As opioid crisis deepens, officers are becoming victims
The scourge has struck police departments across the country
By Tim Prudente
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Every mile brought Lt. Dan Gosnell closer to relief. His body ached for the little white pills, though his mind shouted to turn back.
“What the hell are you doing?” the young police commander asked himself out loud.
His pickup cruised east through Harford County. The Aberdeen police station was 20 miles ahead. Inside of him, a fever burned. Days had passed since he swallowed the last of his pain pills.
The police station lab held a cache of unwanted prescription medicine dropped off by Harford County families. Only two officers had a key; Gosnell was one. The promising 36-year-old lieutenant had decided to betray his oath, badge and best friends.
In a twist of fate that would scar a proud department, the man in charge of the drug evidence had become an addict himself. He sometimes took 24 pills a day.
Over the next two years, he would raid the lab almost daily, then sneak in the evidence vault and swipe pills from criminal cases. When the pills ran out, he would snort heroin off his police desk beneath his officer-of-the-year plaque.
His startling downfall transformed the suburban Baltimore police station into a crime scene and rendered Gosnell one more cautionary tale, like the trooper in Iowa, the sergeant in Arkansas, the detective in Kentucky; like police chiefs in upstate New York and rural Ohio — drug addicts, all of them.
As the opioid crisis deepens, police are falling prey.
The scourge has struck police departments across the country, and prosecutors have dropped criminal cases that hinged on drug evidence.
Officers become hooked on narcotic painkillers after illness or injury. Prescriptions run out, but stockpiles of substitutes — heroin, cocaine, fentanyl — wait one locked door away, and they have the keys.
“It’s like you’re putting them in the candy store,” said Joseph Latta, who directs the International Association for Property & Evidence, a South Dakota nonprofit that teaches evidence handling.
In Billings, Mont., police fired one evidence room worker for stealing pills; about three years later, they fired another one. In Johnstown, Pa., an officer overdosed and passed out in the roll call room. Last August, a Hagerstown sergeant killed himself a week before he was to stand trial for allegedly stealing pills.
Their profession values a steely independence: Cops don’t need help. Gosnell told no one about the fever.
That first day, he parked beside the Aberdeen police station. The other officers were out on patrol.
When he drove home later, the fever was gone. It was that easy.
The son of a public works supervisor and nurse, Gosnell attended Joppatowne High School where he captained the football team and grew to 6 foot 1 and 220 pounds. If the Tylenol bottle said “take two,” he didn’t think much about taking four.
Senior year, a friend suggested a police ride along. It was 1997, and Gosnell found a glamour in the lights and sirens. When the football scholarships didn’t come, he settled it. He would be a cop.
Soon, he was running calls for a $5 shoplifting at Wawa, a murder on the east side, and everything in between. He relished the action of patrol. Summers, midnight shift, his lights hardly went dark.
With about 40 sworn officers, the Aberdeen police force was small but tight. Gosnell watched hockey with his supervisor Kirk Bane. Officer Arnold Houghton hosted backyard bonfires. The officers greeted Gosnell’s father like their own. “Hi, pop.”
When flames swept through the senior apartments, there was Gosnell kicking in doors, carrying out retirees. The mayor presented him with an award. The chamber of commerce named him officer of the year in 2002. In four years, he made corporal; in three more, sergeant.
“He was shining,” Houghton said.
At age 29, Gosnell ran a patrol squad. Not the sort to give orders and stay behind, he ran the calls with the men. He knew their children’s names and could tell by their voices if a radio call meant “Help!”
In September 2012, a K9 officer accidentally fell to his death from an Interstate 95 overpass. Charles Armetta died two months before his 30th birthday. When that day came, his friends went to the lodge in Bel Air for a beer and a memory. Gosnell finally found the nerve to talk to the pretty 911 dispatcher.
Noelle Roberts had a rule not to date cops, but she allowed him one dinner. He brought the Mad Libs. He was funny; she was sweet. She broke her rule. One year later, their daughter was born.
