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Heroin: A problem for 'Anywhere, USA'

Posted: January 29, 2012 1:30 a.m.
Updated: January 29, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Population Santa Clarita Valley 250,000 Plano, Texas 260,000 Distance from Mexico Santa Clarita Valley 167 miles Plano, Texas 700 miles Awareness of heroin deaths Santa Clarita Valley 2010 Plano, Texas 1995

 

In a lot of ways, the Santa Clarita Valley is like Plano, Texas.

Both are relatively affluent suburbs a short drive from larger metropolitan areas — Dallas/Fort Worth there, Los Angeles here.

About 260,000 people live in Plano, while close to 250,000 live here, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Residents of Plano are generally wealthier than those in the Santa Clarita Valley — the U.S. Census Bureau declared

Plano the wealthiest city of 2008 by comparing the median household income for all U.S. cities with populations greater than 250,000.

The Santa Clarita Valley didn’t rank as highly on a national scale, but with the 2007 local median income weighing in at about $91,450, according to a 2007 fact sheet compiled by Santa Clarita city staff, it’s a relatively wealthy place.

In 2006, Plano was the 11th best place to live in the country, according to CNN Money magazine. The city of Santa Clarita was 18th.

We have Princess Cruises, Remo Inc. and Advanced Bionics headquartered here; they have Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., Frito-Lay and JCPenney.

And both communities have a problem with heroin use among youth and young adults.

Overdose deaths
On the first day of June 1995, a young man was found dead in Plano, 10 miles from his home in Allen, Texas.
Jeramy Joe Jamieson, 21, had died of a heroin overdose.


It was the first such death Plano had seen, according to the man who is now the city’s police chief.
A year later, three more young people died of the same cause.


Within 12 months, the number of heroin overdose victims in Plano tripled again to nine.


The growth of heroin as a killer and a community problem was, literally, exponential.


“We had a mind-set change,” Plano Police Chief Gregory A. Rushin told The Signal.


“In the old days, a heroin overdose was considered an accident,” he said. “And, very quickly, our thinking became: ‘This is a crime. Someone gave this person this drug.’”


Heroin had arrived in Plano and, with it, death and pain.


The issue came to the forefront in the Santa Clarita Valley when a tearful mother confronted the Santa Clarita City Council and the Sheriff’s Department with the heroin overdose death of her son in 2010.


Krissy McAfee, whose son had died in her driveway, said dealers target middle-class communities like the Santa Clarita Valley to sell Mexican black tar heroin — and the community and law enforcement weren’t doing enough to combat them.
In Plano, the escalating heroin problem required a coordinated effort by the police chief, every one of his police officers, city officials, the state attorney’s office and federal agency officers, including those in the Drug Enforcement Agency, Rushin said.


“The first public meeting we held, we were hoping for a couple of hundred people,” Rushin said, reflecting on those early days of the campaign.


“We had over 1,000 people show up. We had to delay the meeting because people were lined up down the street.”
Some 500 people showed up for Santa Clarita’s “Heroin Kills” symposium in August 2011.
‘Anywhere, U.S.A.’


Plano’s grappling with the issue kicked off national awareness as NBC’s Dateline and other media put the story front and center.


Households across America saw average, fresh-faced high school football players and cheerleaders talk about their addiction and experiences with a drug previously associated with strung-out junkies shooting up in dirty urban alleys.
Plano became “Anywhere, U.S.A.,” and the nation was shocked.


Within three years, heroin claimed the lives of 18 Plano teenagers. By 1997, close to 100 young overdose victims nearly died but were saved due to hospital care.


“When this thing started, we noticed a number of deaths of young adults, not teens, but late teens and early 20s,” said Plano City Manager Bruce Glasscock. “That’s what really brought it up on the radar screen. Then the numbers really started increasing.”


McAfee’s son, 24-year-old Trae Daniel Allen, reflected a similar trend in Santa Clarita Valley heroin overdose cases.
At first, Plano city officials — reacting like the reluctant parents of a collective family — were in denial, Glasscock said.
“It took a lot of courage on the part of our elected officials to step up,” he said.


