The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Residents of halfway house found two men dead from overdoses — their drug counselors

The man's losing battle with heroin was laid out right there on the nightstand of the halfway house.

There were three morning devotionals, including “God Calling,” geared toward keeping a person's thoughts pointed heavenward. Then there was the nicotine: two packs of cigarettes, a vaporizer and a case of snus to quell cravings.

And near the edge: empty packets of heroin, a spoon and a syringe half full of the last hit the man would ever inject.

It was another scene in Pennsylvania's ballooning drug epidemic. But the case had a twist that shocked even the first-responders summoned to the quiet neighborhood in West Brandywine: The victim — and another dead, overdosed man in an adjacent room — were both drug counselors.

“If anybody is wondering how bad the opioid epidemic has become, this case is a frightening example,” Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said in a news release.

“The staff members in charge of supervising recovering addicts succumbed to their own addiction and died of opioid overdoses. Opioids are a monster that is slowly consuming our population.”

A 7-year-old told her bus driver she couldn’t wake her parents. Police found them dead at home.

Authorities didn't release the names of the counselors. The Associated Press reported that many addiction counselors are former addicts, but it was unclear if that was the case with the men who died.

The counselors lived and worked at the Freedom Ridge Recovery Lodge, which bills itself as “a special recovery home for men that provides a safe place to live.” No one returned a message from The Washington Post left with an answering service at the lodge's listed number.

The home's website was offline, but a cached version identified one of its key missions: “Freedom Ridge will give you a solid foundation to help free you from the bondage of addictions.”

The site says the home strives to “incorporate family in this very early stage of recovery” and mandates that residents attend addiction meetings daily for 90 days.

Residents found the counselors dead or dying Sunday afternoon. They tried to resuscitate one of the men with the drug naloxone, which counters heroin's deadly effects, but it was too late.

Two of the heroin plastic bags had a “Superman” symbol on them. Another was stamped with the symbol for “danger.”

Police think the drugs had been laced with fentanyl, another opiate that can make a hit of heroin more potent and more deadly.

Authorities chronicling the rise in heroin deaths in Pennsylvania largely attribute the uptick to fentanyl. According to the Patriot-News, fentanyl-laced heroin contributed to Pennsylvania having the sixth-highest overdose rate in the nation in 2015.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is quickly becoming a major contributor to the U.S. addiction crisis. Here are the top things to know about the drug. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deems the state “statistically higher” than the national average. Pennsylvania shares that diagnosis with a line of neighboring Rust Belt states.

In 2015, Pennsylvania coroners reported more than 3,500 overdose deaths in 2015, a 30 percent jump from 2014, the Patriot-News reported.

In September, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) told lawmakers that the opioid epidemic facing Pennsylvania is “a public health crisis, the likes of which we have not before seen. Every day, we lose 10 Pennsylvanians to the disease of addiction. This disease does not have compassion, or show regard for status, gender, race or borders.”

“It affects each and every Pennsylvanian, and threatens entire communities throughout our commonwealth. The disease of addiction has taken thousands of our friends and family members. In the past year alone we lost over 3,500 Pennsylvanians — a thousand more lives taken than the year before.”

Across the nation, opioids killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, more than any year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This week, shortly after the counselors' bodies were found, authorities were trying to prevent more deaths.

They wanted the public to know about the “Superman” and “danger” stamps on the plastic bags and had one message for other area addicts: Stay away.

“They appear to be heroin laced with fentanyl and are likely to kill anybody who uses them,” Hogan said. “We will not even let law enforcement handle them without special precautions.”

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