The phantom pains started in his shoulders and spread to his legs. He woke with one leg tingling, or one ice cold. Doctors found the discs in his neck pushing nerves in his spine: common herniated discs. Between football tackles and SWAT raids, Gosnell wasn’t gentle on his body. They prescribed him hydrocodone pills: “Take as needed.”
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University, says these pills can cause a mild withdrawal after just five days.
“We’re essentially talking about heroin pills,” he said.
Gosnell took the pills while he waited for surgery and while he healed — eight months passed by. His prescription count was about 120, and he went from taking two pills at a time to four and to six. Gosnell paid it no mind; it was like Tylenol. If he felt lightheaded, he figured he should have eaten.
In December 2014, he was promoted again and exchanged his silver badge for a lieutenant’s gold. At 35, he became the youngest member of the command staff. He laughed when they quoted the movie “Forrest Gump” and called him “Lt. Daaan!”
Meanwhile, 1,100 miles away in Iowa, a state trooper had made a fateful decision.
Tormented by a bowel disease and addicted to hydrocodone, Michael Haugen resorted to stealing pills from his evidence locker. He left behind decoys of aspirin.
In Washington, D.C., the FBI had found one of its agents disoriented with baggies of heroin in his car. Matthew Lowry would admit to stealing drug evidence, saying he too became addicted to hydrocodone after an illness.
Dozens more cases would arise — Augusta, Ga.; Harper Woods, Mich.; Anne Arundel County, Md. — and more careers would crash down.
Few fell as far as Gosnell.
Wracked by withdrawal in early 2015, he feared he had an infection from surgery for the herniated disc. Nurses ruled it out at a walk-in clinic and told him to see his doctor. Gosnell typed in his symptoms online: He was dopesick.
He couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t make the bathroom in time. His muscles strained against themselves; he was running in wet concrete. His skin didn’t crawl, his bones did.
Gosnell had a baby girl, a demanding job — a life. He couldn’t just writhe in bed.
His doctor would report him, he thought, if he came back pleading for pills. An alcoholic cop may be able to get help, but a pill head? He thought it was career suicide.
The prescription drop box at the Aberdeen police station worked like any street-corner mailbox. Families deposited unwanted medicine in the metal drawer. Officer Houghton unlocked the box, emptied the meds and stored them in the lab. When the pile grew, Houghton moved it to the evidence vault. Every few months, he ran drugs to the incinerator.
No one counted the pills, Gosnell knew. There would be no trace.
That first day, he carried the deposit bin upstairs to his lieutenant’s office and locked the door. Sorting through, he found a bottle of hydrocodone. He popped four or five pills. Minutes passed; the fever subsided.
Gosnell planned to wean himself off. He would cut his dose every few days. He printed a wall calendar and plotted the milligrams: 40, 30, 20. Nobody asked what the numbers meant.
When he reached the low doses, however, the fever reared up. His habit wasn’t about reaching highs, but staving off lows. Pills made him feel normal; his life became about chasing normal.
With a glance, he could tell Oxycontin from Vicodin, 80 milligrams from 30. He sought the blue “dirty 30s,” as they were named on the streets. The oxycodone pills were tiny as Tic Tacs, and Gosnell could slip one in his mouth, sip his Mountain Dew and keep watching HBO beside his wife.
He craved the pills faster than they came in. Every few hours, he popped a couple more; every few days, he emptied another bottle; hardly noticing his alarming tally, more than 100 pills a week.
With his desperation growing after six months, Gosnell sneaked in the evidence vault.
The vault contains years’ worth of drugs: pills, heroin, fentanyl, marijuana, cocaine, all heat-sealed in plastic packs, labeled and filed on metal shelves. Police store the drugs in case of legal appeals. They never had a reason for security cameras.
Over the next months, Gosnell perfected his methods. He cut the seal with a razor blade, pocketed the painkillers and dropped in decoy pills. Then he resealed and returned the pack. He started with the oldest cases. No one would ever know, he told himself.
