BRADENTON (FOX 13) - For 18 months, a silent killer has been at work in Manatee County, taking one life after the next. The killer is heroin and the death toll is staggering: 77 lives taken in less than two years.
However, the effort to defeat heroin is finally paying off.
Gerrie Stanhope's story represents what's been a major problem in Manatee County, since 2015. She knows all too well the terrible effects of heroin.
Her own son died from an overdose.
"Initially it was shock because we didn't know he was using again. Then it was pain and then anger," she said.
As she could barely begin to grieve, she lost more loved ones. Her son's girlfriend, her grandson and her daughter in law's niece, all within a year.
"I believe an addict has a first time they use, maybe the second time, but once they are hooked on it. I don't think they have a choice anymore," said Standhope.
Manatee county led the state in addiction, overdoses and deaths last year. Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan said emergency responders got 344 calls to 911 for heroin overdoses. He added 30 of those resulted in death.
The staggering number prompted Bradenton Police to start working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Manatee County deputies and the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office. Together, they followed the trail from overdose victims, all the way up to the dealers.
A year and a half later, 15 arrests have been made, including the county's biggest dealers.
Investigators seized three and a half kilograms of heroin - worth $262,5000, three kilograms of cocaine - worth $111,000, 200 grams of fentanyl,100 hydromorphone pills, 28 firearms and more than $327,000 in cash and assets.
"We are coming after you and we are going to put you out of business, and that is what we are showing today and showing all throughout the state of Florida," said DEA Special Agent in charge Jimmy DiCaprio.
Since the investigation started, Bradenton has seen a 65-percent decline in heroin overdose calls. So far, it has reported no deaths this year.
"When you are out there and buying this stuff, you are rolling the dice. You are rolling with the dice of your life," DiCaprio said.
For now, it appears the heroin epidemic has come to a standstill, but it will take the community and law enforcement together to stop it for good.
"I tell people, if you need to call me at 2 o'clock in the morning and talk, I'm there. If I can help other people, that helps me to heal also," Stanhope said.