Casualties of War

March 26, 2019
3 mins read

Melissa Nelson, State Attorney in Florida’sFourth Circuit, moved forward with a potentially precedent-setting murder charge in the case of a drug overdose this month. Deonte Wadley, 23 years old, was charged with first-degree murder for providing fatal doses of fentanyl to Timothy Sexton last year. Sexton, reported WJXT-TV, had just moved to Jacksonville two weeks prior to the overdose. The fact that he was so quickly able to find a source for this stuff is a clear indication of how pervasive the problem is.

Wadley was arrested a month later. Frisked after a fight at Roosevelt Gardens, he was found to be carrying cocaine. Before that, he was popped for selling heroin. Local experts have noted in the last year that coke dealers are cutting their supply with fentanyl. While Sexton overdosed on pills and not adulterated powder, Wadley at the very least illustrates an example of cocaine, heroin and fentanyl coming from the same distributor.

For Wadley, arrests are nothing new. He’s been arrested a dozen times since becoming an adult. Looking at his Facebook page, it wasn’t hard to see why. His timeline is a nihilistic collage of gun pics, flipping-the-bird pics, and a collection of topless, No Limit Soldiers-style pictures of the suspect. He lived the life he advertised. His world: one of guerrilla warfare, day in and day out.

It’s the ideal test case for Nelson’s office, which has mulled this approach since 2017. That’s when The Florida Times-Union reported that the State Attorney saw pursuing murder charges as a way “to keep the public safe from those responsible for this deadly crisis” … an appropriate “legal response to the loss of life.”

“If I’m a drug dealer and I know I’m cutting heroin with fentanyl, and I know I can be prosecuted for murder,” Nelson said in 2017, “I’m just telling you common-sensically, maybe I think otherwise about what I’m doing. If there’s research that shows what I’m saying is off base, I’d like to be able to look at it. I’m telling you something by my gut right now. I can’t point to research that proves what I’m saying.”

Wadley, whose social media persona projects remorselessness as a singular character trait, is an interesting test case.

All of this comes at a time when Jacksonville is getting state recognition for its pilot Project Save Lives, an in-patient treatment program that has led to year over year drops: In 2017, 519 died of drug-related reasons. In 2018, roughly 300. The program, in three emergency rooms locally, will soon be in a fourth. A few weeks ago, the city rolled out a trust fund dedicated to opioid response. Hopes are that the private sector will step up so the program can expand.

But 300 deaths is a lot—roughly 2.5 times the murder rate.

“The dying continues, a bit slower,” was how Councilman Bill Gulliford summed up the problem. Gulliford, who carried the legislation, encountered resistance. Democrats and Republicans on the Council rehearsed bad-faith arguments that posited that addiction was a choice, not a disease. Some of those loudest voices are now facing federal fraud charges. Media coverage, said Gulliford, has helped to educate council members, first responders and emergency room staff.

Just a few years back, Guilford noted, some of them wondered, “Why are these stupid people doing this to themselves over and over again?”

Why, indeed?

With half of my family coming from the Appalachian Mountains’ former “Billion Dollar Coal Field,” I have some personal knowledge of what can happen. If there aren’t jobs … if there isn’t opportunity … if there aren’t models … if there isn’t a support system, things happen like they did in the little town of Kermit, West Virginia, flooded with pills for years through corrupt pharmacies and a complicit federal government that looked the other way as Big Pharma finished the job the mine owners started.

We have displaced cohorts here, too. When the overdose crisis became real to our policy makers, there was shock that so many decedents were white men in their theoretical primes: 30s, 40s and 50s.

Gradually, we are getting better collectively at finding strategies that may stem the tide. Jacksonville’s Project Save Lives is but one example. The normalization of medical cannabis as an opioid alternative is another welcome trend.

However, it’s clearly not enough. There were those who assumed that because Melissa Nelson wanted to reform aspects of the State Attorney’s office, she would be “soft on crime.” Nelson, though a believer in restorative justice, also recognizes situations where restoration isn’t possible. Wadley’s case clearly is one of those.


Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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