Trumbull deputies’ exposure to opiates during overdose raises issues of officer safety

By Ed Runyan


Three deputies with the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office were checked out at the hospital and decontaminated after they were exposed Thursday to a suspected opioid that was kicked in their faces.

All three men returned to work on their next shift and are believed to be OK, but their exposure to suspected fentanyl raises questions about the danger law-enforcement personnel face as they fight the drug crisis.

“You don’t know if it’s fentanyl or carfentanil. Even a little bit can kill you,” Sheriff Paul Monroe said Monday after his department released a police report on the Newton Township incident. “It’s a dangerous situation for these guys to be in.”

What’s more, the reason for the exposure was that a man who had overdosed kicked the drug into two of the deputies’ faces just after ambulance personnel revived him with the lifesaving drug naloxone.

Martin Higinbotham, 47, of Anaheim, Calif., was arraigned Monday in Newton Falls Municipal Court on three felony counts of assault on a police officer and one felony count of tampering with evidence. No plea was required.

He pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession of drug paraphernalia, disorderly conduct during an emergency and drug abuse.

He remains in the Trumbull County jail in lieu of $25,000 bond.

The tampering charge relates to Higinbotham’s attempting to destroy evidence by trying to displace the drugs.

Maj. Jeff Palmer, the deputies’ supervisor, said he doesn’t know if any of the deputies received naloxone at the hospital, but he doesn’t believe any of them lost consciousness.

Palmer said this is the first time the sheriff’s office has had to send its personnel to the hospital because of a possible drug contamination.

Palmer said the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force typically would handle calls involving the potential of an officer’s being contaminated by an opiate, but this situation unfolded “so quick that our guys didn’t even have time to react.”

He said the department is reviewing is protocols in response to the incident.

The call began at 6:11 p.m. Thursday as deputies and ambulance personnel were called to a home on King’s Drive in the Blue Manor mobile-home park in Newton Township, where a woman begged for help for a man who was not breathing.

“He’s a heroin addict. I told him not to do it,” Donna Higinbotham, 58, of the King’s Drive address told a 911 operator of the unconscious Martin Higinbotham. “Please don’t die,” she could be heard saying.

When deputies arrived, they saw Martin Higinbotham on the living-room floor on his back, unconscious. Ambulance personnel had administered multiple doses of naloxone to him, but he was unresponsive.

Near the man was drug paraphernalia, including a burnt spoon with brown residue on it, a marijuana grinder and small plastic bags. Next to the table was a brown, powdery substance, five white pills and a folded piece of paper.

The deputy who wrote the report, Dennis Garito, said he was wearing protective gloves. He opened the paper and saw a brown, powdery substance.

Another deputy retrieved evidence bags from his cruiser. Garito and Sgt. Robert Ross started to collect the brown powder on the table, but Higinbotham lifted his head and said, “What the [deleted] are you doing in my house?”

Higinbotham said the deputies should “get the [deleted] out of here and away from my stuff over there, [deleted] pigs.”

Higinbotham then “intentionally kicked the table with both of his feet as Sgt. Ross and I were collecting the powder, purposely intending for us to lose the powder,” Garito said.

The powder “went in the air directly in front of Sgt. Ross’ and my face, exposing us to it,” Garito said, adding that the area was “very confined and small.”

The deputies then restrained Higinbotham as he continued to yell obscenities and threats at the deputies, including that he wanted the deputies and their families to die.

Donna Higinbotham told the suspect she had just “found him dead” and the people there had brought him back to life, the report says.

When Martin Higinbotham asked for a cigarette, the deputies refused, saying, “Not after you just tried kicking heroin in our face.” But Higinbotham replied that the drugs that blew in the air were fentanyl, which he said he uses because of a back problem.

Deputies escorted Higinbotham to an ambulance.

The report says Garito discovered that his head felt warm and he felt a “tingling” in certain parts of his body. His breathing also felt “different, as I could significantly feel my lungs increase and decrease in size when I inhaled and exhaled.”

Ross also advised Garito he “was not feeling right as well,” the report says.

Deputy Bryan Galita drove Garito and Ross to St. Joseph Warren Hospital, where all three gave a urine sample to determine the nature and extent of their exposure.

TAG officers responded to the hospital and put on hazardous materials suits to assist the deputies.

When the deputies were released from the hospital, they wore the protective suits and were taken to the county engineer’s office to be decontaminated in a special shower.

Their cruisers also were taken to the engineer’s office and wrapped in crime-scene tape until they could be decontaminated.

Martin Higinbotham was released from the same hospital about 10:30 that night, about the same time as the deputies.

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