SIMCOE — A 39-year-old Simcoe man’s sentence of 10 years in penitentiary is believed to be the harshest punishment every imposed in Norfolk County related to drug offences.

“Ten years is a very significant sentence,” federal Crown attorney Jamie Pereira said Monday in Simcoe’s Ontario Court of Justice. “It is the longest sentence in this community strictly related to drug trafficking. It sends a message that if you get caught, you’re going to go to jail for a long time.

“Protection of the public in this case is very important.”

Braden Fitzgerald pleaded guilty to three sets of charges of possession and trafficking in large quantities of fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, and hydromorphone in both Simcoe and Woodstock.

Court heard that Fitzgerald turned to trafficking, at least in part, to feed his own drug addiction.

Pereira said, by supplying dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs, Fitzgerald contributed to a growing local opioid crisis, like that being seen across the country.

A community-impact report prepared by the Ontario Provincial Police and presented to Justice Aubrey Hilliard on Monday indicates there were five fentanyl-related deaths in Haldimand-Norfolk and seven in Oxford County in 2017, the last year for which statistics were available.

“That’s a very alarming number for these relatively small communities,” said Pereira. “We’re seeing one person dying every month due to fentanyl.”

In an agreed statement of facts, court heard that, on Sept. 24, 2017, police saw Fitzgerald walking on Kent Street in Simcoe carrying a backpack that he put inside the trunk of a Cadillac.

Police knew Fitzgerald’s driver’s licence was under suspension and pulled him over.

When police searched Fitzgerald, they found a vial of cocaine in his pocket. In the backpack and another bag, police found 72 grams of fentanyl with a street value of about $7,750, 314 grams of cocaine valued at $15,400, 30 grams of methamphetamine valued at $1,400, and 363 hydromorphone pills valued at $20,000.

At the time of his arrest, Fitzgerald was on a probation order, with one of the terms that he not possess or consume any unlawful drugs.

On various dates last May and June, police conducted surveillance on Fitzgerald when he was seen meeting for short periods of time with people known to be “involved in the drug subculture,” said Pereira.

Police arrested Fitzgerald on June 7, 2018, in Woodstock. He was in possession of 30 grams of fentanyl, six grams of cocaine and 1.5 grams of methamphetamine. He was also in possession of almost $2,000 from drug sales.

Fitzgerald was released from custody in a promise to appear in court.

Just under two weeks later, on June 19, 2018, Fitzgerald and another man were arrested as they were leaving a home on Millcroft Drive in Simcoe. Police found $3,825 in Fitzgerald’s wallet from drug sales, two cellphones and a bag containing 16 grams of cocaine, eight grams of fentanyl, two grams of carfentanil, two grams of methamphetamine and 100 hydromorphone pills.

Police later searched the house on Millcroft Drive where they found 28 grams of marijuana, three grams of cocaine and a gram of hydromorphone. They also found weigh scales and multiple drug debt lists.

Prior to the sentencing, Pereira said aggravating factors in the case were the large quantities of the drugs involved and that Fitzgerald was on probation for his first trafficking offence when he was subsequently arrested.

Fitzgerald has a lengthy criminal record, with eight previous convictions related to drugs.

“He was motivated by profit and greed,” Pereira told the courtroom.

Fitzgerald’s lawyers told the court that their client grew up in Simcoe and became addicted to pain medication after injuring his shoulder. In 2011, he was involved in methadone treatment, during which he bought a home, had a job and developed healthy relationships.

But, in 2016, he again started using and selling drugs to feed his habit.

“He is a drug trafficker,” said the judge. “There is no other way to put it.”

The community-impact statement said the painkiller fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine and must be carefully formulated to avoid overdoses.

“Due to its rapid rate of absorption in the human body,” says the statement, “reports indicate that 0.1 to 0.15 milligrams of pure fentanyl can be deadly. The estimated lethal dose of fentanyl for humans is two milligrams.

“A typical business card weighs one gram. If the business card were torn into 1,000 pieces, the equivalent of two of those pieces of fentanyl could be fatal if it were ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin.”

From 2009 to 2014, says the statement, there were at least 655 deaths in Canada where fentanyl was determined to be a cause or contributing factor.

Fitzgerald was given enhanced credit for the 391 days he spent in pre-sentence custody and sentenced to an additional six years and four months in jail. He is also prohibited for life from possessing a weapon.

“This type of behaviour won’t be tolerated by the court or the community,” said the judge, adding that if Fitzgerald continues to use he will spend his “life in jail in installments or be dead.”

“I hope you take this time to get yourself sorted out, with addiction and maybe things you’re not even aware of yet,” Hilliard told him before he was taken from the courtroom.

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