and their loved ones often carry naloxone for emergencies, but time is so critical that MacNeal recommends people also learn CPR to force air into the lungs before help arrives.

People need to call 911 right away, but sometimes they’re afraid to because they could get in trouble with the law, MacNeal said.

Janesville police report 30 overdose deaths in the past three years. Eighteen were male, 12 female. All but one were white.

“It’s very sad, and its not just junkies shooting up behind the Dumpster. It’s people from high-functioning families who totally get hooked on this stuff, and it’s a blight on our society right now,” MacNeal said.

Police made six arrests in those 30 cases. Convicting someone of providing the drug that led to a death is difficult, but there have been few.

It’s hard to prove that the drug was the only contributor to a death. A medical condition might have been involved.

It’s also hard to get a conviction if the person who died had willingly went along with the person who delivered the heroin, Woodman said.

Janesville police reported 65 drug overdoses last year, seven more than in 2016.

Woodman is the police DROP officer. The acronym stands for Death, Rehab or Prison. He contacts addicts, often after they overdose, and offers help, sometimes in the form of peer counselors who are recovering addicts and treatment when available.

He maintains contact, continuing to offer help. Sometimes, they succeed in getting clean; sometimes, they try and relapse.

“If all of a sudden I get a string of overdoses, I have a pretty good idea that probably we had a bad batch that came through, probably higher potency, probably fentanyl out there, and I contact people and say we have fentanyl out there, watch yourself. I tell them to be careful,” Woodman said.

Sometimes they heed the warning, sometimes not, he added.

Fentanyl is used regularly in medicine, but the stuff on the streets until recently could be mail-ordered from China, Woodman said.

Experts say most or all of the illicit fentanyl is made in China and enters the United States from Mexico.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration announced this month that China is taking steps to control two chemicals used to make fentanyl in addition to previous steps to clamp down on the illicit trade.

The new controls, the result of “ongoing collaboration” between the DEA and China, are scheduled to take effect Feb. 1.

But Woodman believes criminals will always find a way to supply addictive drugs.

“You can’t fight the supply without fighting the demand,” he said. “You cut off one source, it’ll spring up from another one ...

“If we don’t fix the addiction, we’re not going to fix the problem,” he said.

Moore believes the current wave of overdoses will decline in five to 10 years. He notes the road to addiction often starts with young people experimenting with painkilling pills, which contain drugs similar to heroin, or when people get pain pill prescriptions.

When the pills are gone, some people turn to heroin, Moore noted.

Doctors are being more careful about when and how much they prescribe, and the public is being more careful about getting rid of the painkillers in their medicine cabinets, Moore said, so the number of people getting hooked should decline.

At the same time, police are working in Janesville schools to warn about those pills, and “we’re starting to learn what works and does not work (in treating) heroin users,” Moore said.

In the meantime, Dr. MacNeal said: “We’re really trying, and despite everything we do, we know we’re not going to save everyone, and that’s very frustrating.”

Anthony Wahl 

Austin Sartell grabs his line after hooking a fish while on Clear Lake with the Milton High School ice fishing club on Saturday, Jan. 13.

Anthony Wahl 

Isaac Taormino holds up the northern pike he caught ice fishing while out with the Milton High School ice fishing club on Lake Clear on Saturday, Jan. 13.

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Social reformer: Harrell receives YWCA racial justice award


Dorothy Harrell was a teenager when she broke the silence about racial inequity in her first letter to the editor.

“I talked about a system that existed in our community that allowed all of us to go to school together,” Harrell said.

But when school was out, only the white children flocked to a teen dance club near Beloit’s downtown.

In 1965, black youngsters were not welcome, Harrell said.

The newspaper never published her letter.

But the young woman was not deterred.

The incident only strengthened her resolve that inequities in society must be addressed.

“Your silence will not protect you,’” Harrell said, citing a quote by poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde.

Today, Harrell has spent a lifetime speaking up and working for social change, often one person at a time.

On Saturday, she received the YWCA’s annual Racial Justice Award at the annual Martin Luther King Day commemoration at Blackhawk Technical College.

“It’s always a great honor to be recognized in your hometown by people who know you well,” Harrell said.

Harrell was born and raised in Beloit, but the positive impact of her work is felt countywide.

