AKRON, Ohio — Last May, a low-level drug dealer named Bruce Griggs was released from an Ohio prison. He had served a short sentence stemming from a possession conviction so routine that his former defense attorney would later have trouble recalling it.
Just three months later, though, Griggs would travel 250 miles to Huntington, W.Va., where he would distribute opioids that, in a span of a few hours, triggered two dozen overdoses, overwhelming the city’s emergency response system and serving as a stark symbol of the nation’s opioid crisis.
On Monday, Griggs, 22, will face a federal judge in West Virginia to learn his fate: Will he be shown leniency, or will he spend as much as the next 20 years behind bars?
Some victims’ families say a strict sentence would be deserved. But few expect even the maximum penalty to curb the flow of heroin and synthetic opioids into the Huntington area. Rather, the Griggs case demonstrates why many of the nation’s top justice officials have said that arrests and seizures alone cannot pull the country out of its spiraling epidemic.
Even an “inexperienced seller,” as Griggs was described by his defense attorney, can unleash havoc with a few grams of fentanyl and carfentanil.
“From a law enforcement side, you work on the supply, but the problem is demand,” said Jim Johnson, the director of the Huntington Office of Drug Control Policy. “That’s the big question — how do you lower demand?”
In surrounding Cabell County, an estimated 1 in 10 of the nearly 100,000 residents use opioids improperly.
“Law enforcement are problem solvers,” said Johnson, a former Huntington police officer. “You give them a problem, they’ll find an answer. This is a problem where there isn’t an easy answer.”
Griggs has pleaded guilty to a charge of heroin distribution as part of an agreement with prosecutors. He has said he did not know who mixed the drugs that he sold that day in Huntington; in a memo filed with the court Monday, Griggs’s attorney depicts him as a remorseful, young father of three who has made mistakes but is done with the drug trade.
“Bruce Griggs was nothing more than a pawn, and is praying to avoid the destruction of his life,” the attorney, Carl Hostler, wrote.
In a phone interview, Hostler added: “Bruce did not come down here with the idea of hurting anybody, I can tell you that.”
Others, including relatives of victims, say that whatever his intentions were, Griggs is to blame for the rash of overdoses and deserves a strict sentence.
“With addiction, it’s a mental health issue. Being and choosing to be a dope dealer, it’s not a mental health issue,” said Leigh Ann Wilson, whose daughter, Taylor, overdosed that August day. “Being a dope dealer, that’s a conscious decision. All a dope dealer is is no morals, greed, and money. They don’t care what happens to you.”
Taylor Wilson was revived after overdosing on the drugs purchased from Griggs, but she died the next month after another overdose. Her mother said she had sympathy for Griggs’s family, but had trouble extending that sympathy further. She noted that, rather than turning himself in after the overdoses, Griggs left West Virginia. He was arrested just outside his hometown of Akron nine days later.
“I feel sorry for his family, but he should’ve thought about his three little ones before coming to Huntington,” Leigh Ann Wilson said. “The three little ones will be without their father, but there’s a lot of people here who are without their fathers because of people like him.”
In letters from his relatives submitted to the court before sentencing, Griggs is portrayed as a family man who helped his single mom raise his three younger siblings and who once seemed destined for athletic success. He was slated to play football at the University of Toledo, but then got expelled from high school for fighting. (He later earned his GED.)
“My brother was the one who picked up the slack at home when my mother wasn’t around,” Griggs’s younger brother Darius wrote to the judge. Darius describes Bruce as a role model, who showed up to all his football games and whose absence has caused “so much pain” for the family.
“My prayer is Your Honor if you can find it in your heart to be jus[t] and merciful towards my grandson,” Griggs’s grandmother, Adrianne Edwards, wrote. “Give him a chance to correct his life and continue to be a support to his family. Bruce is not a bad young man. He has just chosen the wrong group of peers.”
Before the charge that sent him to prison in Ohio, Griggs had been arrested a few times in Akron, including in April 2013 for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon after he and another man allegedly stole a cellphone, headphones, and $16 from a man while brandishing a handgun, according to a police report. A grand jury declined to indict him on that charge or for a cocaine possession charge from a separate arrest in September 2013, court records show.
The following year, Griggs was charged with heroin possession after Akron police found him with 0.4 grams of the drug. (Griggs was also initially charged with evidence tampering, but that charge was later dismissed.) As part of a deal reached in August 2014, Griggs pleaded guilty to possession and was given 18 months of probation.
Jeffrey James, an attorney who represented Griggs then, said it was a very standard heroin possession case, the likes of which he sees regularly.
“This was just run of the mill,” James said, adding that he couldn’t remember the details of the case. “There’s so many of them, they all blend together.”
Over the next 14 months, Griggs would violate the terms of his plea agreement twice. (Court records do not provide details.) In October 2015, he was sentenced to a year in prison.
Griggs started his sentence on Nov. 5, 2015, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. With a credit of 174 days served in jail while awaiting his sentence, he spent 191 days in prison and was released May 13, 2016.
Just two months later, in July, Griggs made the first of five trips to Huntington to sell drugs, according to court documents. He would generally buy $1,000 worth of heroin, dividing it up and selling smaller amounts for $20 to $60.
On Aug. 15, Griggs returned to Huntington in a white Chevrolet Cruze with 10 to 12 grams of what he thought was heroin. He headed to Marcum Terrace, a public housing complex, some time after 2 p.m. Video from the scene appeared to show Griggs handing drugs to customers over the next hour.
Over the next few hours, 26 people overdosed in Huntington, half of them in and around the housing complex. All of them survived, but within a few days, two people were found to have fatally overdosed in Cabell County, and authorities initially said they were investigating a possible connection. The plea agreement did not mention the fatal overdoses, and in the agreement, the specific number of overdoses Griggs pleaded guilty to causing was crossed out and replaced with a handwritten “multiple.”
Witnesses later told authorities the drugs had an orange or peach color — not the white or light brown color they had seen previously. Tests later showed the sample contained fentanyl and carfentanil, which is generally used as an animal sedative by zoos and was first seen in overdose victims last year in Akron. People who had overdosed told officials that they had purchased the drugs from a man named “Benz” or “Ben” and identified Griggs from a photograph.
According to the defense memo, Griggs recognized that the drugs he was dealing that day “looked different, but each of the prior bags had looked different from each other, too.” The memo says Griggs had never used heroin so did not think about the color.
Griggs went back to Akron the day after the overdoses, still with about 5 grams left of mixture that he returned to a supplier, according to court documents.
Law enforcement authorities say the Griggs case underlines the nature of the problem they face.
“These substances, any powdery substances, are dangerous and are killing many Americans every single day,” said Russell Baer, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “In many cases, we’re talking about relatively small quantities of drugs.”
The Huntington overdoses became a national story, but for all the attention, Johnson, the Huntington drug control policy official, said he’s more concerned about tackling the city’s broader opioid problems.
“How do we keep people alive? How do we get people into treatment? How do we keep people from starting?” he said. “That’s long term. But locally, what do we do right now with the 10,000 people that are addicted to opiates” in Cabell County?
“Using the word ‘epidemic’ just seems so shallow at this point,” he continued. “That doesn’t even give a clear definition of the problem.”