From left, Maryland State Police Col. William Pallozzi, St. Mary’s County state’s attorney Richard Fritz, St. Mary’s County Sheriff Tim Cameron and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan at a news conference. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

A rural Maryland county is bringing murder charges against suspected opioid drug dealers as part of an aggressive campaign to combat the epidemic, becoming the first in the state to file some of the toughest charges against distributors who they say are responsible for carnage, officials said.

St. Mary’s County law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced eight second-degree murder indictments so rare that they attracted a visit from Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who traveled to Southern Maryland to support the stepped-up effort to identify and arrest drug dealers.

“This is a new shot across the bow of every single drug dealer in St. Mary’s County,” said state’s attorney Richard Fritz during a news conference at the county’s Circuit Court. “For $50, they do not mind killing our children, our wives, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters. This has got to stop.”

In every case, the suspected dealers are accused of supplying a deadly cocktail of fentanyl, carfentanil or heroin that resulted in the overdose deaths of eight in the county. Since January, 14 people have died in St. Mary’s from opiate overdoses, and statewide, nearly 500 people have died this year, according to the latest state reports.

“I came here specifically to send a signal to say that what they are doing here in St. Mary’s is what we need to do in our other 23 jurisdictions. We need to get tough,” Hogan said. “Under the surface of almost every community, from one end of the state to the other . . . this crisis is destroying lives and tearing apart families.”

Mark Steven Garner, 27, of Prince Frederick, has been charged with murder and conspiracy to distribute heroin in a 2016 overdose death. (St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office)

At the rear of the room was John Darling, wearing a welders union ball cap and waiting for a turn to speak. As the news conference neared an end, the sheriff called on Darling to ask the final question. He wasn’t a reporter or a county official. He was a father who had lost a son.

“My son died two months ago,” Darling began. His eldest son and best friend, John Bryce Darling II, 34, overdosed on June 13 after consuming an illicit opiate. “I don’t think he knew about fentanyl. I didn’t know about fentanyl.”

The 58-year-old St. Mary’s resident asked the state’s attorney politely what role families would play in the prosecution of suspected dealers and whether they would serve full sentences or be offered plea bargains for lighter sentences.

Darling had come to the news conference because he wanted to find out whether the man he contends sold his son the deadly dose was among the indicted. That man had been arrested by U.S. marshals on Wednesday morning in Norfolk and was awaiting extradition.

The county’s top prosecutor could not guarantee every case would end with the tough penalty: “Sometimes that evidence becomes weak,” Fritz said. “This is something we have to be prepared for, look out for and consider in all respects before we get to trial.”

Winning murder cases against suspected drug dealers can be difficult because prosecutors must prove an intent to kill and because drug addicts make themselves participants.

But Fritz is confident that “depraved-heart” or second-degree murder is the perfect charge for distributors because prosecutors can show that they sold drugs while knowing that there could be deadly consequences. In other counties, such as Anne Arundel, prosecutors have brought manslaughter charges that require proving gross negligence, but Fritz is upping the ante in assigning a greater level of culpability to suspected dealers.

John Darling, 58, of St. Mary’s County speaks to reporters about his son who died of a drug overdose two months. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

“The drug dealers are not stupid. They know well that the drugs they are distributing can in fact cause death,” said Fritz, adding that some of his state’s attorneys called him crazy for pursuing murder cases. “The point is, they don’t care.”

St. Mary’s narcotics detectives charged suspected dealer Mark Steven Garner, 27, after finding the same “uniquely packaged” heroin that had killed 31-year-old Barbara Ann Sneden a year ago in his Calvert County home. Witness statements and digital evidence bolstered the prosecution’s case enough to merit an indictment from a grand jury, officials said.

In a small rural community like St. Mary’s County, where many families have been touched by the opioid crisis, law enforcement officials say these prosecutions have a better chance at delivering convictions than more populous counties in part because local juries will be composed of community members who have lived with the impact.

Prosecution is one part of a three-pronged approach that has shifted the county’s thinking about drug addiction as a public health emergency, said Sheriff Tim Cameron. The strategy for treatment, prevention and enforcement includes having detectives work closely with local rehab centers to trace drugs to dealers, educate residents about the dangers and equip law enforcers with Naloxone. In 2017, officers and deputies administered the nasal spray that can reverse overdoses 99 times to 50 people.

“Several years ago when we saw an overdose from drugs, we said to ourselves, ‘Well, this is the tragic consequence of addiction,’ ” Fritz said. “Now people are waking up.”