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Oxy Express: The changing front lines of the prescription pill epidemic

12:02 AM, May 8, 2012   |    comments
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10News has done a lot of reporting over the past year and a half on the rise in prescription drug addiction around the country, and in East Tennessee.

Now, we're taking a closer look at what law enforcement is up against, from the streets to the courts.

Florida is known as one of the starting points for much of the prescription drug trade in the United States.

But, there's part of the "Oxy Express" that has not been reported about much until now. It's fueling sales in Knoxville.

"My confidential informant was buying them for $25 dollars a piece," said Knoxville Police Officer Michael Geddings.

The Knoxville Police Repeat Offender Squad (ROS) said they caught 32-year-old Motez Stringer with more than 1,500 oxycodone pills earlier this year. It estimates the street value to be $38,000. That was not Stringer's first local arrest; Knox County Sheriff's deputies arrested him in 2011 for a similar offense, but he bonded out of jail.

"He actually has some drug convictions in Michigan and Nevada as well," said Geddings, who works undercover with the ROS on the front lines of the growing pill problem.

Stringer is just one of the alleged repeat oxycodone dealers Officer Geddings has arrested over the past five years.

"I don't believe that unless we can figure out the source of supply and where it's coming from that we're gonna be able to stop it," explained Geddings.

A growing nation-wide demand with a strong connection to Appalachia drives that trend. A recent analysis of Drug Enforcement Agency data by the Associated Press shows Tennessee's per capita oxycodone sales increased by 515 percent from 2000 to 2010. Tennessee's dramatic jump falls only behind Florida, which saw a 565 percent increase, and New York, with per capita sales rising 519 percent.

"I think in Knoxville we're kind of a unique area, not only because of the interstate systems that we have coming through the city, but we're also the half way point," said Geddings.

Until now, the focus has been on "pill mills" in Florida, especially in the Fort Lauderdale area. For example, 10News cameras were there in 2010 when deputies arrested several East Tennesseans on charges of doctor shopping.

Knoxville police are now keeping a close eye on another part of the country.

"Larger quantities coming from the Detroit connection as opposed to the Florida connection," said KPD ROS Sergeant Josh Shaffer.

Interstate 75 is a direct conduit between Detroit and Knoxville. It's known as the "Oxy Express."

Sgt. Shaffer said traditional drug trafficking is causing the influx of what some call "hillbilly heroin" from the north to Appalachia.

"We can't find that people are going and seeking legal prescriptions in Detroit. We're seeing them in bags," said Sgt. Shaffer.

Smuggling drugs down the interstate is exactly how police believe Stringer brought pills to Knoxville across state lines for several months.

"He would stay in Knoxville just long enough to sell the pills and when when he was out he would travel back to Detroit to re-up and then come back down," said Geddings.

But, Officer Geddings also said Stringer's road trips were not by car.

"We found a piece of luggage with his name and the Greyhound bus line information attached to it as well as a copy of the ticket," said Geddings.

Bus passengers, traveling between cities, may now be another part of the "Oxy Express" police have to watch.

No matter how the pills get here, more oxycodone-related cases are clogging up the system.

"We are overloaded. Our caseloads have gone up, and I'm not exactly sure how much yet because I haven't had time to play with the numbers," said Knox County Criminal Court Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz.

She also said she has noticed the Detroit drug connection in her courtroom.

Both the judge and police believe pill cravings can push addicts to desperation that knows few boundaries.

"I would guess that it's creating many more crimes. Robberies, burglaries, break-ins, people who can get a prescription or can pay for the pills everywhere in the city. There is no safe place," said Judge Leibowitz.

"We're seeing every type of criminal, whether it be a violent offender, property offender committing crimes to support an oxycodone habit," said Sgt. Shaffer.

Some police think harsher punishments could help them get a better handle on the pill problem. Tennessee state Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) agrees and thinks deterrence is the answer. He co-sponsored a bill in 2011 to increase penalties for illegal sales of oxycodone.

The $5.6 million dollar price tag turned off lawmakers.

"We can remove the demand and once you do that then your incarceration and prosecution costs, and all those costs will go down. And that's very difficult to do," said Sen. McNally.

"We have very few sources of help. That's one of our big problems," said Judge Leibowitz.

So, while the courts see more cases, like Motez Stringer, police are focused on closing off the pill pipeline coming in from out of town.

Greyhound tells 10News that even though some passengers might make it on the road with drugs, that is not the norm. A Greyhound representative said they do regular, random baggage checks and random passenger screenings, "Our terminal employees and drivers have a heightened sensitivity to suspicious behaviors of prohibited items. They have also been trained to notify local law enforcement if they are to come in contact with any items which are prohibited on a Greyhound bus."

Motez Stringer is set to appear before a Knox County District II judge in late July.

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