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Fentanyl Crisis Hits the Delaware Valley Hard

Jorge Valdez-Rosas didn’t realize law enforcement was hot on his trail when he checked into the Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia last month.

Like many drug-trafficking organizations smuggling drugs into the U.S., the one linked to the suspected drug mule from Arizona was allegedly tied to Mexico, according to a probable-cause affidavit.

Investigators intercepted and monitored Valdez-Rosas’ communications and learned he was setting up a deal to sell a large quantity of fentanyl to a third party on behalf of unnamed co-conspirators.

On Jan. 31, members of a federal task force and detectives from Montgomery County and Upper Merion Township staked out Rosas-Valdez at the hotel.

He showed up with a large duffel bag–later seized and revealed to contain five kilograms of fentanyl.

The 166,000 confiscated doses were worth an estimated $1.6 million, Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele said, praising authorities for a recovery that saved “countless lives.”

These drug busts are common in Pennsylvania, where fentanyl–which reemerged in the state’s drug supply in 2013–is now the “dominant opioid” among users who once preferred heroin, according to a state attorney general’s report released last year.

“I had a healthy habit,” says Richard Phillip, who got sober with the help of The Last Stop founder Ed “Eddie Z” Zampitella.

Phillip remembers stealing fentanyl patches from his mother following her diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He used fentanyl for more than a decade before the drug was widely available.

“It hits you really hard, punches you in the face,” Phillip, originally from the Camden area, recalled of the drug’s effects. “You get that rushed feeling. It gives you that boost. You are a rocket. Life’s good, but it doesn’t last.”

Last year, the DEA seized more than 15,000 pounds of fentanyl, enough to kill every American. Over the first three months of 2022, Pennsylvania authorities seized more fentanyl than they had in all of 2021. The commonwealth was among five states that submitted the most samples containing fentanyl to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Forensic Laboratory Information System.

According to federal officials, Mexican cartels and criminal organizations smuggle most of the drugs across the southern border. Traffickers prefer selling fentanyl because it’s cheaper to produce and more potent, with effects 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Fentanyl is often laced into counterfeit pills, making it easier for traffickers to conceal than when in powder form, a disturbing trend that Pennsylvania officials say has contributed to a spike in fatal overdoses. The grip of the crisis led former Gov. Tom Wolf to sign a law that decriminalized fentanyl strips, once considered drug paraphernalia.

“It’s running rampant. There’s more fentanyl than there’s dope. I don’t think they make dope no more,” Zampitella, who runs a sober clubhouse in the epicenter of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis, told DVJournal during a phone interview while visiting Chicago. “This is like a vacation. It’s nothing like Philly. We told people, ‘You should come to Kensington.’”

Last year, Philadelphia’s DEA division reported that 20 percent of analyzed fentanyl seizures were in the form of pills and tablets. The agency seized a record 9.5 million counterfeit drugs the year before.

Nationwide, about 80 percent of more than 80,000 opioid deaths were attributable to fentanyl, federal statistics show. With the nation’s third-highest number of fatal overdoses, Pennsylvania saw overdose deaths jumped nearly 17 percent in 2020. They crested above 5,400 in 2021, meaning an average of 15 Pennsylvanians died each day, with about 78 percent of cases involving fentanyl, according to the state statistics. The stark impact was on display in Philadelphia, where fentanyl was detected in 27 percent of submissions analyzed by the police department’s forensics unit in 2021, compared with less than 1 percent six years before.

While the death toll has been staggering, prosecutors have had their hands full with cases like that of Rosas-Valdez, one of the thousands of alleged drug dealers and traffickers arrested since 2017.

Through March 2022, the Attorney General’s Office said more than 8,100 people were nabbed on drug charges, and a combined 8.7 million doses of heroin and fentanyl were taken off Pennsylvania’s streets.

Former attorney general and current Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, also went after big pharmaceutical companies for allegedly contributing to the opioid crisis by aggressively marketing addictive prescription painkillers. In one of the nation’s largest settlements, Pennsylvania received $26 billion from Johnson & Johnson and three other drug companies from Johnson & Johnson and three other drug companies.

On the national stage, a heated debate has unfolded between Democrats and Republicans about who is fueling the flow of fentanyl into the country. Some Republicans linked fentanyl-related deaths with the record number of migrants entering the U.S. along the Mexican border, NBC reported. Rep Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Penn.), shot down the claims as a “pernicious … attempt to conflate the issues of migrants seeking asylum through our legal processes with the very real scourge of fentanyl trafficking.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said it was “unequivocally false” that asylum-seekers were smuggling fentanyl into the country.

However, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) laid the blame squarely on the Biden administration for the fentanyl deaths of men, women, and children. 

“One hundred thousand people died last year of drug overdoses,” said Cruz. “My sister died of a drug overdose a decade ago. This is a crisis, but it is a manmade crisis. This administration made a conscious decision to open the borders.”

According to government data cited by NBC, most fentanyl seizures along the southern border were made at ports of entry, where American citizens, foreign travelers, and commercial trucks are screened. The Office of Field Operations accounted for 84 percent of the 14,104 pounds of fentanyl seized along the Mexican border in the fiscal year 2022, while Border Patrol seized only 2,200 pounds of fentanyl over the same period,

For people struggling with addiction, the political conversations taking place in the nation’s capital are less important than the battles being waged back home.

Phillip said he’s lucky to have broken free from the stranglehold of drugs.

“Once you’ve eaten from the fruit, you can’t unknow that feeling. Sometimes you think life is good, but you know what would make it better,” Phillip, who is now pursuing a master’s of divinity from the Catholic Theological Union, told DVJournal.

