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Point Pleasant's Parker Henderson, left, and Independence's John Sanders compete in the West Virginia State Wrestling Tournament Class AA/A 113lb Championship on Thursday, April 22, 2021, at Mountain Health Arena in downtown Huntington.

Record-breaking fatal overdoses reported in W.Va. in 2020 after years of decreases

CHARLESTON — After two consecutive years of decreases, preliminary data show at least 1,275 West Virginians suffered fatal overdoses in 2020, setting a mortality record for the state often called the epicenter of the national drug crisis.

Opioid overdose rates are back to 2017 levels, with 85% of all fatal overdoses in the state in 2020 involving an opioid, compared to 76% in 2019. Previously, 2017 — with 1,019 people dying — was the only year West Virginia’s overdose deaths exceeded 1,000 people.

The new numbers are a 45% increase from 2019, when 878 people died, and a 25% increase from 2017, according to the data.

The overdose data were compiled from causes of death reported on death certificates certified by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer and are not final, meaning numbers could rise as more death certificates are analyzed.

Many overdose deaths include more than one drug, and, while total overdose death numbers are not duplicative, the data set lists any drug contributing to the death, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Kanawha County recorded an uptick in the number of fatal drug overdoses in 2020 after years of stagnation that saw surrounding counties’ overdose rates drop.

Last year, 207 West Virginians died from drug overdoses in Kanawha County, compared to 156 in 2019, 152 in 2018 and 151 in 2017.

Statewide, 15 counties at least doubled their number of fatal overdoses between 2019 and 2020. Eight saw drops. Of those eight, none saw decreases of more than five cases.

Southern West Virginia again bore the brunt of the overdose-related deaths in the state. In 2020, McDowell County tripled its rate, with 27 dead in 2020 compared to nine in 2019. Boone, Wyoming, Logan, Mercer and Cabell counties all lost twice as many people to drug overdoses last year than in 2019.

Logan County leads the state in the number of fatal overdoses per capita, with 159 per 100,000 residents dying by overdose. Cabell (158 per 100,000), McDowell (153 per 100,000), Raleigh (136 per 100,000) and Kanawha (116 per 100,000) counties are close behind.

In line with recent years, methamphetamine-related fatal overdoses were still on the rise, with 569 recorded so far for 2020, compared to 384 in 2019, a near 50% increase. This is a more than 1,000% increase over 2015, when 49 residents died from the drug, and the largest increase of any drug-related overdoses in the state, according to the data.

Logan County recorded 31 meth-related fatal overdoses in 2020, double its number from 2019, when it recorded 15 deaths. The county holds the highest rate of fatal meth-related overdoses in the state, with 97 per 100,000 residents dying with the drug in their system.

Boone County trails Logan with 75 per 100,000 residents suffering fatal meth-related overdoses, nearly tripling its rate from the previous year, with 16 dead in 2020 compared to six in 2019. Raleigh (70 people per 100,000), Kanawha (63 per 100,000) and Cabell (62 per 100,000) counties follow close behind.

Fentanyl-related deaths also were on an upswing, with 955 recorded in 2020 compared to 518 in 2019 — an 85% growth.

Of 55 counties in West Virginia, 22 saw double the number of fatal fentanyl-related overdoses in 2020, compared to 2019. Forty-six counties recorded two times the number of cases in 2020 than in 2015.

Two counties — Clay and Webster — saw decreases in fatal fentanyl-related overdoses between those years, while seven others saw none recorded.

According to the data, the largest growth in fentanyl deaths has remained mostly in the coalfields.

McDowell County saw the largest increase of any county between 2019 — when two people there died because of fentanyl — and 2020, when 18 deaths were reported. Cabell, Logan, Raleigh, McDowell and Kanawha counties led the state in the number of fentanyl-related fatal overdoses per capita, according to the data.

Fatal overdoses involving either cocaine or heroin dropped slightly in 2020, compared to 2019. Heroin rates, however, are still highest in the coalfields. McDowell, Mercer, Wayne, Raleigh and Wetzel counties hold the highest per capita rate of fatal heroin overdoses for 2020, according to the data.

Fatal opioid-related overdoses doubled in 27 counties between 2015 and 2020, according to the data. Logan, Cabell, McDowell, Raleigh and Kanawha counties also led the state in these deaths for 2020.

For months, experts have warned about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic could have on those with substance use disorder. Overdoses are on the rise nationwide amid the pandemic, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and so are relapses.

According to the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, there were more emergency department visits and calls related to overdoses last summer than any other on record. Area harm-reduction groups reported upticks in the need for Naloxone distribution, an opioid overdose-reversal drug.

Man pleads guilty in fatal shootings of eight from Ohio family

A man pleaded guilty Thursday to the murders of his child’s mother and seven members of her family in 2016 — a grisly crime that spread terror across their rural Ohio community and stirred rumors of drug dealers and hit men before authorities concluded it stemmed from a custody dispute.

On the fifth anniversary of the slayings, Edward “Jake” Wagner pleaded guilty to 23 counts in southern Ohio’s Pike County in a deal with prosecutors that spares him from being sentenced to death. He agreed to cooperate in the cases against his parents and brother, who are also charged in the Rhoden family slayings of seven adults and a teenage boy.

