People of the Pines: A Unique Examination of Various Ocean County Residents

Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato

I remember as a child the first time I heard about drug abuse. I was in Middle School and my class was gathered together for an assembly. The speaker told us terrible stories about kids not much older than us who lost their friends, families and futures to their drug use. The speaker also showed us pictures that revealed the physical consequences of drug abuse, and I remember feeling so far removed from the discussion. Never before had I even heard the word “heroin” and it wasn’t until about a decade later that it seemed to become widespread in conversations, newsfeeds and obituaries of people I knew.

Now, 10 years after graduating from Lacey Township High School, I find myself living in my old hometown of Forked River, where heroin is more prevalent than ever. My childhood home was robbed 3 times by heroin addicts and at least 10 people I shared the first 18 years of my life with are dead from drug abuse. Ocean County has the second highest rate of overdose deaths in New Jersey.

Although this topic has seemingly become ubiquitous here, I still don’t feel any closer to understanding why or what any of us can do to help. Recently, I spoke with the Prosecutor of Ocean County, Joseph D. Coronato, hoping to have a better understanding of my home’s darker side.

In 1981, Prosecutor Coronato was employed as an Assistant Prosecutor at the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office where he supervised investigations and trials covering homicides, organized crime and narcotics cases. In 1984, Coronato established a private practice in Toms River, New Jersey, specializing in Civil Litigation, Municipal Government, Zoning and Planning, Estate Administration, Estate Planning, Estate Litigation, Criminal matters, Personal Injury and Real Estate Law.

After years of working and living in Toms River, Coronato was sworn in as the Prosecutor of Ocean County in March of 2013. Within one week of becoming prosecutor, he experienced eight deaths from overdose, all under the age of 28. “I was really taken aback at the amount of overdose deaths that we had. One of those was an 18 year old girl who died doing 50 packs of heroin a day; 25 in the morning and 25 at night. She died in a motel room and I certainly was shocked; I had no idea that this problem even existed in Ocean County, “ Coronato remarked.

After this happened the Prosecutor began looking back at previous year’s overdose records in Ocean County.  In 2012 there were 56 overdose deaths and by halfway through Coronato’s first year, they were climbing even higher. “By the end of 2013 we had 112 deaths from overdose. I started looking at Narcan and anything else we could do just to get the death toll down and we were the first county in the state to issue Narcan to police officers.” Narcan is a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose.

Despite these efforts, In 2016 the death count nearly doubled and the way heroin was being made started to change to more of a synthetic opioid. “Basically they began adding fentanyl into the heroin trade, which is a synthetic opioid, and they’re just deadly,” Coronato added. The way drugs were trafficked also started to change,  as people are now able to buy their drugs online.

In 2013 Coronato created a plan to decrease drug use that breaks down into three main segments. The first segment is prevention and education within the school system, “you need to get into the schools and get the kids to understand that this a road you don’t go down,” he stated.

The second segment is strong law enforcement targeted towards finding and convicting drug dealers. “We have a strict liability campaign that when somebody overdoses and dies we send out the homicide unit with the drug unit in order to track where the person who died bought the drugs from. Then we send in an undercover guy to try to buy drugs from that drug dealer and charge them with not only the distribution, but also homicide for killing that person.”
Finally, the third segment entails partnering with healthcare to break the cycle of addiction. Coronato launched The Recovery Coach Program in 2016 which sends recovery coaches to meet with those who have just been sprayed with Narcan at the hospital to convince them to go into a drug treatment program. Coronato then extended the program so that addicts can get help at any time, not just after an overdose.

In 2017 he rolled out The Blue HART program which allows any drug addict to enter the Brick and Manchester police departments to get an addiction and treatment evaluation without any criminal charges or threats of going to jail. Coronato hopes to eventually expand the program to other towns as well. He added, “If you work at all three blocks in conjunction together,  maybe then we can make a difference. But, it’s not going to be solved in a year or two years or even three years. It took 40 years for us to get to where we are now. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

This kind of work and grim subject matter takes it’s toll, “I would definitely say the most difficult part of my job is my cell phone. Because between the suicides, overdose deaths and motor vehicle fatalities, my phone is constantly ringing and I know we’re dealing with another dead body. I never had any inclination when I took this job of the volume or magnitude of death there would be  here in Ocean County,” Coronato stated.

It’s encouraging though as a resident of Ocean County to know that there are so many efforts directed at this issue. Still, what can we do as citizens of this County to help fight against this epidemic? “Not to sound trite, but I believe that it really starts with family. I think communication within the family and the family life itself can make a huge difference. Parents need to make sure that they speak to their kids and have dinner together and actually talk to them. It’s all about communication and it’s kind of the erosion of the family life that I think has led to a lot of these problems,” the Prosecutor remarked.

For more information on treatment, NARCAN and more, visit: http://oceancountyprosecutor.org.