- By Jorge Milian
- Rachel Frazin Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Drug overdoses are booming in West Palm Beach, and city police are fighting back.
With two weeks left in 2017, city Fire Rescue crews have responded to 705 overdose calls. That compares to 447 overdoses in the city in all of 2016, an increase of nearly 60 percent.
Law-enforcement authorities answered with Operation Pocket Change, a nine-month effort targeting people connected to opioid sales and related violent crime in the northwest part of the city. After several arrests this week, 29 people have been taken into custody. Eight more people have arrest warrants in their name but had yet to be apprehended Friday.
Among those arrested are four people who West Palm Beach police say are directly tied to overdose deaths. The operation, which included federal law enforcement agencies, was directed at “mid-level drug dealers” and resulted in 17 firearms recovered during the execution of search warrants.
“What we’re trying to do here is make a difference,” said Capt. Brian Kapper, who led the operation. “We want it to stop.”
The multi-agency effort began in March when police learned that panhandlers inside the city boundaries were using money donated to them to buy, use and sell heroin and fentanyl.
The focus then turned to drug dealers — some tied to a spike in violent crimes around the Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard to Banyan Boulevard corridor.
Lekeathia Antonese Harris, 31, was singled out at a news conference Friday as the type of alleged drug dealer that was taken off the street.
Harris, of West Palm Beach, is facing multiple counts of drug and gun charges, and is accused of trafficking in carfentanil, which is used as an elephant tranquilizer in zoos and has potential use as a chemical weapon, according to the World Health Organization. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent that fentanyl and thousands of times stronger than heroin.
Harris was arrested Oct. 18 and is being held in the Palm Beach County Jail without bond. She has plead not guilty to the charges.
Police said that Harris is one of four people caught up in Operation Pocket Change connected to overdose deaths. The others are Travis Reshard Preston, 37, David Oren Fuller, 27, and Tre’nard Keon Williams, 19.
“These are clearly not nice people,” Kapper said.
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said the arrests were a “huge step” in the city’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. Muoio said that the use of Narcan — an opiate antidote that reverses an overdose — by the city’s fire rescue crews has increased in 2017 by 48 percent. The cost to the city? Around $200,000, Muoio said.
Kapper noted that overdoses in West Palm Beach surged to 120 in May, or about four per day. The spike continued through June but a gradual decrease has occurred since, he said.
Muoio and police officials expressed sympathy for families who have experienced a loss due to drug addiction or drug-related crime.
West Palm Beach Police Chief Sarah Mooney said the intent of her department’s response is to “pursue justice for those who have passed away this year and their families.”
Kapper said that Operation Pocket Change “is far from over.”