Summit County drug dealer sentenced to 3 years in prison following Breckenridge overdose death
October 29, 2018
Dennis Tierney, 30, was sentenced on Monday to three years in the department of corrections for his role in the drug overdose death of James Nicholas, who died in his apartment in February after ingesting a lethal dose of fentanyl-laced heroin.
Tierney, a low-level drug dealer in Summit County, pleaded guilty to felony charges of criminally negligent homicide and unlawful distribution of heroin in Summit County Court in September.
Nicholas, 32, was found dead in his apartment on Feb. 6 by his girlfriend, who attempted to revive him using Narcan — a medication commonly used by law enforcement and emergency medical personnel to block the affects of opioids — and called 911. She later revealed to law enforcement officers that Nicholas was a habitual drug user who commonly took heroin and cocaine, according to court documents.
Nicholas' phone was then forensically downloaded by the Garfield County Computer Forensics Lab, which returned a number of text message exchanges between Tierney and Nicholas. The messages, which took place between August 2017 and Feb. 5 2018, detailed prices and times Tierney would go to Denver to pick up heroin. The messages also reveal that Tierney knew of the potentially lethal nature of the product he was selling to Nicholas.
In a text message dated Feb. 1, just days before Nicholas' death, Tierney told him to "remember this is the fire spitter top shelf (expletive) so you can't (expletive) around dude seriously." Another message said, "I won't be there to help you if something goes wrong."
A toxicology report later revealed a number of dangerous substances in Nicholas' system, including fentanyl opiates, morphine, codeine, marijuana and cocaine.
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At the hearing, Judge Karen Romeo heard statements from council — Johnny Lombardi of the District Attorney's Office and Dana Christiansen on behalf of Tierney — as well as Nicholas' father and Tierney himself.
Nicholas' father, James, spoke about the impact that his son's death has had on the family and offered Tierney his forgiveness.
"It's important for me to address Mr. Tierney, and to let you know I forgive you," said James. "You need not worry about vengeance in my heart. There is none. But I also understand there are consequences for our sins and offenses here on earth and afterwards. My hope is that Mr. Tierney and people like him will find his way."
Tierney tearfully apologized to the Nicholas family for his actions, and promised to no longer feed his addictive behavior with narcotics. He noted that he was truly remorseful for his behavior, and said he one day hopes to become a substance abuse counselor.
After hearing the statements, judge Romeo said that she believed Tierney would make an earnest effort at rehabilitation and that he came across as genuinely remorseful. Though in her judgment, she noted major aggravating factors — such as Nicholas' death and the fact that Tierney was found in possession — in handing down the maximum sentence allowed by the plea deal.
"I do hope you're able to overcome this and have a positive impact when you get out of prison," said Romeo.
While the prosecution of drug dealers for their roles in drug-related overdose deaths isn't common, it's become an important issue for District Attorney Bruce Brown in recent years.
"Just last week I learned about a heroin overdose of the young, beautiful daughter of a close friend," said Brown. "The tragedy of overdoses mounts for families across our communities. Anyone who thinks this isn't about their lives is wrong. Hardly a social circle across the country doesn't have someone in it who is addicted to opiates and will at some time experience the heartache caused by the untimely death of a young person addicted and cutting short their bright future."
Tierney's conviction is one of several for Brown's office in recent years. In 2014, Kaile Wilson was sentenced to probation for distribution of a fatal heroin dose to a friend in Eagle County. In 2017, Christopher Malcolm was sentenced to five years in community corrections for distributing fentanyl that resulted in the deaths of his brother and friend; William Lancaster was sentenced to two years for his role providing advice and encouragement to a fentanyl overdose victim.
In February this year, Brandon Johnson was sentenced to five years in the department of corrections after selling fatal doses of fentanyl while confined to a state community corrections facility in Denver. Also in February, Florida resident Samuel Brunelus was indicted on manslaughter charges related to the death of two men in the Roaring Fork Valley and is currently awaiting extradition to Colorado.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, drug overdose deaths have been steadily on the rise for years. In 2007, 728 Colorado residents died from drug-poisoning deaths. By 2017, that number rose to over 1,000. This year, based on provisional numbers, things are looking even worse. From January to March last year, there were 237 drug-poisoning deaths. During that same stretch in 2018, there were 258.