Officials testing drug linked to grisly child killings in Camden

Osvaldo Rivera is arraigned. He is charged in the stabbing of 2 children; one died. He told police he had smoked "wet."
Osvaldo Rivera is arraigned. He is charged in the stabbing of 2 children; one died. He told police he had smoked "wet." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 06, 2012

Camden law enforcement officials are looking into whether a virulent strain of the drug PCP may have played a role in two grisly child homicides in the city in 12 days.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency will analyze samples of PCP (phencyclidine) seized in Camden to see if there is something different in its "molecular makeup," Police Chief Scott Thomson and Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said Tuesday in a news conference.

Marijuana laced with the illegal synthetic drug, once called angel dust, is known as "wet" and is smoked for a high experts say may be accompanied by delusions similar to those of schizophrenia.

"Violent behavior with PCP, that's nothing new," Thomson said. "It's happening on a daily basis in Philadelphia and urban centers all over the country. But what has us concerned is the attacks on small children. . . . Is something being added" to the PCP?

Concern over PCP on Camden's street corners comes two days after Osvaldo Rivera, 31, allegedly stabbed a 6-year-old boy to death and raped and stabbed his 12-year-old sister in the city's Centerville section.

Rivera told police that he had smoked wet before the attack, according to authorities.

On Aug. 22, Chevonne Thomas, 34, of the Parkside neighborhood, allegedly decapitated her 2-year-old son before fatally stabbing herself in what police believe also may have been wet-related killings.

Rivera, who is charged with murder and attempted murder, had his bail set Tuesday at $5 million by a Superior Court judge.

In the courtroom, assistant prosecutor Christine Shah described the gruesome scene after Rivera, known in the neighborhood as "Popeye," allegedly entered the Ware Street residence where four siblings, ages 6 to 14, were home alone while their mother recuperated in a hospital following surgery.

Rivera attacked the girl, and when her brother, 6, tried to stop him, he turned on the boy, Shah said.

Police arrived about 2:30 a.m. Sunday and found the girl at a neighbor's home with her throat slashed, struggling to breathe. "Poppy raped me," she told them, according to authorities.

Inside the children's home, they found the boy collapsed on the floor with knife wounds to his neck. He was pronounced dead at Cooper University Hospital.

The Inquirer published the name of the girl before the alleged sexual assault was known. The initials of that name do not match those by which she is identified in court documents. It is The Inquirer's policy not to identify the alleged victim in a rape investigation.

Rivera kept his head down throughout Tuesday's hearing and sobbed as the charges against him were read.

"How bad did I hurt them?" he asked police during an interrogation, Shah told the judge.

As Rivera was led in, a man identified by authorities as the children's father trembled, and relatives clutched his shoulders. Another man later tried to yell at Rivera, but someone put a hand across his mouth.

Whether the alleged killings by Thomas and Rivera, both of whom had a history of PCP use, is an anomaly or a sign of a more potent drug will have to wait for lab tests and toxicology results.

Authorities report no uptick in PCP use in Camden. Officials have reviewed the city's almost 160 homicides since 2009 and found only about 10 involving suspects who had used the drug.

But the homicides have spurred action, with police storming corners where wet is sold, Thomson said.

Officials shut down a Chinese take-out Tuesday afternoon in North Camden, in part because dealers were believed to have sold the drug there, said code enforcement head Iraida Afanador.

PCP was developed as an anesthetic in the 1950s, but was not approved for human use because of its psychological effects. PCP users are regulars in Camden emergency rooms, where they often are brought in mumbling incoherently, said Alfred Sacchetti, chief physician at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center.

"We usually don't see this type of focused aggression," he said. "These recent [acts] require a lot of force."

Rivera was taken into custody Sunday afternoon after an acquaintance walked into a Camden police station and told authorities the suspect was probably staying in a home on River Road.

Police found Rivera hiding in a bedroom, wedged between a mattress and the wall. In the home were bloody white sneakers whose tread appeared to match footprints found in the Ware Street home, authorities said.

The crime has shaken even veteran homicide detectives, Faulk said Tuesday.

"They came away from this with tears in their eyes," he said. "With something like this, you can only imagine how the parents are feeling."

Contact James Osborne

at 856-779-3876 or

Inquirer staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.

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