An attorney, Harrell was part of a Rock County committee that looks at best practices in the criminal justice system.

“She brings the viewpoint of our African-American citizens and talks about their concerns,” said Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore. “That is valuable for the police department because we are responsible for representing everyone in the community.”

Along with participating in Justice Overcoming Borders in Beloit, Harrell has studied and raised awareness about issues surrounding incarceration, including the disproportionate incarceration of minorities.

She also has taken time to help young people navigate the criminal court system.

“Sometimes I attend meetings with them,” Harrell said. “Many times parents contact me because they are frustrated and don’t know how to best deal with the system.”

Last summer, Harrell was part of a coalition asking about cultural-competency training for people in the district attorney’s office.

Before earning a law degree in 1990 from the University of Wisconsin Law School, Harrell was a teacher and taught in the Beloit School District.

She later worked on the executive staff for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C. She returned to Beloit five years ago.

Harrell partners with the Beloit and Janesville school districts to address the academic-achievement gaps between white and black students.

The activist is a member of the equity committee in the Janesville School District, which includes students and community members.

“She is highly passionate about equity work,” said Angela Lynch, coordinator of culturally responsive practices in the Janesville district. “It has been extremely beneficial to have her expertise and her experience.”

Harrell gets people motivated in positive ways.

“She helps them see the need for this work,” Lynch said.

In the Beloit School District, Harrell has been part of an effort to encourage minority students who are Beloit graduates to come back and teach in the district.

“I was proud to come back here and teach,” Harrell said. “I would like other students to return.”

Harrell realized her potential to help others at Beloit’s New Zion Baptist Church, where she has been a member for more than 60 years.

“I’ve always been involved in different activities,” she said. “And it started at my church. It’s the church where my parents were active, and they made it a part of our family life.”

Every week for the past five years, Harrell has been part of a Saturday tutoring program at the church. It is open to all students, not just church members.

“We saw young people improve academically and also socially,” she said.

Dennis Baskin and Patricia Majeed nominated Harrell for the Racial Justice Award.

Harrell was Baskin’s elementary school teacher more than 35 years ago.

“Dorothy is respected for a number of reasons,” Baskin said. “She is a very giving person and is very concerned about her community and others. She is a transformational leader.”

Three years ago, Harrell became president of the Beloit Branch of the NAACP and restored confidence and respect in the group after it suffered a leadership void and low morale.

“She focused the organization on educational, workforce and criminal justice reform, and in this short time, the organization has yielded impressive results,” Baskin and Majeed said in the nomination form.

They called Harrell “admired and trusted by many.”

“She is what America stands for—hard work, determination and character,” they wrote.

Baskin is a member of the Beloit School Board.

Majeed, a small-business owner in Rock County, has known Harrell ever since Harrell taught her now-adult son at Merrill Elementary School.

“Dorothy always has been in the forefront making things better for people and humanity,” Majeed said. “Lots of times while we are sleeping, she is working. I think about her and get misty-eyed because she has persevered so.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email

Hawaii officials mistakenly warn of inbound missile


A false alarm that warned of a ballistic missile headed for Hawaii sent the islands into a panic Saturday, with people abandoning cars in a highway and preparing to flee their homes until officials said the cellphone alert was a mistake.

In a conciliatory news conference later in the day, Hawaii officials apologized for the mistake and vowed to ensure it will never happen again.

Hawaii Emergency Management Agency Administrator Vern Miyagi said the error happened when someone hit the wrong button.

“We made a mistake,” said Miyagi.

For nearly 40 minutes, it seemed like the world was about to end in Hawaii, an island paradise already jittery over the threat of nuclear-tipped missiles from North Korea.

The emergency alert, which was sent to cellphones statewide just before 8:10 a.m., said: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

On the H-3, a major highway north of Honolulu, vehicles sat empty after drivers left them to run to a nearby tunnel after the alert showed up, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. Workers at a golf club huddled in a kitchen fearing the worst.

Professional golfer Colt Knost, staying at Waikiki Beach during a PGA Tour event, said “everyone was panicking” in the lobby of his hotel.

“Everyone was running around like, ‘What do we do?’” he said.

Richard Ing, a Honolulu attorney, was doing a construction project at home when his wife told him about the alert. His wife and children prepared to evacuate while he tried to figure out what was happening.

