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Prosecuting overdose deaths: The Troubleshooter investigates

Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 11:30 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 27, 2021 at 1:10 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - The school photos failed to foreshadow the finish.

“Sunday, I started crying and I cried until Tuesday,” overdose victim’s mother Kathy Lowe said. “I mean, it’s just hard.”

The texts to mom revealed so much more. One read, “Somewhere I lost my fight. I’m trying to find it again.” Another read, “I just needed to get away from me, but I was always there.”

“She really tried,” Lowe said. “She tried to get better.”

From nurse on a college scholarship to patient at treatment centers, Tommie Lillpop was one of two drug overdose deaths the same night at the Greenwood Red Carpet Inn. Police told her mother that her boyfriend continued doing drugs for days next to Lillpop’s decomposing body.

“She was cremated without me ever seeing her,” Lowe said.

Lowe said she begged police to file homicide charges against the repeat-offending dealer who could be traced through Lillpop’s phone.

“He kept trying to tell me there was no such charge in Indiana for dealing a controlled substance that results in a death and then got mad at me because I said, ‘Yes there is, it’s Indiana Code 3542-1-1.5,” Lowe said. “He got mad, and he started screaming at me that my daughter was just a drug addict that he didn’t have to do nothing for me, and he certainly didn’t have to do nothing for her.”

The mother of Robert Gibson, who overdosed and died, tells a similar tale. Too afraid to do an interview, she insisted that the people who sold her son the fatal dose were still dealing drugs at a house on 27th Street and Slevin Street in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood. She said she couldn’t get the police to do anything about it, so she called WAVE 3 News anchor John Boel.

Undercover, as many as 10 people per hour on bikes or on foot were recorded going inside the house, spending a few minutes inside, then coming out. It all happened in succession: cars pulled up, waited for a man to come outside, something happened through the window, and then cars drove off, repeatedly.

One of the people living there is Robert Smothers, who was charged in 2013 with trafficking marijuana and possessing cocaine, in 2015 with trafficking heroin and engaging in an organized criminal syndicate, and in 2017 with trafficking methamphetamine. In 2018, Smothers was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Boel went back to the house with a visible camera to talk to him.

“I’m going to be honest with you, OK?” Smothers said. “Robbie (Gibson) was my friend. It hurt me bad. He didn’t get his drugs here.”

“Ain’t nobody gonna come here and get their drugs,” a female resident of the home said. “You know, we do drugs, we don’t sell drugs.”

“What drugs do you guys do?” Boel asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s none of your business.”

“I’ve been watching the house here undercover,” Boel said, “and up to 10 people an hour were coming and going, spending a couple minutes inside.”

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“Is that wrong to have 10 people?” she asked. “It don’t matter if we got 100 people a day coming to our house.”

It turns out a WAVE 3 News camera wasn’t the only one on the Portland home.

“This lady’s had a camera facing our house, because we’ve been harassed,” the female resident said, motioning to her neighbor.

“Did they think drug dealing’s going on here too?” Boel asked.

“Well, you know, drug dealing goes on everywhere in Portland,” she said.

It appears to be a good time to sell drugs in Louisville. Data from the Louisville Metro Police Department shows a steady decline in all drug trafficking arrests since 2018. Cocaine, heroin, and meth trafficking arrests all plummeted in the past three years. There hasn’t been a first offense heroin dealing arrest for years.

“Have you all ever thought about how the heroin gets down here?” the female resident asked. “Because I’ve never went in a house and someone said, ‘I’m making up a batch of heroin today,’ but we have plenty of it down here.”

The man in charge of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration’s Louisville Field Division, overseeing operations in three states, is J. Todd Scott. He said from April 2020 to April 2021, there were 188 drug overdose deaths in Louisville alone. That’s an average of one every two days.

Scott insisted they are prosecuting overdose deaths as homicides.

“The problem is, I have to be able to show that it was your particular drug that precipitated that particular death,” Scott said.

The DEA Heroin Investigation Team claimed since 2017, it has reviewed 435 overdose cases, initiated 27 investigations, and prosecuted 46 people.

“Many of them unfortunately the evidence isn’t there,” Scott said. “That’s what it comes down to. These are criminal investigations and federal prosecutions. You have to have the evidence. It takes time to get it, and sometimes doesn’t matter what you do, it just isn’t there.”

At 27th Street and Slevin Street, they think police and prosecutors have their priorities messed up.

“They arrest drug dealers, and they give them life,” the female resident said. “The child molesters, they get probation. You’re allowed to rape kids. But don’t sell drugs.”

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