Response to OD set vast heroin sting in motion

A St. Lucie West hotel was one of many sites throughout the county touched by a large network of heroin and fentanyl drug dealers finally taken down by the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office and other federal agencies.

The hotel, located on Champions Way, was the site of a possession arrest of a woman connected to the drug-running network. And while she was found in the hotel room with someone who had died from an overdose, authorities have not tied that death to the network, according to the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office.

At the conclusion of Operation Big Mi-Steak, the Sheriff’s Office, DEA, ATF, FBI and Homeland Security investigators announced the arrests of 42 people, including the woman believed to be at the center of it – running drugs out of a Steak and Shake restaurant in Fort Pierce.

Cybil Green, 42, of Fort Pierce allegedly was running the heroin/fentanyl ring with help from her 18-time convicted boyfriend Johnny Lewis, her adult son, Rodney Stevens Jr., and his girlfriend, Latoya Felder.

She also enlisted the help of her two juvenile children to package the drugs for sale, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Her children, including a third born around the time of her arrest, have been removed and placed with the state.

“When the heroin epidemic began to infiltrate our community back in mid-2016, we changed our strategy in responding to an overdose,” Sheriff Ken Mascara said. “We began sending narcotics detectives to each overdose, interviewing the victim and others that might have observed what happened.”

Instead of criminalizing the user, investigators were able to get information pertaining to the dealers. Users who were willing to help and wanted to turn their lives around were provided the resources needed, according to the sheriff.

“In early summer of last year, detectives responded to an overdose and began to gather information and evidence that resulted in Operation Big Mi-Steak,” Mascara said, adding that he invited the federal agencies to join in the operation due to their expanded manpower and resources.

Since the conclusion of the operation – and the 42 arrests – “we have seen a decline” in heroin in the community, according to the sheriff.

Over the 7-month-long investigation, officials served 12 search warrants, seized 25 guns – 10 of which were from convicted felons – and confiscated a slew of drugs, including 50 grams of fentanyl, 4 grams heroin, 71 caplets of carfentanyl, nearly a half-pound of powder cocaine, 9 grams crack cocaine, 1 gram of Molly, 11.5 grams of crystal meth, 80 pounds of marijuana, 23 marijuana plants, 16 liquid ounces of THC oil, and more.

St. Lucie County has seen a sharp increase in overdoses over the last few years, according to data provided by the Fire District. Emergency responders administer Narcan – a drug that helps to reverse the effects of heroin/fentanyl. In 2014, the agency administered Narcan 144 times. By 2016, that number more than doubled to 387.

In 2017, the number slipped to 377 – the dip is attributed to Operation Big Mi-Steak.

Sheriff Mascara said he knew that it was only a matter of time before the opioid epidemic hit St. Lucie County – given the number of pill mills that had sprouted up some years back. Those who use heroin and fentanyl often started as patients prescribed pain medication, he explained.

When the doctor no longer refills the prescription and the patient can no longer pilfer pills from friends and family, the patient often goes to the street in search of heroin.

In the case of the Operation Big Mi-Steak dealers, the heroin was often cut with fentanyl or carfentanyl, making the drug far more potent than the user expects. The result can be an overdose.

In the St. Lucie West hotel case, the woman arrested, Briannan Swartz, of St. James City, Fla., told investigators who she got her drugs from – someone in the Operation Big Mi-Stake network. As for the person who overdosed and died in her hotel room, authorities couldn’t determine where the drugs came from. Because that determination could not be made, the death has not been tied to the network.

The Sheriff’s Office is working with the State Attorney’s Office to continue processing more charges against the 41 they have in custody. The 42nd had been arrested and released and has since had another arrest warrant issued. A 43rd person is also wanted.

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