INDIANAPOLIS — In 2018, Indiana lawmakers made dealing drugs resulting in death a crime punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
It’s a controversial law and a topic many are passionate about as the overdose epidemic continues to kill, steal and destroy. According to the CDC, more than 100,000 people in the United States overdosed and died last year. More than 1,000 of them were Hoosiers.
FOX59’s Angela Ganote began investigating how often this law is used after the family of Nathan May contacted her in November 2021. May overdosed on fentanyl and died in July of 2020. His loved ones shared a large notebook of evidence against the man who gave him fentanyl, including text messages and recorded conversations.
Why did the man give the fentanyl to May? Did he know it was fentanyl? While he was overdosing, was his body moved? They asked FOX59 to help find out what happened and why no one is being held accountable for his death.
“The grief itself is just insurmountable. I mean, it weighs on you every single day,” May’s longtime girlfriend, Savannah Smith, said. “Only time you don’t think about it is if you are sleeping and that is if you aren’t dreaming about it.”
According to May’s family and friends, the evidence shows he died in a motel parking lot on the south side of Indianapolis. The man who admitted to giving him the drugs told his mother he exchanged fentanyl for half a Xanax bar. We are not naming the man because he is not charged with May’s death, but he has multiple drug arrests dating back more than a decade.
May’s mother, Susan Fox, said she had mixed feeling about the law holding drug dealers accountable for overdose deaths until she lost her own son.
“I want to know what happened to my son. I want to be heard. I want to be heard because I know there are other parents who have lost children in a similar way who are perhaps dismissed because of the stigma attached to drugs,” she said.
We started by reaching out to IMPD and the Marion County prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor’s office would not do an on-camera interview, and through email on Nov. 22 we were told “IMPD investigated Nathan’s case extensively” and “the evidence did not support criminal charges.”
We asked more about the family’s evidence and the admission from the man who gave May the fentanyl and were told again, “The matter was fully investigated” and “It did not reveal sufficient evidence to support criminal charges.”
May’s mom and friends are adamant there was not a full investigation.
Friend Jennifer Ireland said she believes May got into trouble immediately, and when the man who gave him the drugs realized it, he tried to cover his tracks.
Fox, May’s mom, said his phone is still sitting on her kitchen table. She wants to know who made a call from his phone that lasted one hour during the time of his death.
Overdose death prosecutions in Indiana: How often do they happen?
Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears and IMPD did have enough evidence to charge and convict another man, Dewayne Mahone. He was found guilty of killing Tony Harrell in October of 2019.
Mahone is a father of three who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He is the first man Mears charged under the law and only the second in four years. Angela Ganote spoke with Mahone via phone from prison.
“I myself was an addict. I was dealing the drugs to support my habit. Putting someone in prison doesn’t help with the addiction. I think they should take a look at the law because it is really unfair,” he said.
Mears said during Mahone’s case: “We’re going to make sure the people that are peddling these drugs, the people that are destroying our communities and literally pumping poison into people’s bodies for profit…we are going to be the ones that stand up and say, no, we’re going to hold you accountable.”
But is he? And what does accountability look like? Our FOX59 investigation found that the counties with the most overdose deaths are not the counties with the most prosecutions.
In the past four years, according to Indiana’s overdose dashboard, 6,920 people have died by overdose in Indiana while fewer than 75 people have been charged with the newer, tougher law, formally called “dealing in a controlled substance resulting in death.”
In Marion County, 1,346 people have died via overdose and only 2 people have been charged.
In Allen County, 297 have died. Their prosecutor has never charged anyone, according to the Indiana Supreme Court.
But in Delaware County, where 184 people overdosed and died, Prosecutor Eric Hoffman has charged 10 people with the newer, tougher law.
In one of those Delaware County cases, in Muncie, a woman named Jessica Campbell was convicted for selling drugs to a pregnant woman, resulting in the death of her unborn baby. A conviction on behalf of an unborn baby was a first in the county. Campbell is currently awaiting sentencing.
We reached out to the prosecutors in Allen and Delaware County – neither would talk.
Help or punishment: What is the criminal justice system’s role?
As for Marion County and Nathan May, Mears agreed to sit down for an interview 73 days after I asked and just six days before the story was set to air.
Mears, who recently lost someone close to him to addiction, said his office is focused on using the criminal justice system to help those with addiction, but he will charge someone when there is enough evidence.
“This idea that just because we don’t have enough evidence today that we are just going to stop working on a case is just not accurate. I know the detectives continue to work on (May’s) case.”
But a year and half later, May’s mom is skeptical. Fox said the unequal application of laws and the lack of accountability consume her. The man who gave her son fentanyl was just charged for the fourth time with felony drug possession.
She fears another family will have to feel her pain and believes she is now called to do something about it.
“They need to be held accountable. I don’t think I was so black and white until my son died. I felt that we needed to get people help and not send them away. Now, I am not sure what the answer is, but 100% believe in accountability.”
Angela Ganote talked with dozens of people for this story. Many discussed the idea of accountability versus getting an addict help. There are many who believe putting low-level drug dealers or co-users in prison is only making the problem worse.
They point to an unequal application of the law in Indiana, saying whether a prosecution takes place depends on who died and where. They pointed to Delaware County, where 10 people faced charges, compared to Allen County, where no one has been charged. Prosecutors in each county have sole discretion on who to charge and what to charge them with.
Anna Southgate of Greenfield was just 19 in 2018 when she was sentenced to an 8-year prison term. A 16-year-old, Jacob Root, died while they were doing drugs together in her home. She was charged with reckless homicide in Hancock County.
Southgate initially told investigators that Root brought the drug with him to her house but later admitted she’d given it to him. She said they’d injected it around 4 a.m., leading to him “speaking gibberish” and “not making any sense.”
Morgan Godvin of Portland, Oregon knows all sides of this crisis. She was addicted to heroin and spent four years in prison after her friend died while they were doing drugs together. She lost her mom and three friends to overdose. Now she’s a national advocate for preventing overdose deaths.
“The extent of my criminal activity was the 7/10ths of a gram of heroin found on my coffee table, with a dope spoon and a syringe. Justin was one of my best friends, and he had left his wallet at my house his previous visit. It contained his jail ID card, found by police when they raided, proving that while he lived was regarded as a criminal,” she said. “Only when it was politically expedient did he become a victim. Only when his death could be used as a justification to cage other lives.”
Godvin said the criminal justice system has spent decades locking people up for selling small amounts of drugs, yet we still find ourselves in the midst of the worse overdose crisis in history.
“Rebranding low-level drug crimes as homicides is semantics, not policy. It is mostly used to lock up other people with addictions, and lock them up for decades,” she said. “High cost, both human and financial, and for what benefit? My friends are still dying!”
The author of the dealing in a controlled substance resulting in death law is Republican Greg Steuerwald. We wanted to ask him if the law is being used the way he intended, but he declined an interview. We will keep asking.