Cherese Carlson, in Honolulu for a class and away from her children, said she called to make sure they were inside after getting the alert.

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it. Something bad’s about to happen and I could die,’” she said.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency tweeted there was no threat about 10 minutes after the initial alert, but that didn’t reach people who aren’t on the social media platform. A revised alert informing of the “false alarm” didn’t reach cellphones until 38 minutes later, according to the time stamp on images people shared on social media.

The incident prompted defense agencies including the Pentagon and the U.S. Pacific Command to issue the same statement, that they had “detected no ballistic missile threat to Hawaii.”

The White House said President Donald Trump, at his private club in Florida, was briefed on the false alert. White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said it “was purely a state exercise.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki said the system Hawaii residents have been told to rely on failed miserably. He also took emergency management officials to task for taking 30 minutes to issue a correction, prolonging panic.

“Clearly, government agencies are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with emergency situations,” he said in a statement.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige apologized for the “pain and confusion” caused by the alert.

The alert caused a tizzy on the islands and across social media.

At the PGA Tour’s Sony Open on Oahu, Waialae Country Club was largely empty and players were still a few hours from arriving when the alert showed up. Workers streamed into the clubhouse trying to seek cover in the locker room, which was filled with the players’ golf bags, but instead went into the kitchen.

Several players took to Twitter. Justin Thomas, the PGA Tour player of the year, tweeted, “To all that just received the warning along with me this morning ... apparently it was a ‘mistake’?? hell of a mistake!! Haha glad to know we’ll all be safe.”

In Honolulu, hair salon owner Jaime Malapit texted his clients that he was cancelling their appointments and was closing his shop for the day.

“I woke up and saw a missile warning and thought ‘no way.’ I thought ‘No, this is not happening today,’” Malapit said.

Brian Naeole, who was visiting Honolulu from Molokai, said he wasn’t worried since he didn’t hear sirens and neither TV nor radio stations issued alerts.

“I thought it was either a hoax or a false alarm,” he said.

Ing, the Honolulu lawyer, tried to find some humor in the situation.

“I thought to myself, it must be someone’s last day at work or someone got extremely upset at a superior and basically did this as a practical joke,’ he said. “But I think it’s a very serious problem if it wasn’t that, or even it was, it shows that we have problems in the system that can cause major disruption and panic and anxiety among people in Hawaii.”

Others were outraged. Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted the false alarm was “totally inexcusable” and was caused by human error.

“There needs to be tough and quick accountability and a fixed process,” he wrote.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said on social media the panel would launch an investigation.

With the threat of missiles from North Korea in people’s minds, the state reintroduced the Cold War-era warning siren tests last month that drew international attention. But there were problems there, too.

Even though the state says nearly 93 percent of the state’s 386 sirens worked properly, 12 mistakenly played an ambulance siren. At the tourist mecca of Waikiki, the sirens were barely audible, prompting officials to add more sirens there and to reposition ones already in place.

Anthony Wahl 

Janesville Parker’s Brady Biba, right, competes with Verona’s Sam Pederson for a loose ball during the first half of a Big Eight Conference home game Saturday. Verona defeated Parker, 62-55. Verona scored 16 straight points early in the second half to pull away from Parker, which slipped to 1-8 in conference play. Story, Page 1B.


local • 3A

King memorial held at BTC

Dozens of people wrote their dreams on construction-paper hands and taped them to a wall in the Blackhawk Technical College commons. The dream hands were a backdrop for the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration held Saturday at BTC. The event marks 50 years since King’s assassination. The theme of the event was “A Dream Deferred,” a reference to Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.”

state • 2A

State trying to settle lawsuits

With Gov. Scott Walker planning to close Wisconsin’s teen prison, his administration is in settlement talks with attorneys for juvenile inmates who have sued over conditions there. Teen inmates represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Juvenile Law Center sued state officials a year ago over conditions at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls, which share a campus 30 miles north of Wausau.

nation/world • 8B-9B

Medicaid plan spurs concerns

Republicans this past week began to realize their long-held goal of requiring certain adults to work, get job training or perform community service in exchange for getting health coverage through Medicaid. Whether that’s a commonsense approach or an added burden that will end up costing many Americans their health insurance will now be debated in states across the country considering the landmark change to the nation’s largest health insurance program.