Before he and the city’s police chief agreed to talk to The Signal about heroin, they researched the problem in the Santa Clarita Valley.


They recommended The Signal join them in a conference call when they heard the area was experiencing what they encountered 15 years ago.


“You’re a lot like us,” Glasscock said. “You’re in the position we were in — same size, a growing suburban community, home to a number of major corporations. The last thing anyone in our city wanted to hear was news about young people dying of heroin.”


Response to a crisis
Once Plano officials acknowledged that they indeed had an urgent problem to address, they devised a three-prong response.


The response required:
n Aggressive enforcement: According to Rushin, this meant a coordinated and unified coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the district attorney’s office.


n Demand reduction: Through education, principals, teachers, parents and their children would learn about the perils of heroin and the marketing strategies of heroin dealers.


n Asset forfeiture: Described as a roots-ripping process of identifying and seizing every instrument vital to the marketing of heroin.


Black tar heroin refined in Mexico found Plano’s high school an easily accessible target. The Mexican border was just 700 miles away.


Locally, heroin dealers have to travel less than one-third that distance to get to schools in the Santa Clarita Valley, 167 miles away from the border.


Plano police got aggressive, putting undercover officers in a position to disrupt the high school market.
The project was dubbed “Operation Rockfest” and, in the end, police officers identified 84 cases of heroin use and arrested 37 young people.


Rushin was a key member of that team.

Deadly marketing
“When we looked at heroin, we found that many teens were encountering it at high school parties,” Rushin said.
“Heroin dealers would come up from Mexico, and they really targeted our area. But they recognized that they couldn’t just show up at a party, go in and sell heroin. They had to market it.

“They put black tar heroin in a coffee grinder — froze it, ground it up in a coffee grinder and mixed it with cold medicine (into) a white powder and put it in a capsule.

“They didn’t call it heroin,” Rushin said. “The addiction happened very quickly.

“People make the mistake of thinking these drug dealers are dumb. They’re not,” he said. “Some called it Chiva (its street name), others called it a natural herb. It was marketing.”

Dealers knew they were not likely able to market injectable heroin, so they made it easier to consume.

“When you smoke it, it’s more accessible,” Rushin said.

Since dealers were changing the method of heroin delivery, police changed the way they approached enforcement.

“Somebody gave someone a drug. So, we started treating every overdose as a crime. For every heroin overdose, we assigned a homicide investigator and a narcotics officer.”

For every death linked to heroin, prosecuting attorneys added 20 years to the sentence of anyone convicted in the drug transaction that led to that death.


“We called it aggressive enforcement,” Rushin said.

Long-term fight

The Texas police chief’s advice for the Santa Clarita Valley, looking back on the success of “Operation Rockfest” 15 years later, is this: Don’t make the mistake of assuming you’ve solved a problem simply because you identified it and responded to it.

“The lesson that we’ve learned is: Once you have a heroin problem, it’s not going to go away,” Rushin said, citing an average of 3.5 deaths every year since the city mobilized its fight.

“Once you get ahead of the curve, you have to stay ahead of that curve,” he said.

When asked what advice he has for Santa Clarita Valley’s law enforcement, Rushin said the local police chief must be the one heading the campaign to stop heroin.

“We didn’t pass that responsibility off on any other police officer,” Rushin said. “because if the leadership isn’t talking the talk, people are going to notice.”

Similarly, Glasscock has advice for city officials working with law enforcement.

“We fought heroin with every resource we had. It was the cooperation between city, police, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“Plano could not have done it alone,” he said. “We called on the Dallas Police Department for whatever resources we needed.

“It really was a partnership that makes it successful,” he said.

He and Glasscock were asked to describe the point at which they felt they had a handle on heroin and were able to scale back the allocation of resources.

“We haven’t scaled back at all,” Rushin said, adding every officer brought in and assigned to fight heroin remains committed to that fight 15 years later.

“We added numbers to that (heroin) unit, and we have not reduced any of those numbers,” he said.

“In this battle, we’ve seen no end in sight.”
jholt@the-signal.com

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