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Black tar moves in, and death follows

Dealers work systematically, pushing heroin in areas where users are unprepared for its potency.

February 15, 2010|By Sam Quinones | Second Of Three Parts
  • Teddy Johnson traces his fingers along his son's name at his grave site. Adam, a college student and musician, died of a black-tar overdose, and his father found the young man's body. "I had no clue," Teddy Johnson said. "We're a small town. We weren't prepared."
Teddy Johnson traces his fingers along his son's name at his grave… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Huntington, W.V. — On a Monday in September 2007, Teddy Johnson went to his son's apartment.

Adam Johnson, 22, was in his first year at Marshall University in Huntington. A history major, he played guitar, drums and bass, loved glam bands like the New York Dolls and hosted "The Oscillating Zoo," an eclectic rock show on the university radio station.

Teddy hadn't heard from his son in three days. Letting himself into the apartment, he found Adam lying lifeless on his bed, in the same shirt he'd seen him wearing three days earlier.

The cause of death: a heroin overdose.

"I had no clue," said the elder Johnson, a plumbing contractor in Huntington. "We're a small town. We weren't prepared."

The death was part of a rash of overdoses, 12 of them fatal, that shook Huntington that fall and winter. All were caused by black-tar heroin, a potent, inexpensive, semi-processed form of the drug that has spread across the United States, driven by the entrepreneurial energy and marketing savvy of immigrants from a tiny farming county in Mexico.

Immigrants from Xalisco, in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, Mexico, have brought the heroin north over the last decade, and with it a highly effective business model featuring deep discounts and convenient delivery by car. Their success is a major reason why Mexican black tar has seized a growing share of the U.S. heroin market, according to government estimates.

Xalisco networks are decentralized, with no all-powerful boss, and they largely avoid guns and violence. Staying clear of the nation's largest cities, where established organizations control the heroin trade, Xalisco dealers have cultivated markets in the mountain states and parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, often creating demand for heroin in cities and towns where there had been little or none. In many of those places, authorities report a sharp rise in heroin overdoses and deaths.

Before the string of fatal overdoses in 2007, "we didn't even consider heroin an issue," said Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook.

Xalisco dealers have been particularly successful in areas where addiction to prescription painkillers like OxyContin was widespread. Many of those addicts, mainly young middle- and working-class whites, switched to black tar, which is cheaper and more powerful.

In York County, S.C., pain-pill addicts became hooked on black tar purchased in Charlotte, N.C., half an hour away. "We used to get maybe one overdose death a year" caused by opiates, said Marvin Brown, commander of the county's drug unit. "We had six in the first six months" of 2009.

In the suburbs south of Salt Lake City, heroin was unheard of until dealers from Xalisco arrived, said Lt. Phil Murphy of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force. Now, he said, young people looking for an alternative to pain pills drive to Salt Lake to score black-tar heroin.

University towns have been especially fertile markets for Xalisco heroin. Authorities in Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo. -- home to the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, respectively -- report increased overdoses caused by black-tar heroin purchased from dealers in Denver.

Ohio has also become a center of Xalisco networks, and it was through a junkie in Columbus that black tar made its way to Huntington.

Innovative, tireless

Huntington, a struggling former railroad depot and coal distribution center, has long had a flourishing trade in crack cocaine and other drugs. But there was never much heroin until dealers from Xalisco arrived in Columbus, 160 miles north.

They were innovative and tireless. Rather than sell from houses, where they would be sitting ducks for narcotics agents, or on street corners in seedy neighborhoods, they operated like a pizza delivery service. Users called a phone number. A dispatcher relayed the order to a driver, who took the heroin to the customer.

The drivers circulated around the city with doses of heroin in small uninflated balloons, each the size of a pencil eraser, which they kept hidden in their mouths. No sale was too small.

"There's nobody who'll drive across . . . Columbus to bring you one $20 balloon, but they would," Wendy Keller, who became addicted to their heroin, said in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Lexington, Ky., where she is serving a five-year term for conspiracy to distribute heroin.

Competition among Xalisco networks kept prices low. OxyContin pills cost $80 apiece and addicts needed five or six a day. Black-tar heroin was stronger and cost less than $50 for a day's fix.

By 2007, black-tar addiction had spread across Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland and other Ohio cities. At Columbus-based Maryhaven, Ohio's largest drug-treatment center, opiate addicts made up 20% of the center's patients in 1997, and many were addicted to prescription painkillers. Today, 70% are black-tar heroin addicts, said Paul Coleman, Maryhaven's president.

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