HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The worst night in recent memory in Huntington was summed up with one sentence by the defendant.
“I distributed heroin in Marcum Terrace.”
That was the full explanation by Bruce Lamar “Benz” Griggs as he pleaded guilty to distribution of a controlled substance Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Huntington.
The full story was a nightmare. The heroin laced with elephant sedatives and fentanyl is believed to have caused at least 27 overdoses on August 15. The outbreak caused a response by local emergency services, fire departments and the Huntington Police Department. Emergency workers saved the lives of overdose victims by administering the opiate antidote Narcan.
The horrible night — and the way it exemplified West Virginia’s struggle with opoids — drew headlines from across the country, including this one in The Los Angeles Times: “26 overdoses in just hours: A small West Virginia city faces its demons.”
As he pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers on Monday — agreeing to accept punishment of up to 20 years in prison, up to $1 million fine and a possible three years of supervised release after serving the prison time — Griggs offered almost no context about what he was accused of having done.
Responding to a question from the judge about his level of education, Griggs, who is from Akron, Ohio, responded that he had gotten his GED.
Griggs responded to a series of questions about whether he believes he is of sound mind, whether he understands the charges against him and whether he truly intends to plead guilty with yes.
The heroin Griggs was accused of driving a white Chevy sedan to West Virginia to sell caused a wave of horror in the Huntington public housing complex.
Sgt. Paul Hunter of the Huntington FBI Drug Task Force testified on Monday that the first overdose call came in to emergency services at 3:39 p.m. August 15.
After that, calls continued to come through. Victims were taken to nearby Cabell Huntington and St. Marys hospitals, where investigators were able to obtain blood and urine samples that eventually revealed those who overdosed had taken heroin mixed with fentanyl and carfentail, an elephant sedative that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
Investigators also were able to interview some of the victims.
“We were advised the heroin had a different color,” Hunter testified.
The odd color was described as peach.
Most victims told police they had bought about a half-gram apiece from a dealer they knew as “Benz.” Police also got his image off surveillance cameras in the Marcum Terrace area.
Griggs was arrested Sept. 6 in Tallmade, Ohio.
On Monday, Chambers was careful again to ask him if he understood what he is accused of having done.
“Knowing all of this,” the judge asked, “do you still want to plead guilty?”
“Yes,” Griggs said.
Chambers then set a sentencing date for 1:30 p.m. April 10.