The 2006 interview with Comcast Newsmakers lauded the facility for “providing new hope for people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.”
Clad in a dark suit and silver striped tie, Francis described how Next Step had tailored its efforts to each resident’s needs, offering transitional living, support groups and job placement to more than 100 people.
“It’s a caring and concerned and forgiving atmosphere to recover,” Francis said.
But federal drug enforcement agents claim that by summer 2017, Francis was doing just the opposite. Rather than helping people get clean, he was dealing heroin and fentanyl out of the rehab center and his nearby home, according to a federal criminal complaint filed Friday.
Raids on the properties Friday morning uncovered at least five “bricks” of fentanyl, read the complaint, which was signed by a Drug Enforcement Administration officer. A brick typically contains about five grams of opioids broken into 50 small bags, although court documents did not give specific amounts.
Authorities also described finding used needles and empty drug bags in the properties and people who had been using drugs lingering in the rehab center.
Francis, 66, made a brief appearance in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on Friday afternoon and was escorted away in handcuffs to jail, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. He faces a charge of possession with intent to distribute fentanyl.
It was not clear Monday morning whether Francis had retained an attorney. The docket does not show that he has entered a plea. A call to his business line was not immediately returned.
Allegheny County, Pa., which encompasses Pittsburgh and its suburbs, has experienced a surge in fatal drug overdoses in recent years. In 2016, 648 people in the county died of overdoses, up from 424 the previous year, according to a report conducted by the DEA and the University of Pittsburgh. Statewide, fatal overdoses jumped nearly 37 percent in 2016, with 4,642 deaths.
Health and law enforcement officials have blamed the spike on an influx of fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. “It’s become where there is an expectation that if you buy heroin, it will have some fentanyl in it,” Allegheny County Health Department Director Karen Hacker told the Post-Gazette in June.
Authorities said they were put on Francis’s trail when they were alerted to a spate of heroin- and fentanyl-related overdoses earlier this year in McKees Rocks and Ingram, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh.
Francis operated the Next Step rehab center on a main thoroughfare in Mckees Rocks. He also owned a tax preparation business in the adjacent building and lived in a house less than a mile away, court records show.
Several confidential sources fed authorities information about Francis over a period of about two months, according to the complaint.
One source told agents during a July meeting that Francis had been supplying “large quantities of fentanyl/heroin” to residents at Next Step and others in the area, the complaint said. The source described knowing Francis for several years, and turned over his cellphone number and home address.
Another source described meeting a “paramour” at the rehab center in 2013, who died of a fentanyl overdose in May of this year. The source allegedly told investigators that when anyone in the rehab program needed heroin or fentanyl, they would get it from Francis or one of his associates.
The source went on to state that Francis had a building behind his house in McKees Rocks where users could inject the drugs he provided them, according to the complaint.
A breakthrough for authorities came in September, when state troopers caught a third confidential source carrying “a quantity of heroin/fentanyl.” The source told law enforcement that the drugs had come from Francis and referred to them as “China white,” the complaint said.
China white is the street name of a designer opioid with many of the same properties as fentanyl.
The source would “purchase brick amounts of heroin/fentanyl from Francis for $350 per brick and the last purchase took place approximately three days prior to the interview with law enforcement,” the complaint said. Francis would keep dozens of bricks of opioids at a time in shoe boxes in his house, the source allegedly told investigators.
For distribution, Francis would package the drugs in “stamp bags” — small wax-coated bags commonly used to hold heroin — with small skull logos printed on them, according to the complaint. The source estimated that Francis was receiving 80 to 100 bricks of heroin/fentanyl per month, according to the complaint.
Between February 2016 and September 2017, the complaint said, police were called to the block where the rehab center is located 11 times to respond to drug overdoses. Officers reported finding “individuals who were unresponsive, along with evidence of drug use, including stamp bags suspect of heroin/fentanyl at these locations.”
On Friday morning, authorities raided Next Step and Francis’s house.
They found three people inside the rehab center, all of whom “admitted to law enforcement that they had been using drugs all night” — specifically “China white” they got from Francis, the complaint said. Used needles and empty stamp bags littered the counters, according to the complaint.
At Francis’s home, officers announced their presence and asked to be let in. When no one answered, they smashed down the door and found Francis on the second floor.
In his bedroom closet, they discovered at least five bricks of fentanyl, according to the complaint. Authorities said they also recovered several digital scales and thousands of empty stamp bags.
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