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China White, One of Most Powerful Drugs Known, Triggers New Deaths

December 24, 1988

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Authorities say 18 victims in one of the nation’s longest string of deaths caused by China White, a powerful synthetic heroin, were at the mercy of dealers who don’t check the quality of drugs they sell.

″There’s no way to prevent this,″ Allegheny County Coroner Joshua Perper said. ″Anybody who has the knowledge to produce a so-called designer drug can cause this sort of thing.″

The drug, 3-methylfentanyl, has been confirmed as the cause of 18 overdose deaths in the Pittsburgh area, Perper said. Laboratory tests are under way for five others. The drug also is suspected in as many as 60 non-fatal overdoses.

″Our information from the street is that (dealers) marketed it as a real powerful heroin,″ Pittsburgh Assistant Police Chief Chester Howard said. ″They had no idea of its potency. Three granules are enough for one dose. We consider it one of the most powerful drugs known.″

Twelve people have been arrested, including Thomas L. Schaefers, 48, of suburban Aspinwall, a Calgon Corp. chemist suspected as the source of the narcotic.

The deaths were the longest series of China White fatalities outside California, where the drug surfaced 11 years ago.

″This is really the first major incident outside of California from a clandestine laboratory putting material on the street,″ said Gary Henderson, professor of pharmacology at the University of California-Davis medical school. ″And it’s certainly the most fentanyl activity we’ve seen since 1984.″

Henderson developed a method of testing for the presence of China White and drugs with similar compositions, fentanyl analogs, in overdose victims and is helping city, county and federal officials in Pittsburgh with their investigation.

China White, also called Persian Heroin and Gasoline Dope, is several hundred times more powerful than heroin, and even extremely small amounts can be fatal. It can be manufactured by anyone with a background in college chemistry, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Rockville, Md.

Federal authorities first noticed the presence of China White in December 1979, when two users died in California, Henderson said.

Henderson said 115 have people died from fentanyl overdoses in California, Arizona and Oregon since 1980. The number of annual deaths in California peaked at 50 in 1984, just before the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration cracked a drug ring in Los Angeles. Eighteen people died there in 1985, and one died in 1986.

Most of the dead in the Pittsburgh area were men in their 30s who took the drug either by itself or with heroin and cocaine, Perper said. Authorities began investigating after noticing a rash of fatal and non-fatal overdoses in September, October and November.

Seven people were arrested Dec. 1, including Schaefers, who lived with his elderly parents and had no record of prior involvement with illegal drugs, investigators said.

All seven were charged with manufacturing and distributing the drug. Four were charged with supplying the dose that killed Jay A. Duschl, 38, of Verona on June 2 and injured Brenda Drennan, 29, formerly of Harmar on May 22. Three are charged with selling the dose that killed Daniel Kostopodis, 41, of Bellevue on July 24.

Five others suspected to be lower-level dealers were arrested in November.

Schaefers has been suspended without pay pending results of the investigation, Calgon spokesman Tom Erdner said.

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