“I am guilty, your honor,” Wagner calmly told the judge again and again, as Judge Randy Deering read each count aloud. The charges included eight counts of aggravated murder, as well as charges of conspiracy, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and other counts.

Wagner admitted he was personally responsible for five of the deaths, special prosecutor Angela Canepa said. He gave prosecutors a full account of what happened that morning, along with information that led them to additional evidence. She did not say what that evidence was.

Wagner, 28, said in court that he is “deeply and very sorry.” He wasn’t immediately sentenced, but his lawyers said he understands he faces a lifetime behind bars.

“He knows he’s going to die in prison without any judicial release. As horrifying as this is for all, he is as sorry as he could be,” defense attorney Gregory Meyers told the judge.

The killings in April 2016 — at three trailers and a camper near Piketon — terrified residents in the surrounding rural community and prompted one of the most extensive criminal investigations in state history. It took authorities more than two years to announce the arrests.

George Billy Wagner III, Angela Wagner and their son George Billy Wagner IV have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors alleged the Wagner family planned the killings for months, motivated by a custody dispute. The Wagners took phones from six of the victims, as well as a recording device and trail cameras, Canepa said.

The Wagners used guns with two homemade silencers, allowing them to kill their victims as they slept, Canepa said. Parts from a failed effort to build a silencer were found on the Wagners’ property, she said.

Most of the victims were repeatedly shot in the head, and some showed signs of bruising. Three young children at the scenes, including Jake Wagner’s child, were unharmed.

According to Canepa, shell casings found at the Wagners’ home matched those found at the murder scenes. Investigators also found a shoe of the same size and tread that matched a shoe print found at the scene.

The victims were 40-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.; his ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Jr. and 19-year-old Hanna, the mother of Jake Wagner’s child; Clarence Rhoden’s fiancée, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s brother, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.

A relative, Tony Rhoden Sr., has sued the suspects, saying he wanted to be sure none of them benefited financially from the slayings.

One of his lawyers, Brian K. Duncan, said by email that the family “is grateful for today’s outcome, as it provides at least some semblance of justice on this day, which coincides with the fifth anniversary of these tragic events.”

Earth Day event teaches children about environment

HUNTINGTON — Children got crafty and learned about the environment during a special program Thursday at the Cabell County Public Library in Huntington.

Planned in celebration of Earth Day, the event featured 3D-printed planters that each child in attendance was able to paint and take home to be filled with soil and seeds once the planter had dried.

Worldwide events planned in observance of Earth Day included a global youth climate summit, a virtual “Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit” featuring activists from every continent, workshops and panel discussions. More information can be found online at EarthDay.org.

Earth Day began in 1970 when more than 20 million Americans organized to call for greater protections for the planet. It is observed every year on April 22.

Sixty sixth-graders at Symmes Valley Junior High School planned, wrote and illustrated their own books on the topic of National Poetry Month.

Medical cannabis bills die with 2021 session

HUNTINGTON — While new research shows most Americans support cannabis legalization, the West Virginia Legislature defeated bills this year to improve the medical cannabis program.

The West Virginia Senate passed two bills aimed at improving the program, which passed four years ago but has yet to provide any relief to patients. Neither bill passed the House, which has more staunchly anti-cannabis members than the Senate.

Senate Bill 231 amended several sections of the Medical Cannabis Act, reducing fees for patients and adding to the list of approved conditions to receive a medical card.

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill was similar to bills passed by the Senate for the past three years and puts back language initially included in the Medical Cannabis Act when it passed the Senate in 2017.

New conditions included in the bill included migraine, HIV, autism and anorexia, and it permitted the commissioner of the Office of Medical Cannabis to offer suggestions for new conditions to the advisory board.

The bill removed course requirements for physicians. Trump said doctors do not prescribe medical cannabis, just the medical conditions that the state approves. It also protects doctors from liability.

Universities would have been permitted to study medical cannabis under the bill, and patients would have been able to purchase medical cannabis from other states that enter in reciprocal agreements with West Virginia.

The bill also raised the tax from 10% to 20%.

Dry leaf and edibles were added as permitted forms of cannabis. The Senate also passed Senate Bill 590 to add edibles to the list of permitted forms.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said he wrote the Medical Cannabis Act with two combat veterans in mind. The ability to consume cannabis through an edible form was important to them.

“I will introduce both those bills next session,” Woelfel said. “I’m very disappointed that the House chose not to really take up either bill in a meaningful way. Our medical marijuana law is the most conservative in the country. I know because I wrote it. It’s very conservative. This was a minor change to help people with very severe illnesses — end-of-life illnesses ordinarily.”

Opponents of the medical cannabis program, like Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, say it is a gateway to recreational legalization. But most Americans are now in favor of legalizing both medical and recreational use, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

“The House equated this to free weed on every corner,” Woelfel said. “That lack of understanding the issues kept us apart from any other state. It’s superficial to choke on this medical aspect like it’s surrendering to the ‘War on Drugs.’ It’s very sad. We claim we want people to move here, but it makes it look very backward.”

According to the study, 91% of U.S. adults say they are in favor of both medical and recreational cannabis. Fewer than 1 in 10 adults say it should not be legal for use by adults.

From 2000 to 2019, the share of Americans saying marijuana should be legal more than doubled.

Those 70 and older are still more likely to oppose any type of use, and Republicans are more wary than Democrats.