MANATEE -- There were more deaths per capita because of heroin, fentanyl and cocaine in Manatee County than in any other county in the state in 2014.
In the 12th Judicial District, which is comprised of Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties, there were 51 fentanyl deaths, 48 heroin deaths and 51 cocaine deaths in 2014, according to a report released this week by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. The majority of deaths caused by all three of those drugs was in Manatee County.
Manatee County had between 10 and 14.99 deaths per 100,000 population each due to heroin and fentanyl, the report shows. With a population of 351,746 in 2014, that means Manatee had between 35 and 52 deaths related to heroin and another 35 to 52 deaths related to fentanyl in one year. More precise statistics were not available Friday.
"These figures are a telling sign of the huge problem here," Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube said. "We've had a number of arrests, and we're trying to do all we can from our angle."
Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski wasn't surprised Manatee had the highest death numbers.
"I know we've got a lot of them," Radzilowski said.
"We're working hard on it, but we can't just arrest this problem away."
In Florida, there were 408 deaths caused by heroin in 2014, and 397 caused by fentanyl. Heroin deaths increased 111.4 percent, from 193 in 2013, and fentanyl deaths increased 114.6 percent, from 185 in 2013.
Cocaine caused the most drug-overdose deaths in Florida in 2014, with 720 deaths. However, cocaine deaths have been decreasing since 2007, when there were more than 2,000 cocaine-related deaths in Florida.
Deaths from heroin and fentanyl, on the other hand, have been skyrocketing. There were about 50 heroin-related deaths statewide in 2010, and 447 heroin-related deaths in 2014, increasing nearly ninefold. Fentanyl deaths more than doubled, with more than 200 fentanyl-related deaths in 2010 and 538 in 2014.
And officials say people should be braced to see higher figures in 2015.
"We can say it's definitely worse, based on numbers of overdoses reported by EMS," said Melissa Larkin-Skinner, chief clinical officer at Bradenton's addiction and mental health treatment facility Centerstone Florida.
Those numbers include more than 1,000 overdose calls in Manatee County through August 2015. In all of 2014, there were 700 overdose calls.
Dr. Russell Vega, the 12th Judicial District medical examiner, said there were an estimated 86 heroin- or fentanyl-related deaths through mid-June this year in the district.
Steube said law enforcement officers have been getting more inventive in how they take down drug dealers. Typically, undercover officers are introduced to dealers through informants and buy drugs until they have enough evidence for a case. Lately, detectives have tried other ways as well.
"We had a recent case where we were working with someone who witnessed an overdose death, and through them we tracked back to the source," Steube said. "And when they were arrested, they were caught with several drugs like heroin, MDMA and marijuana."
That was the case of Paul Thomas III and Troy Hodo, arrested Sept. 25 and charged with possession of several drugs, including 150 baggies of heroin cut with fentanyl. Both were released from the Manatee County jail Tuesday -- Thomas on $121,000 bond and Hodo on $29,000 bond.
Manatee County officials aren't sure how to account for its ignoble status in drug deaths, though many have said for months that a strain of heroin mixed with fentanyl has been responsible for many overdose deaths in the area.
Larkin-Skinner said she can speculate why heroin is so deadly in Manatee, but she doesn't know for sure.
"I think we're all a little stumped, actually," she said. "It might be because we had so many pill mills before the crackdown, so we have a lot of addicts resulting from that."
Many have pointed to the statewide crackdown on pill mills, places people could go for painkiller prescriptions they didn't really need, as the reason for the increase in heroin overdoses.
Still, total prescription drug-related overdose deaths increased slightly statewide, from 4,582 in 2013 to 4,774 in 2014.
Steube said he hopes the heroin numbers won't continue to increase, but it's impossible to guarantee.
"I'm at a loss for words on where it will be next year," Steube said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to cut down on some large suppliers and bring this down."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby