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The Prescription Pill Epidemic Has Spiraled Out of Control -- Sheriff's Death Is an Alarm Bell

The death of a West. Va. sheriff should persuade the federal government to put the necessary resources into fighting this epidemic.

In the small coal towns of southern West Virginia, the poorest patch of Appalachia, the police blotters these days read like big-city tabloid fodder. Last month, a 23-year-old man received up to 25 years in prison for wheeling a quadriplegic to a house against his will, carrying him inside, beating him and stealing his prescription painkillers. That same week, a 25-year-old man was charged with child neglect resulting in death for taking three prescription painkillers and passing out, suffocating his one-month-old son in his arms. The child's 21-year-old mother was charged as an accomplice.

A couple of weeks ago, the manager of a pain clinic in the Mingo County seat of Williamson (nickname “Pilliamson”) pleaded guilty to “reluctantly selling drug prescriptions illegally”--abetting doctors in writing scripts for thousands of prescription pill addicts. “Patients” would line up at the clinic before it opened, like bargain shoppers at a Black Friday Christmas sale. And now, as the nation knows, the Mingo County sheriff is dead, shot at point-blank range as he sat in his car eating a sandwich. 

Eugene Crum, a former small-town police chief and magistrate who'd been in office just three months, was gunned down at lunchtime last Wednesday in downtown Williamson, a city of 3,160 residents. Crum, who had pledged to crack down on Mingo County's rampant prescription drug abuse, also happened to be staking out a parking lot, as he did most days at noon. The lot, attached to a pharmacy that was busted as a pill mill over two years ago, remains a notorious drug market, where pill pushers and addicts buy, sell and swap opioids.

The motive for Crum's murder remains unclear. The suspect, Tennis Melvin Maynard, 37, was shot by a deputy sheriff after a car chase and remains in the hospital. But the suspect's father has said it wasn't personal or political. He told the Associated Press that his son had become “mentally disturbed” after being exposed to harmful chemicals and injured working at an Alabama coal mine, and that he most likely shot the sheriff for no reason. As he put it: “He would have probably shot anybody, the first one he come to, you know what I'm saying?”  

But locals, law enforcement officials and residents naturally suspect that pills had something to do with Crum's death. Pills, prescription oxycodones and hydrocodones, are responsible for most horrors in Mingo County. Home invasions, shootings, assaults, kidnappings, fatal DUIs and robberies, nearly all tied to prescription drugs, regularly make news here. The scourge of “pillin'” is so rampant that residents barely remember the good old days of mere abject poverty. Crum's execution-like shooting (the gunman reportedly used a silencer) was immediately compared to the murders, less than a week earlier, of a Texas district attorney and his wife, and the murder, two weeks before, of the head of Colorado's prison system.

Crum was a man on a mission. His Operation Zero Tolerance had led to the indictments of dozens of suspected dealers since he became sheriff in January. One month into the job, Operation Zero Tolerance, a joint effort of Crum's Sheriff's Department, the Mingo County Drug Task Force and other community police departments, busted a major pill ring. “Enough is enough,” Crum said at the time.

Even if Crum's death turns out, as the suspect's father claimed, to be the random act of a disturbed mind, it's a clarion call for help. A sheriff who reinvigorated the fight against pilling in the prescription drug abuse capital of the country is gone. The potential chilling effect on fighting the good fight in this long-neglected corner of West Virginia cannot be underestimated.

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