He honestly did not know.
Bill Ihlenfeld, who resigned just over a week ago as the U.S. Attorney in the northern district, had heard of narcotics like morphine, oxycotin, and hydrocodone. But he admits he was somewhat oblivious to the issue that would worry him the most in the position of a federal prosecutor.
He was quick to learn, though, that an injury usually pushed an individual to one of the pain-suppressing opioids, and then once the prescription was exhausted, the person would search for and purchase the same pills on the street. If and when that expense proved too much, a cheaper alternative always has been heroin, a narcotic that provides a euphoric feeling, but only the first time it’s used in excess.
An opioid addiction is one that fails to recognize limits involving gender, race, religion, wealth, or social status, and indictment lists, arrest records, and court dockets confirm the freedom wielded during this deadly epidemic. More than 300 citizens of the Northern Panhandle have died during this epidemic the past four years, and emergency medical technicians, local doctors, and nurses have delivered to or encountered overdosed patients on a daily basis in emergency rooms throughout the Upper Ohio Valley for more than a year now.
So, on top of sending the perpetrators of Ponzi schemes to prison along with embezzlers like Bernie Metz and fraudulent scammers such as Mark Busack, Ihlenfeld felt it necessary to wage a different kind of war against drugs.
“The drug issue was surprising to me, and it was something I hadn’t realized when I initially accepted the position. I didn’t know a drug like heroin would involve so many people in our community, but now I am completely aware it’s a drug that knows no boundaries,” Ihlenfeld admitted. “It didn’t matter where they lived or what car they drove, and now I have a full understanding that opioids have not and never will discriminate. If you let them in, it doesn’t matter what your last name is or how much money you have in the bank. None of that matters.
“I am personally frightened by the power of opioids, and I will do everything I can to prevent myself and everyone I know from ever using opioids no matter what the reason,” he continued. “The only way I will ever take one is if I don’t have a say in it. I would have to be unconscious, and someone else would have to make that decision, but if I am awake, I will fight against that decision because I never want that stuff in my body.”
Ihlenfeld also has come to an understanding how it all happened once an examination of records took place in all 55 counties in West Virginia, and the discoveries defined derelict decisions to meet the demand for more and more and more. According to a recent filing in the state’s lawsuit against the alleged pill-supplying companies, more than 200 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone were delivered to Mountain State pharmacies over the last five years alone.
To date, those two specific painkillers have been reported as causing more overdose deaths in West Virginia than any other drug, including cocaine, crack, meth, and even heroin to this point in time. AmerisourceBergen, the third biggest drug wholesaler in the United States, shipped more than nearly 119 million pills during that half-decade, and Miami-Luken dispatched almost 30 million doses to the Mountain State, according to records compiled by the nation’s Drug Enforcement Agency.
During the last fiscal year the state of West Virginia spent more than $120 million addressing issues involving prescription-pill abuse and yet has remained the state with the highest drug overdose death rate for three consecutive years. Statistics like those, plus his own children, motivated Ihlenfeld to dig deep while engaging community leaders in the 32 counties included in his jurisdiction.
Still, he owns no answer or explanation to this question: Why West Virginia?
“That’s a very good question, and no matter what the answer is, it’s disgusting that this has taken place in our state,” he said. “It infuriates me that ‘Big Pharma’ was able to get away with this for so long and that they have been able to fill these orders for pharmacies that they should have known not to fill. They should have seen the red flags, but instead they only saw the dollar signs and the chance to increase their profits.
“So, they just continued to fill those orders, over and over again, and that fed the addiction of so many people. Thousands and thousands of people were affected, and that’s why we find ourselves in the worst position in a lot of different categories right now,” he reported. “We have to prevent them from doing this ever again to the people of our state. They have been fined, and they have made big payments, but all the money in the world cannot bring back the lives that we have lost. It’s tragic, it’s been disgusting, and we have to work together to eliminate situations like those.”
A lifelong Democrat, Ihlenfeld likely would have remained for another year, but the Democrat did not win the presidency, and these types of positions are normally filled by prosecutors belonging to the coinciding political party. Despite his resignation, one tendered now instead of a year later because of how the political winds blew back in November, a member of the transition team for Governor-elect Jim Justice invited him to co-chair the newly formed Substance Abuse Committee.
“The drug abuse taking place in our state is an enormous problem that does not have an easy fix,” Ihlenfeld said. “There are others on the committee with a lot of experience in a lot of different areas like prevention, treatment, and enforcement, and we’re working together to develop both sort-term and long-term plans for the governor-elect to recommend some policy changes that will make a difference in West Virginia.
“We’re also studying ways for him to work with the Legislature as far as the operation of the State Police and the operation of the state’s jail and prison systems. As the governor, he will have the ability to impact a lot of what happens in West Virginia,” he continued. “It’s a plan that will be presented to him within the next few weeks for his consideration.”
He also sat outside of local high school football games. Ihlenfeld, a 1990 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, is a sports fan, but that’s not why he and staff members set up a table and welcomed anyone wishing to talk about the topic on his mind.
The U.S. Attorney was handing out drug tests to worried parents.
“I really do hope that our office during those six years made a difference, but that’s something for others to decide,” Ihlenfeld said. “I know that one of my goals was to raise awareness as much as possible by sharing as much information throughout the northern district of West Virginia so the people would know the dangers involved. That way they could protect their children and their grandchildren.
“Others will have to decide if we were successful with those efforts, but this is what I know; in some ways the drug problem is worse now than when I started in a lot of different ways, but we worked very hard to push back against that threat, and that’s why I am very happy to be a part of the Governor-elect’s committee on substance abuse.”
He launched initiatives to address much more, too, including corruption in the public sector, investor swindling, and financial fraud by using the exact same information that has been available to people in the same federal position since the advent of the Internet. Ihlenfeld was indeed successful, but he will shed the credit and offer it instead to his staff, but he does acknowledge his recollections of that one sunny October afternoon back in 2013.
Thomas Piccard, a 55-year-old retired Wheeling police officer, fired more than 25 rounds at the Federal Building on Chapline Street before the threat was eliminated by a Wheeling police officer.
“Bullets came through the windows on all of the levels of the building, but two court security officers were almost hit,” recalled Ihlenfeld. “I’ve never believed I was the target, and I believe the building was the target because of how the individual felt about the federal government.
“It did have an impact on everyone who worked there,” he said. “The building was shut down for a few days after that shooting, but even after that you could tell that everyone was still in shock in many ways. Everyone felt the effects of that incident for a pretty long time.”
He liked being in the know, and he misses that amenity already, and Ihlenfeld likes to say, “I have nothing to do and all day to do it.” It’s not true, of course, although he does fear he’s reached the summit as far as his practice of law because Ihlenfeld figures, what job could be more educating, exciting, and important?
“That’s why it is difficult, at my age, to move on to something else because maybe it means I’ve hit my peak because I don’t know if another position will offer the same challenges and chances to make a real difference,” he said. “I do hope that I can find something as meaningful, but it’s going to be tough, but right now I am preparing myself to get back into the workforce on Jan. 30, and all I can say is that I will be headed back to a private practice for a firm that is soon to open an office here in the Wheeling area.
“I can say that I will be the managing partner of that office here in Wheeling, and I am very excited that I have this opportunity to hire some new employees to work here in Wheeling,” Ihlenfeld added. “I’ve been offered a few chances to leave the Wheeling area, but this is where I want to stay. This is home, and this community is important to me and to my wife and children.”
(Photos provided by the Ihlenfeld family)