He still remembers the nights he would roam the streets of Camden, begging strangers to pray for God’s intercession.

“I know we don’t bargain with God … but I remember saying, ‘You put me on a path to save my soul, and I’ll give you my life because it ain’t worth nothing to me anymore,'” Phillip said. “Something came into me that I stopped feeling empty.”

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The ‘Last Stop’ Offers Hope for Drug Addicts in Kensington

Driving through the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, you might think it was a war zone. And that would be accurate if it’s the “War on Drugs” that America has been losing since President Richard Nixon coined the term.

Here and there, people stand on sidewalks staring into space or in small groups with their belongings on the sidewalk nearby.

Amid the chaos, rubble and squalor, is one point of light: The Last Stop, an Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous clubhouse on Somerset Street. Founded by Ed “Eddie Z” Zampitella around 30 years ago, the club offers food and solace to many of those addicts who are trying to turn their lives around.

Zampitella, who got hooked on sniffing glue as a child, said running the club helps him stay sober. In addition to food, there are AA and NA meetings.

“Trust God, clean house and help others,” said Zampitella. “They’re the three major rules.”

Zampitella struggles with addiction himself. He was sober for 25 years then had a relapse and is now sober again for four years.

“The main thing is I’ve got four years,” he said.

“A guy grew up in the neighborhood, his name is Nate, and he always hated The Last Stop,” said Zampitella. “And one day, for some reason he was thirsty. And he came in for a glass of water and he stayed ever since. He’s sober now. He grew up watching us as a kid and he always avoided us. He came in and he stayed. It changed his life, a glass of water. Kindness.”

Nowadays, the drug of choice for many is fentanyl. It’s been flooding in, through the mail from China and through the wide-open southern border. There were more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths nationally from April 2020 to April 2021, The Wall Street Journal reports. In 2020, 1,214 people died of overdoses in Philadelphia, according to a city health department report, an increase of 6 percent from the previous year. Fentanyl was involved in 81 percent of those deaths. In the first quarter of 2021, 306 people died of drug overdoses in Philadelphia compared to 265 the same period of 2020.

Oddly, the city recently announced a pilot program for Narcan vending machines in the south and southwestern sections of the city, not Kensington.

“Fentanyl, crack, alcohol, people are broken,” said Zampitella. “They want to escape from whatever happened in the past. Just on this block we had seven people die (in about four years). Just on this block alone. But don’t forget a lot of people stayed sober. We’re here for that one person who comes in the door.”

A wall in The Last Stop bears the names of patrons who died. An opposite wall has the names of those who are sober and alive. Although, Zampitella grew up in Kensington, many people who come there to buy drugs are from the suburbs. And people come from up and down the East Coast, having heard that they’ll have easy access to drugs.

One case that broke Zampitella’s heart was a young Bucks County mother, who had been told by a doctor to stop using methamphetamine because of her heart condition.

“She looked horrible. I wanted to see if she wanted help. She said she had a boyfriend. I said, ‘You have a boyfriend and he’s letting you look like this?’ And she didn’t get help. She didn’t want to leave. And two weeks later, she OD’d.”

“Because I’m from the neighborhood I know those who don’t belong,” he said when asked how he knew people from the suburbs are there. He will talk to people and ask them where they’re from and what they do for a living to try to get them to open up and maybe get sober.

“For some reason, Kensington, because it’s on Facebook, they come here and they get caught up in the mess. The drug scene. They’re homeless because they’re using drugs. They’d sleep in a tent,” he said.

“Before they even come down a lot of them are broken, maybe molested,” he said. There can be family issues or “they were teased as kids. There are other problems before they come down here.”

Zampitella, 65, spoke to the Delaware Valley Journal in the club, where free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are handed out for lunch. Spaghetti or hot dogs and beans might be on the menu for dinner. A Saturday dessert favorite is banana splits. The food, along with water, is free. Coffee is 75 cents and soda is $1.

Zampitella never learned to read as a kid and relies on Christi McGough, who helps him manage the club. And he has opened two other AA/NA clubs, one in Camden and recently another in Chicago.

Asked about funding, Zampitella said while they are not a nonprofit for tax purposes people donate, sometimes in the name of a relative who has gotten help.

Zampitella is divorced with two grown children. He said his “selfishness” caused the breakup.  Zampitella is now very religious. A Catholic, he said he models his life on Dorothy Day, an activist and a founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. Pope Francis called Day one of four “exemplary Americans.”

“Eddie Z cares more about the health and survival of the struggling unfortunates on Kensington Avenue than he does about himself,” said Main Line TV filmmaker John Riccuitti, who, with Jill Frechie, spent more than a year in the blighted neighborhood making the documentary film “Kensington in Crisis.”   “He has unselfishly helped hundreds conquer the terrible disease of addiction.”

When he’s helping addicts reach sobriety, Zampitella takes them to Graffiti Pier, an area of railroad trestles next to the Delaware River, and sits with them while they detox. That process can last varying amounts time but he and others at The Last Stop are patient, he said.

“You go down and they’ve never seen anything like that, the quietness, the fresh air, the water, there’s no noise,” he said. “They see the graffiti. There’s nowhere to cop drugs at. Something happens. People, I get Muslims, Jews, I say, ‘Look, your God was dope. You believed in that and it didn’t work for you. Just give it a shot.’” But, he said, he is not trying to change anyone’s religion.

“The best thing for us is to live by example,” he said. “The kindness. The graffiti Pier, I’m not saying it has magic. It’s us.”

For Thanksgiving, The Last Stop is having a free turkey dinner around 9 p.m. after the 8 p.m. meeting. Call Christi for information at (732) 547-3582 for information or to make a donation.


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