Joyce: County ‘ground zero’

Lawmaker wants Pa. National Guard sent to southern border

Calling for Gov. Tom Wolf to send Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers to the southern border to help hold back what he referred to as “a flood” of illicit drugs, Congressman John Joyce sat down with police from across Blair County on Wednesday to hear how the problem impacts their departments and the communities they serve.

“I believe this is ground zero,” Joyce, R-13th District, told about a dozen law enforcement leaders who gathered in Altoona. “This is where you all are fighting the drug epidemic.”

The rise in methamphetamine use and arrests was the topic of the day with chiefs from departments large and small telling Joyce the trend away from opioids to meth is causing major concerns.

“We’re definitely seeing more meth in the area,” Altoona Police Chief Janice Freehling said, adding that most of the controlled buys in the last few months conducted by city narcotics officers involve meth. Freehling pointed out users encountered by officers are often “very violent, very erratic” because their “behavior switches in a heartbeat.” Freehling said meth users are difficult to deal with once in custody, and officers have been injured because of meth users.

“They’re just out of control,” Freehling said.

Freehling’s sentiments were echoed by Hollidaysburg Police Chief Rodney Estep, who told Joyce that small, rural departments bear a heavy burden when it comes to methamphetamine use.

“It just seems like a ball rolling down the hill, getting bigger,” Estep said.

Estep noted his department has served about a half-dozen search warrants in the past several weeks just related to meth. That is a sharp contrast to the impact opioid use had on the borough as far as resources.

“We had a guy running up Reservoir Drive, naked, at 2 a.m., yelling he was Jesus,” Estep said, adding officers had to use a Taser on the man, who then pulled out the probes.

“It’s dangerous,” Estep said.

Chief Terry Dellinger of the Freedom Township Police Department said while in the past, officers were up against users who made small batches using the “one-pot method,” now users are bringing it in from larger cities such as Pittsburgh.

“We have intel telling us it’s cheaper to buy it than make it,” Dellinger said, with Estep pointing out that it’s also better quality.

Capt. Jamie Clark with the state police Troop G in Hollidaysburg agreed methamphetamine is on the rise in the area and said troopers are trying to address it through drug investigations as well as employing interdiction units on area highways to find meth traffickers before the drug makes it onto the street.

Methamphetamine was one drug Joyce specifically asked about as he opened the roundtable session, explaining that he learned from Drug Enforcement Administration agents during his April trip to the southern border in Arizona that Mexican drug cartels are finding it more lucrative to traffic methamphetamine and fentanyl — drugs they can manufacture — rather than pay farmers to grow what is needed to make cocaine.

The cartel’s drug distribution systems are sophisticated and their products ultimately end up in places such as Blair County.

Blair County District Attorney Rich Consiglio didn’t mince words, placing some of the blame on a prevailing attitude — especially among politicians — that drug abuse is a victimless crime.

“They’re selling poison,” Consiglio said.

He said Operation Our Town has “stepped into the gap” to provide much needed resources over the past 15 years, particularly with funding that brought in former drug prosecutor and current First Assistant District Attorney Pete Weeks. Also weighing in on the issue locally were representatives from UPMC Altoona police, the Altoona Area School District Police and Blair County Adult Probation and Parole, as well as Blair County Sheriff James Ott.

County Parole and Probation Chief Corey Seymore said 90 percent of the “hot” drug tests are now methamphetamine, and while every attempt is made to supervise those on probation and parole, resources are limited and “Blair County Prison is busting at the seams.”

Seymore pointed out the problem is countywide.

Ott added that more and more warrant arrests now come with additional charges related to meth.

UPMC Altoona Police Chief Greg Servello said meth accounted for nine of 10 overdoses in the last few weeks.

The users are more difficult for staff, and it has also put a strain on the hospital’s mental health treatment capabilities because users are put into mental health care because there isn’t any room at drug treatment facilities. The disturbances that often accompany treatment of meth users in the emergency room also have an impact on other patients, Servello said.

Joyce, along with four other congressmen from Pennsylvania, wrote requesting Wolf offer the National Guard troops to help Border Patrol agents at the border, a request Wolf turned down.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.