Venango Co. coroner reiterates stance on drug overdose deaths

Fatal drug overdoses in Venango County will continue to be classified by coroner Christina Rugh as accidents, not homicides.

Christina Rugh

Christina Rugh

Rugh clarified her position on the issue at last week’s meeting of the county’s drug overdose task force in Franklin.

Lycoming County coroner Chuck Kiessling sparked conversation among Pennsylvania coroners with his recent decision to classify drug deaths as homicides, not accidents, Rugh told the group at the meeting.

“There’s been a lot of discussion among coroners about how we rule overdose now,” Rugh said at the meeting.

Kiessling’s actions do place media attention on the epidemic of drug abuse, she said in a separate interview.

Rugh was elected Venango County coroner in 2014 after serving eight years as deputy coroner. In 2015, Rugh attended 11 confirmed drug overdose deaths as coroner, she said.

She sits on the drug task force because she believes the coroner’s office has a duty to try to prevent the deaths the office sees. Her participation on the task force is a way of giving back to the community, she said.

Kiessling’s aim is similar but it is not one Rugh espouses. Yes, drug dealers know that they are doing something wrong in providing the drugs but individuals have responsibility, too, she said.

“That responsibility, I feel, still lies with the user,” said Rugh.

Drug users who overdose may not do it intentionally, Rugh said. Instead, they do it to get high and may not understand the full ramifications of their actions, she said.

A lot of users will combine drugs, and Rugh has attended a number of cases where the deceased has numerous drugs in his or her system.

A coroner’s ruling does not carry the weight of law, which falls to law enforcement and the courts. In Venango County, all those agencies are collaborative, Rugh said. Many counties are not set up that way, she added.

“I don’t have any problems working with law enforcement,” Rugh said.

Police departments in Venango County will investigate drug deaths even when they are classified as accidental, Rugh said.

The coroner makes it a habit to phone district attorney Shawn White personally when she is on the scene of a suspected heroin overdose.

“We all work together, which is very fortunate here,” Rugh said.

Rugh and the other members of the drug overdose task force meet monthly to find ways to tackle the growing problem of drug abuse in Venango County.

It is an active and growing group and they have taken a number of steps to combat the problem.

“Not every county is as vocal as Venango County when it comes to drug deaths,” Rugh said.

Anyone who is looking for more information about substance abuse programs in the county can call Marie Plumer at 432-9163. People who need immediate help can call (814) 432-9111.