When he found no more old cases, Gosnell shut his office door and locked it. On his desk, he set another pack of drug evidence. Like addicts everywhere, his was a small and inevitable step from pills to dope.
Gosnell tapped out the heroin powder. No more than a match head.
He snorted. He waited. Nothing.
Gosnell tapped out a little more. Still nothing.
He snorted a full line … relief. His path was set.
Whenever he couldn’t get pills, he snorted heroin. One line would push away the fever for a few more hours. Gosnell swore he would never shoot up; that was for junkies and he was a decorated officer, he told himself.
It was early 2017, and the wreckage of his addiction showed. Pale and haggard, he had lost 65 pounds.
“His clothes were falling off,” Noelle noticed.
She knew something was wrong, but what?
“He just said he was sick,” she said. “Honestly, I thought he was under a lot of stress.”
Suspicions grew at work, too. Why was his door always closed? Why was he nodding off? Showing up at all hours? Staying so late?
“Dan, go home and be with your family,” Chief Henry Trabert would say.
Gosnell told them he was on new medicine for gallstones. His door was closed because he had money troubles, he said, and was calling creditors.
Deputy Chief Bane was losing patience.
“If you close it again, I’m going to take it off the hinges,’” Bane told him.
Gosnell clung to delusions he would beat the fever, he said — even while he reached for deadly fentanyl. He tapped out a line wearing latex gloves.
The fever only worsened. Now he was snorting cocaine, and a wreck: jittery, paranoid, grinding his teeth. He put a dehumidifier in the bedroom, telling Noelle the air caused his nosebleeds.
Two and a half years had passed since he first raided the prescription drop box, and his decline had become a free fall.
In August 2017, Bane called him in.
The deputy chief had been his best friend on the force, but Gosnell knew as soon as Bane asked, “Are you armed?”
Bane pushed the suspension papers across the desk. They had him on a hidden camera pocketing pill bottles.
A nurse administered a drug test on the spot. Gosnell felt panic and relief. Now, no more lies.
She read the results aloud. “Cocaine … marijuana … opiates.”
Officers seized his gun, his patrol car and drove him home. He confessed to his wife and slept that night at the Holiday Inn. Then came 28 days at a Cecil County rehab.
Counselors brought it out: his buried grief from Officer Armetta’s death, the memory of polishing his dead friend’s brass buttons. Surgery had introduced him to opioids; trauma had deepened their hold.
Last December, Gosnell resigned from the force and pleaded guilty to one drug charge and misconduct in office.
“What I have done is intolerable,” he told the judge. “I violated my oath.”
The judge sentenced him to 200 hours of community service, three years of probation and a suspended prison term. Gosnell went home.
Meanwhile, Harford County prosecutors dismissed drug charges against eight people. Gosnell had tainted evidence in the cases. Aberdeen police changed the locks on their vault and installed security cameras. Gosnell had played on their sympathy, and their wounds are still raw.
“I felt betrayed, angry,” Bane said. “I don’t know that that will ever go away.”
Sober, Gosnell began work at a Havre de Grace rehab early this year. The job pays about half his lieutenant’s salary, but he’s helping people again, even other cops.
“There’s a stigma that their lives are completely over. I had those same feelings,” he said. “I can give them hope and say, ‘It’s not over. This is just the beginning. Everything’s going to be OK.’”
Now, he says, he has a lifetime’s work to make amends. Noelle stayed with him, and 4-year-old Emily still rides her Little Tykes police car believing daddy’s a cop.
He still can’t face some of his men. Gosnell had lived by the thin blue line and he crossed it. There’s no going back, though the instincts remain.
One lunch break, he took off running from Royal Farms to help an officer. They chased a robbery suspect together. Gosnell, in slacks and dress shoes, sprinted in the alley, slipped and smacked his face.
The ex-cop didn’t stay to see the bad guy arrested. He was needed elsewhere.
©2018 The Baltimore Sun