7 Conn. officers exposed to potential opioid in drug raid

Officers came into contact with what authorities believe was fentanyl when suspects tried to dispose of the substance by tossing it out of a window

By Nicholas Rondinone
The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — Seven drug detectives serving a search warrant at a Garden Street apartment Thursday were exposed to what authorities believe was a potent opioid that went airborne when the suspects attempted to hide evidence, police said.

The building was evacuated and later declared uninhabitable, police said. Officers seized a gun, $4,000 in cash and half a kilogram — more than a pound — of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid. Three people were arrested.

Officers seized half a kilo of fentanyl in the raid and arrested three people.
Officers seized half a kilo of fentanyl in the raid and arrested three people. (Photo/P1)

Two of the law enforcement officials — a Hartford detective and a state trooper — were the first through the door of the third-floor apartment, police said. They came in contact with the substance when it was tossed out of a window and the packaging around it burst, sending powder into the air. The two detectives were taken to St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, police Chief David Rosado said.

Five others, four Hartford detectives and another state trooper, were being monitored as a precaution after going into the apartment to assist in the raid, according to Rosado.

“They were going in with the warrant when the substance came apart,” Rosado said about the 11:40 a.m. drug raid. He said the operation was a joint effort between Hartford and state police.

Though authorities late Thursday were not certain what the substance was that made the officers ill, Lt. Michael Coates said based on the investigation, they believe it was heroin, fentanyl or a mixture of the two potent opioids.

Rosado said the officers became nauseous and lightheaded. Both symptoms are common with exposure to an opioid.

Another apartment in a nearby Garden Street building was also searched, but there were no issues, Rosado said.

Three people inside the apartment were also screened for potential exposure to the substance, police said.

Hazmat teams were quickly dispatched to the building, which was evacuated as a precaution. Scores of neighbors on the busy stretch of Garden Street were told to go back inside the unaffected buildings for their safety.

Residents of the six-unit apartment building were ordered to stay out through the day as firefighters, clad in thick gray suits and masks, decontaminated the scene. They were relocated, police said.

On Friday, police said three people were arrested on drug and child endangerment charges. They are Luis Diaz, 42, Raymond Vazquez, 38, and Francheska Muniz-Rodriquez, 25, all of 373-375 Garden St., police said. Diaz and Vazquez also were arrested on gun charges including criminal possession of a firearm.

A team from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Clandestine Lab was called in from Rocky Hill to make a final determination on what was inside the powdery substance. Rosado said no field testing was done by Hartford police.

The detectives and troopers were making the routine drug search alone without the assistance of the department’s Emergency Response Team, which counts an emergency physician among its members.

“It’s a substantial danger,” Rosado said. “We never really know what we are dealing with. So if it’s fentanyl, obviously it could be very dangerous to our officers. That is why all our officers are being decontaminated by the Hartford Fire Department.”

Thursday’s raid was not the first time city officers were exposed to a cloud of drugs during a search. While breaking up a drug lab on Forrest Street in September 2016, a flash bang tossed by Hartford SWAT officers landed on a processing table, kicking heroin and fentanyl into the air.

Eleven SWAT officers were exposed to the potentially lethal combination of drugs as they secured the scene and took the suspects into custody. Police officials said at the time that none of the officers suffered serious injuries and all were treated and released.

But in recent years, fentanyl has become increasingly prevalent in a rampant drug trade that has fueled thousands of deaths both in Connecticut and across the United States.

Officers, firefighters and EMS across the city routinely carry naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, as they continue to encounter fentanyl, heroin and other opioids.

The DEA, which partners with city police, has repeatedly warned law enforcement of the dangers of the drug and provided guidance on how to avoid exposures like the one on Thursday.

“This is an everyday occurrence … our officers can be potentially exposed to it. We have to be really careful when we deal with this kind of issue,” Rosado said. “We are going to err on the side of safety.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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