A Suburban Epidemic

By Ryan McKinnon, Special to the Citizen

Marvelle Hutchinson had been in prison for 5 years. Locked up for heroin possession, he was awaiting release in 2012 when he began hearing strange stories about the girls back home. New inmates were telling him about shifting attitudes towards the drug that had tormented him since he first tried it at age 19.

“It used to be that you could not let no females know you was getting high [on heroin] because that was hard drugs,” said Hutchinson. “You would be considered a junkie.”

But newly incarcerated inmates were telling Hutchinson that the drug had become commonplace. He couldn’t imagine a world in which snorting or shooting heroin was as casual as smoking a cigarette.

“But when I come home, all those girls that couldn’t even know you was getting high or your ass was cut off? Now they sniff a pile like it ain’t nothing,” said Hutchinson.

During his period of incarceration from 2007-2012, heroin use increased by a rate of 300 percent. Not surprisingly, Hutchinson fell back into the habit. His case is currently pending after he was arrested when police found him unconscious in his truck with a pile of heroin powder in his lap. He has been charged with intent to distribute. Hutchinson says he is an addict who sold small amounts of the drug simply to pay for his habit.

“I ain’t a real drug dealer. A real drug dealer, they get high off money – cars, houses, all that type of [stuff],” said Hutchinson. “I’m far from a drug dealer. I’m an addict.”

Hutchinson told his story recently from a small classroom in Henrico Jail West, where seven other men did the same. All eight men were incarcerated with charges related to heroin – some for selling it, others for possession and others for larceny.

The experiences of these men reflects a growing trend in Henrico and throughout Virginia, where heroin use has dramatically increased during the past 4 years.

The Centers for Disease Control conducted a study among 28 states with reliable data for heroin usage, including Virginia. It found that heroin overdose deaths slowly increased from 2000-2010, but doubled from 2010-2012. The death rate increased among every every region of the country, every racial group and among both males and females.

Richmond and Henrico ranked first and second, respectively, for heroin use in Virginia in 2013. Together, the two localities accounted for nearly 20 percent of the state’s heroin cases. During the first three months of 2015, Henrico witnessed 25 overdoses from heroin. Twelve of those people died.

Prelude to an epidemic
The explosive growth in heroin across the country can be traced to the 1990s, when drug companies began encouraging doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin and heavily marketed it to doctors, offering free vacations to learn about the drug. Purdue claimed that, due to the time-release nature of the pill, it was non-addictive.

In 2007, after a decade of doctors overprescribing the pill, it had become clear that OxyContin was both addictive and deadly. Purdue pled guilty to misleading the public, and three executives went to prison. By that time, prescription painkillers had flooded the nation, and many addicts did not even need to see a doctor to get pills. According to a report from NIH, 54 percent of addicts got their pills for free from a relative or friend.

This pill-popping epidemic quickly got the attention of the DEA. According to Greg Cherundolo, a Special Agent in Charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Florida had become the epicenter for “pill mills” – pain management clinics in which doctors and businessmen collaborated to overprescribe the expensive pills. These pill mills contributed to the 1,516 oxycodone overdose deaths in Florida in 2010.

By 2011 opioid-based pill abuse had become the nation’s number one cause of overdose deaths. But the unified efforts of the DEA, pill manufacturers and lawmakers led to a sharp decrease in the availability of pills.

The DEA conducted undercover buys, seized assets and arrested doctors. Purdue reformulated its pills, making them impossible to crush so that the pill could not be snorted or injected. And lawmakers in several states passed laws requiring pharmacists to enter every painkiller prescription into a statewide database.

As the supply of pills dried up, the price per pill rose. Many addicts found themselves with a $250 daily addiction. Something had to give.

Melvin Burke, incarcerated in Henrico for grand larceny, remembers the market shift that took place in 2011.

“I used to have this old head I’d go and buy pills from,” Burke said. “Then he took me to the side, and told me, look, I was spending $120 on some pills but I could get the same thing for $10.”

That “same thing” was a bag of heroin. Not only was heroin cheaper, but it got Burke high quicker. And, while each painkiller pill was being carefully tracked in a state database, heroin was unregulated and available everywhere.

‘Overdoses occur everywhere’
The shift from painkillers to heroin occurred nearly instantaneously. Any chart tracking national heroin overdose deaths in the 2000s looks like an “L” lying on its side. Steady until 2010, the line took a sharp upward turn in 2011. By 2013 the number of deaths from the drug had nearly tripled.

Chris Smith, 32, in jail for grand larceny, said he came back to Virginia in 2011 and was amazed at how prevalent heroin had become.

“When I got here four years ago, I couldn’t believe how much heroin was on the streets. It used to be an outlaw drug,” he said. “It’s definitely on a similar scale as the crack epidemic.”

The CDC agrees. It has labeled the problem an epidemic, and governors of several East Coast states have issued some form of “State of Emergency” with regard to the problem. In Vermont, where heroin usage has increased by 770 percent since 2000, Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State Address to the issue, and in March of 2014 the Massachusetts governor declared a public health emergency after 185 people died of overdoses in five months.

Although pills may be equally addictive and dangerous, Cherundolo pointed out that at least they were regulated. Heroin addicts never know the potency of the heroin they are buying. Purity levels can fluctuate wildly. One batch may be only 5 percent pure, while another may be 90 percent pure.

Addicts crave the most potent heroin. Smith said that if he told another addict, “I woke up in the kitchen with ice in my pants and a motherf***** pouring milk down my throat to bring me back to life,” the next question would be ‘Oh where you’d get that? I want some.’”

