Man jailed in drug delivery fatality
WEST CHESTER » The Phoenixville man who served as a lowlevel drug runner for a man described as a drug kingpin in the borough has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges that involved the presence of a powerful synthetic opioid that led to the death of a 34-year-old man.
Chester County Common Pleas Court Judge Allison Bell Royer sentenced defendant Damon Eskridge to four to eight years in state prison, plus an additional five years of probation, on two counts of possession with intent
to deliver a controlled substance, criminal conspiracy, and criminal use of a communications facility.
Royer said she took into account Eskridge’s age and lack of a prior record in fashioning her sentence, which fell just short of the 4½ to nine year term that the prosecution had sought. But she said she could not ignore the harm that Eskridge’s drug dealing had caused.
“Somebody died as a direct result of your actions,” the judge told Eskridge, who had pleaded guilty to the charges previously. “It is just such a waste here.”
Eskridge, 21, told Royer that he had graduated from Phoenixville Area High School in 2016, had a son, but had mostly been “running the streets” since he graduated. Accompanied by his attorney, Melissa McCafferty of Coatesville, Eskridge had asked for leniency in his statement to the judge before she handed down her sentence. McCafferty asked Royer to top her sentence off at 1½ to three years.
“I wish I could take it all back, but I can’t,” said Eskridge, who authorities say was selling drugs in the borough at the direction of Malik Omar “Buck” Grasty, a largescale heroin and cocaine dealer who ran a street level drug operation in late 2016 and early 2017 before he was arrested as part of the investigation into the fatal overdose of the 34-year-old man. “I am sorry for the family, the victims.”
Assistant District Attorney Kevin Pierce of the D.A.’s Drug Unit, who prosecuted the case, said the charge of drug delivery resulting in death had been withdrawn against Eskridge in return for his guilty plea, and owing to the level of culpability in the drug trafficking operation run by Grasty. Essentially, Eskridge sold the drugs to the victim in the case on Grasty’s orders.
Gratsy pleaded guilty to separate drug delivery charges earlier this year and is now serving an eight to 16 year sentence in state prison.
The victim was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in an apartment on Second Avenue in Phoenixville on July 4, 2017. Toxicology tests done during an autopsy by the Chester County Coroner’s Office discovered the presence of carfentanil, an extremely potent drug used to boost the potency of heroin. It is normally used as a tranquilizer for large animals, such as elephants.
The presence of the carfentanil was marked as the first appearance of the opioid in Chester County. The drug is known by the street name “gray death” because of its potency. According to authorities, the drug can often cause almost instantaneous cardiovascular collapse and death.
In the case that resulted in Eskridge’s arrest, police found several empty heroin bags stamped with different phrases including “Chapo,” “Wells Fargo” and “New Arrival” in the apartment where the man died. Police searched through a phone belonging to the deceased and found conversations they believed to be related to a drug deal. Police said text messages were with a contact labeled “Kevin D” and included a meeting location and price for the alleged purchase.
On July 5, an undercover officer arranged a drug transaction with “Kevin D” using the deceased’s phone. Police arranged for “Kevin D” to deliver 12 bags of heroin in the area of St. Mary’s Street and South Street, police said. Police requested that “Kevin D” deliver the drugs to their vehicle and he was taken into custody by officers once he arrived.
“Kevin D,” later identified as Eskridge, had been in possession of 12 bags of heroin stamped with the words, “New Arrival.”
An investigation led by veteran Phoenixville narcotics officer Thomas Hyland was able to make a connection between Eskridge and Gratsy, a known drug dealer who had been on state parole at the time of the overdose.
Hyland had been told by a confidential source that Grasty, also known as “Leek” or “Buck,” was selling between $1,000 and $2,000 worth of heroin and cocaine a week in the Phoenixville area, mostly from a “stash” house in the 200 block of Marshall Street in the borough. The source said that Grasty would often stay at a second house on Second Street, and use the Marshall Street property to store his drugs and paraphernalia in order to separate himself from the ongoing operation.
In taped calls between Eskridge and Grassy that Hyland obtained from Chester County Prison, he learned that Eskridge was angry with Grasty for not paying for an attorney to help him with the charges that stemmed from his July arrest. A search of Eskridge’s phone also showed a contact, Thomas J. “T.J.” Hyden, who he was later able to connect with Grasty in drug trafficking deals.
On Aug. 22, Hyland and others raided the homes on Marshall and South streets. At the South Street home, they found Grasty smoking marijuana, and took him into custody after a brief chase. Inside the house, they found more than 50 cellphones and drug paraphernalia, including thousands of unused heroin packets. Later, more confidential sources told them they had purchased “New Arrival” heroin directly from Grasty.
In the cellphone they confiscated when they arrested Grasty, police found a series of messages that indicated that Grasty had bragged about the size of his operation and how he would avoid going back to prison.
“I’m running the show on both these blocks,” one of the messages read, according to the arrest affidavit, apparently referring to South and Marshall streets. “You think I’m trying (to) go back?”