If you ask Madison County Coroner Jimmy Cornelison if the drug epidemic in Madison County is getting better, he will give you a definitive answer.
“Absolutely, positively, no,” he told the Fiscal Court Tuesday morning. “I wish I had good news for you, but I don’t.”
In 2020, the coroner's office had 59 confirmed overdose deaths. As of Tuesday, July 27, there were 42 confirmed overdose deaths with 13 pending.
Cornelison said the reason for so many pending cases was a new change in the toxicology carrier. Additionally, two overdose deaths handled by his office were being treated as manslaughter cases by the Richmond Police Department.
“Most of what we are seeing from those results are fentanyl and that is not going to stop unless we do something to scare people from coming to Madison County,” Cornelison said. “These drug dealers are coming in and selling these drugs to our children.”
He said even the numbers presented by him did not speak to the volume of people who were dying from overdoses in Madison County.
“I want you all to understand these numbers,” he began. “A lot of people who call for overdoses, EMS will get there and they get Narcan in but a lot of times, they will come back to breathe and they are brain dead. They are admitted to the hospital but they won’t come to my office…”
The Madison County Coroner is not responsible for reporting deaths within hospitals. His services only apply when there is a death at a residence or an unattended body in the elements.
“So even my numbers are not 100% accurate (to the total amount of overdose deaths in the county),” Cornelison said.
Madison County Judge Executive Reagan Taylor said the drug epidemic is just getting worse.
Cornelison confirmed and said within the past three weeks, he has been called to five decomposing bodies thought to be associated with overdoses and they can only be identified through either dental records or fingerprints.
“That is showing us, number one, that there are a lot of people who don’t know where their loved ones are, or even care,” Cornelison said.
Magistrate John Tudor asked if Cornelison saw a correlation with stimulus checks and increased overdose deaths.
“I wish you hadn’t brought up the word stimulus because I can tell every time a check goes out,” the coroner of nearly 20 years said. “Some people think that is not true, but it is true. I am sure Tony Terry of the sheriff’s department can confirm the same thing. It is just like clockwork.”
Cornelison said he got a call once where a man was found deceased with 11 $100 bills following a previous distribution of checks. The 12th bill was folded up with several grams of heroin inside.
“I feel sorry for these people, I want to help them, but we need to help ourselves too,” he said. “We have to step up.”
Judge Taylor asked if EMS did not have the Narcan to administer on calls, what the numbers would be like for Cornelison’s office.
“...We couldn’t handle the numbers, judge,” he replied.
Magistrate Tom Botkin chimed in and said Cornelison’s office was the end result of “the very thing (the court) has battled for six years.”
“The drug issue and drug problem in Madison County has only gotten worse from the time we came in,” Botkin said. “We know the main thoroughfare with I-75 from the North to the South and it not only affects those people and the lives of those who lose their lives, but we have got a jail that is overcrowded and busting at the seams.
“We have a sheriff’s department that is understaffed and doesn't have enough people. We don’t have enough money to pay for them or fix the jail, so we try to get the legislators to do something, but the only thing they can do is make the penalties less so they don’t go to jail which doesn’t help your problem at all. It doesn’t fix the drug problem at all, it just raises the rates and the theft limits that someone can steal, turn around and sell and buy more drugs without going to jail. Believe me they know exactly what that dollar limit is and they will go and steal….I don’t know where that ends," Botkin continued.
“It ends in my morgue, that’s where it ends,” the coroner said matter of factly.
Botkin gave one more comment he admitted he shouldn’t say aloud, but one he had thought for a long time.
“Until you hang a drug dealer on the courthouse steps and send the message, ‘Hey don’t come to Madison County because there is a pretty tough penalty for it,’ it is never going away,” Botkin said.