The difference between the current heroin problem and the crack epidemic of the 1980s is in the geographic concentration of the problem, according to Henrico Police Major Clarence Hunter. When Henrico Police officials map out the overdoses in the county, they do not see one specific area as the problem.

“Overdoses occur everywhere in Henrico,” said Hunter. “There’s not even an east-west trend.”

Smith, who is white, is eyewitness to the universal appeal of heroin. He said he regularly sold to white teenagers from the West End who wouldn’t feel comfortable driving into Church Hill or Mosby Court.

“I have all those kids come to me because they’re scared of the hood,” he said. “I saw so many kids driving their mom’s Lexus up there, pulling money out the ATM with their parents’ money,” Smith said. “It’s kids from the Short Pump area, kids from Parham Road, Gaskins, all that.”

That didn’t surprise Anton Bosher, 41, who is incarcerated for petty larceny.

“It just goes to show that addiction don’t discriminate,” Bosher said. “Whether you rich, poor, or from the projects, it don’t discriminate.”

Regional cooperation grows
Not only are users spread throughout the county, but dealers are as well. Technology has allowed drug dealers to be more mobile than in the past, and the days of a kingpin controlling a specific corner seem simplistic by comparison to today’s dealers.

“Years ago (during the crack epidemic), we could go to the corner where the dealer was selling, figure out where he went back to after a sale, hit the place with a search warrant, and boom, it’s over,” said Cherundolo. “But now we really now have to up our game. He [the drug dealer] is there, but now he’s gone.”

In order to address the increased mobility of the dealers, Henrico Police Chief Douglas Middleton brought together all the region’s police chiefs to discuss the heroin problem. Rather than viewing it as simply a Henrico issue, the department views it as a regional problem – one that can only be fought by sharing resources with the surrounding counties. Now the chiefs meet bimonthly and share information.

Cherundolo has provided access to the DEA’s national database. Once police arrest someone for heroin possession, they ask where the person bought it. The police can then enter the dealer’s name into the database. If another investigator enters that name, it will pop up, allowing police to collaborate as they put together the puzzle.

The goal, as Cherundolo put it, is to “always move up the food chain in the drug trafficking organization.”

The region’s police departments are currently collaborating on a number of heroin cases. One successful collaboration came in 2013. Henrico and Hanover police began using a confidential informant to buy heroin from Tyrone Nelson (not the Varina District supervisor of the same name) and Walter West, two dealers operating across county lines. Rather than arresting Nelson and West, the police nurtured the relationship through their informant, making seven buys over the course of a year. Police eventually learned that Nelson and West planned to pool their money to buy a larger supply from someone who went by “Mo” or “Reese.”

“Mo” and “Reese” turned out to be Maurice Dyer, a heroin supplier posing as a rap promoter living in Sterling Forest subdivision of Fairfield. In August of 2013 the confidential informant called Dyer and requested “three hours of studio time,” which was code for three ounces of heroin.

Police helicopters followed Dyer to the meet up spot on a cul-de-sac off of Laburnum Avenue. After arresting Dyer, police searched his car and found the three ounces of heroin wrapped in a Chipotle napkin. When police searched Dyer’s house, they found more than $99,550 in cash hidden in laundry hampers throughout the house.

A safe in the attic held an additional $165,170 in cash. After searching Dyer’s vehicles, the total amount police seized came to $369,056 in cash.

As a result of this investigation West (100 months), Nelson (121 months) and Dyer (144 months) all received significant federal prison sentences. During the investigation, police also seized more than half a kilogram (500 grams) of heroin and approximately $600,000 in assets.

Assessing blame
How the county is doing in addressing the problem depends upon whom you ask. Cases like Dyer’s demonstrate a county that is proactively collaborating with surrounding localities, pursuing smart arrests and patiently battling an epidemic.

The eight men locked up in Henrico Jail West, however, see a county that prides itself on business growth and has a “lock ‘em up” mentality towards drug addiction.

The men agree unanimously that they wish they had been arrested in Richmond rather than Henrico, claiming that the Richmond jail has 
more programs for addicts than Henrico.

But Henrico Jail East, located 40 miles east in New Kent, offers three programs – Project Hope, Project Fresh Start and (for female 
inmates) New Beginnings – for inmates who are trying to kick an addiction. Those have earned the Henrico Sheriff’s Office national acclaim since Sheriff Mike Wade established them. There, inmates have 12-14 hours a day of programs. In Jail West, inmates spend all their time in the day room.

Wade said that it is more efficient to concentrate the rehabilitation programs in one location.

“We only put people in there who want to be in there,” he said. “If they want be in there, we get them in there.” Wade also said that his office has lowered several inmates’ custody levels in order to help them get into the programs in Jail East.

As they recounted their stories at Jail West for a reporter recently, the gathering of the eight inmates occasionally had the feel of an Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The men lamented the damage that their addictions had done to their friendships and marriages.

Hutchinson, who has been with his wife for 22 years, said he has been haunted by something she said the last time they talked.

“She said, ‘Something's gotta give,’” Hutchinson said. “I started using when I was 19. She’s been dealing with it since then. This is the first time I heard ‘Something’s gotta give.’ That weighs on you a whole lot.”

Describing his ex-wife who left him after multiple relapses, Richard Poag, 51, said, “She never did a day in jail, but she did five years with me.”

At times, the men blamed outside forces: the neighborhoods in which they grew up, the system that criminalized addiction, the “overzealous” county cops. These were the reasons they were locked up.

This finger-pointing usually led to boisterous agreement followed by somber admissions of personal responsibility. The men shared the common bond of allowing heroin to destroy their lives, and while some faced decades in prison and others faced months, they all agreed that once they got out, they would be done with heroin for good.