MANATEE -- Heroin overdose deaths have come to a halt this year in Manatee County, and local law enforcement say the arrests of 15 people as part of an 18-month investigation is a big reason why.
The suspects are facing various drug-related charges, including heroin trafficking, after the investigation was sparked by a spike in heroin overdoses and deaths that reached epidemic proportions.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office disclosed details Friday of an investigation that started in September 2014 as heroin began ravaging the community.
The sheriff's office and Bradenton police investigated 77 heroin deaths in 2015 but so far this year have in
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vestigated none, which officials attribute to the operation and other major arrests. The long-term drug investigation was conducted by multiple agencies, including the sheriff's office, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bradenton Police Department and the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office.
During the investigation, authorities confiscated about 3.5 kilograms of heroin, with an estimated street value of $262,500; 3 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of $111,000; 200 grams of fentanyl; 100 hydromorphone pills; 28 guns; and more than $327,000 in cash and assets. Hydromorphone and fentanyl are painkillers, the latter of which has been found mixed in much of the local heroin supply, adding to its potency.
The investigation has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of heroin fatalities and overdoses in Manatee, officials said.
Melissa Larkin-Skinner, chief clinical officer at addiction treatment facility Centerstone Florida in Bradenton, said she heard from emergency medical services that January saw a three-year low on overdose calls countywide.
"I haven't heard of any deaths," Larkin-Skinner said. "And I used to hear about them all the time."
The demand for services hasn't changed at Centerstone, however, but Larkin-Skinner said she doesn't think that's a bad thing. It means addicts are aware of services and are seeking help.
"We have to remember that this isn't going to end drug addiction," Larkin-Skinner said. "We have to keep providing services, keep working in our communities, keep supporting law enforcement. We can't ever stop."
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was at the news conference, had a message for anyone considering trying to take the place of the drug dealers who have been arrested.
"Look around, these guys are going to be coming after you," Bondi said as she motioned to law enforcement officials, including several undercover investigators, in the room. "We're coming after you and we are going to put you out of business."
Those arrested or pending arrest include:
Cedric Houston, 35, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in heroin, trafficking in heroin, six counts of sale of heroin.
Cody Lambert, 25, of Port Richey -- conspiracy to traffic in heroin, trafficking in heroin.
Brentton Edwards Woods, 30, of Bradenton -- two counts of trafficking in heroin, conspiracy to traffic heroin.
Robert Haynes, 30, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in heroin.
Brian Parker, 26, of Palmetto -- conspiracy to traffic in heroin; active warrant; not arrested yet.
Gregory Parker, 50, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in hydromorphone.
Kashema Williams, 39, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in hydromorphone.
Will Reaves, 43, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in hydromorphone, trafficking in hydromorphone.
Jose Isaula Castillo, 32, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in cocaine, conspiracy to traffic in heroin, trafficking in cocaine, trafficking in heroin.
Adrian Celestino, 44, of Bradenton, originally from Mexico and is pending deportation -- conspiracy to traffic in heroin.
Michael Brooks, 34, of Bradenton -- conspiracy to traffic in heroin.
Deketrick Samuel, 27, of Bradenton -- trafficking in heroin.
Shadaryl Swilley, 29, of Bradenton -- trafficking in heroin.
Jonathan Cosme Torres, 29, of Orlando -- trafficking in heroin.
Josue Cosme Torres, 32, of Orlando -- trafficking in heroin.
Each faces up to 30 years in prison, if convicted.
More arrests are expected as the investigation continues. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors would not say whether they will pursue charging any of the suspects with the overdose deaths.
Top dealer arrested
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said dealers cutting the heroin with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller, were a focus of the operation. A DEA official at the news conference called the mixture a "cocktail of death."
"Our No. 1 guy was Cedric Houston," Steube said. "As a result of that, he was arrested, bonded out, was targeted again and arrested again."
Houston was arrested Jan. 20 on charges of trafficking in heroin and possession of cocaine with intent to sell. At the time of that arrest, Houston was out on bond for an arrest in April, when he was charged with four counts of sale of heroin and possession of heroin with intent to sell or deliver within 1,000 feet of a place of worship.
After his Jan. 20 arrest, a judge set bond but ordered he be held in jail until a hearing to determine whether any funds he would use for bond would come from illegal means.
Houston was released from a Florida prison in November 2011 after serving two years and two months of a four-year sentence for convictions in Sarasota County of possession of cocaine, fleeing from law enforcement, three felony counts of driving with a suspended or revoked license and battery by a detainee while in jail.
He also served two prior prison sentences.
In November 2006, Houston was released from prison after serving less than two years, seven months of a three-year, four-month sentence for convictions of trafficking in cocaine and two counts of sale, delivery or manufacturing cocaine. In November 2001, he was released from prison after serving about eight months of a 13-month sentence for convictions of possession of cocaine, sale, delivery or manufacturing cocaine and resisting arrest with violence.
Others have criminal history
Other suspects arrested also had criminal histories:
Lambert has been convicted of dealing in stolen property and defrauding a pawn broker. He's also been arrested and charged with forgery, uttering, false use of a personal identification and grand theft, but all the charges were later dropped.
Haynes was released from prison in March 2010 after serving less than three years of a four-year sentence for convictions of trafficking cocaine; sale, delivery or manufacturing of cocaine; and two counts of sale, delivery or manufacturing marijuana.
Gregory Parker has been in and out of prison five times since 1987 for convictions that include three counts of uttering a forgery; sale, delivery or manufacturing of cocaine; and possession of cocaine and sale of counterfeit drugs. He was released from prison in 2012 after serving about four years of a five-year sentence for sale, delivery or manufacturing of cocaine, sale, delivery or manufacturing of marijuana and trafficking hydrocodone.
Williams has been convicted of felony petit theft and grand theft.
Castillo has been arrested on charges of possession of heroin with intent to sell or deliver, but the charges were later dropped.
Brooks was released from prison in September 2011 after serving less than three years of a four-year sentence for convictions of trafficking illegal drugs and a felony county of driving with a license suspended or revoked.
Samuel was out on bond for two counts of trafficking heroin. He has been convicted of fleeing or eluding a law enforcement officer, resisting arresting and driving with a license suspended or revoked.
Josue Torres was released from prison in October 2009 after completing less than eight years of a nine-year sentence for a conviction of burglary with assault.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @kateirby.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.