Cheap heroin floods Hamilton County as death toll skyrockets across state

Cheap heroin floods Hamilton County as death toll skyrockets across state

March 19th, 2016 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 3/27/15. TBI intern Cameron Massey, left, watches as Ella Carpenter works with Heroin at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's forensic chemistry lab on Friday, March 27, 2015.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Drug Court

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POLL: Have you or someone you know faced drug addiction?

They came from Cleveland, Tenn., looking for a fix.

He arrived in a red minivan with a palm tree sticker on the back window; she drove a silver BMW.

The 20-somethings met at the Speedway gas station on Bonny Oaks Drive and took one car to meet their dealer, a man known as "C." They returned to the parking lot minutes later with two bags of heroin.

In the front seat of the minivan, in the front row of the parking lot, they spread the off-white powder across their fingers and snorted a dose.

Then, at 10:23 in the morning, as stragglers got their coffees inside, as commuters ordered burgers from the Wendy's next door, they overdosed.

That's what agent John McGarry had gathered as he stood by the minivan, roughly 30 minutes after first responders zoomed to the scene.

The pair were lucky, McGarry said, that the medics are so acquainted with the epidemic. Lucky that responders knew the precise symptoms of a heroin overdose, and when to administer Narcan, a chemical that attacks opioids in the bloodstream, and rush them to the hospital.

As McGarry scanned the scene, surrounded by task force officers who report to his Drug Enforcement Administration office in Chattanooga, he thought about the next step.

He stared at the red minivan one more time. Was this guy a father?

He didn't know, but one of his officers would have to try to get a statement from them.

* * *

Federal and public officials say the number of fatal heroin overdoses in Hamilton County is on the rise. And it's happening at least once a week, sometimes multiple times.

Since February 2015, the DEA office here has noted the issue and worked with law enforcement to quell the flow of cheap heroin that most people believe is coming from Atlanta and making stops in Cleveland and Athens, Tenn.

Heroin knows no specific demographic, seizing men and women across racial boundaries, ages and income brackets.

But the newest threat hinges on a combination of factors, the most severe being the painkillers that dealers frequently "cut" into the drug.

"Some of the heroin has Fentanyl in it, which is a very powerful pain reliever," said Debbie Loudermilk, a licensed counselor with the Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, a nonprofit treatment center in Chattanooga.

Loudermilk has watched as the number of patients who enter therapy with opioid addictions overtakes those with marijuana and alcohol problems.

She has watched state figures on heroin-related arrests rise year after year. In 2010, that number was 179. By 2015, it skyrocketed to 1,347 statewide. Between 2002 and 2013, the rate of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And she has watched as Fentanyl — a synthetic painkiller widely considered to be stronger and deadlier than morphine — began its wildfire spread through the local stashes.

The mixture was unprecedented: "It will drop you like a horse because it's so powerful," Loudermilk said.

And as long as the laced heroin is cheaper and more plentiful than prescription pills, addicts say the deaths won't stop.

"If I'm not near death, my mind isn't happy," said Amanda, who asked the Times Free Press to be identified only by her first name. "If I'm not far, I'm going to do another lick. That's just how our minds work."

From Sept. 1, 2015, to Feb. 29, local emergency responders used Narcan 186 times, a 40 percent increase from the previous six months, said Ken Wilkerson, director of Hamilton County Emergency Medical Services.

No one agency seems to track the number of fatal heroin overdoses in Hamilton County. And while Narcan usage alone doesn't reflect the enormity of the problem, Wilkerson said, heroin has settled in Chattanooga.

"We're not part of the origin," he said, "but we end up becoming part of the wave. As the wave travels, it's Chattanooga, too. And as the ripples go out, here we are."

* * *

The officer who walked into the bathroom that morning was the second person to find Logan Whiteaker.

Unresponsive and without a pulse. A hypodermic needle beside him. A bag of suspected heroin on the counter.

After battling drug addiction for a decade, the 24-year-old had succumbed to his disease in a bathroom at 4439 Paula Lane in Red Bank, just hours after graduating from Hamilton County Drug Court.

Dawn Harrison received the message she'd been dreading for years, from family and law enforcement.

"My son is dead, my son is dead," she said.

Supervisors say Whiteaker shined in Drug Court, a program founded in 2005 to help addicts outside of prison. He passed 18 months of drug tests, found a construction job, developed a restitution plan, and returned to his family.

But Harrison, who did not comment for this story, still doesn't have answers.

No one does.

Earlier this month, Harrison stood before her son's friends and colleagues in Drug Court, her voice wavering as she implored them to stay clean.

"What I would really like to say to you guys today is, you have moms, dads, brothers, sisters, whatever you've got.

"You owe it to them to stay clean."

* * *

The week after Whiteaker died, Judge Tom Greenholtz called a different graduate to the stand.

Amanda.

"It is, uh, painful for me to see you today," Greenholtz said. "You graduated last Monday. What happened?"

The 40-year-old sniffled.

What happened was, when she was 15, Amanda was expelled from Soddy-Daisy High School for tripping on two tabs of acid.

She never went back.

There were two marriages. Two children. A meth addiction that led to a heart attack. A federal conviction and prison time. Alcohol dependency.

And finally, heroin.

After 2011, Amanda started tail-spinning, to the point she stole a church van in Georgia in an attempt to get drug money.

After entering Drug Court in 2014, Amanda excelled and stayed clean for more than a year, the longest ever for her.

Then she had muscle relaxers, the straw she said triggered her craving on Feb. 3.

It got so bad, Amanda bought three huge cans of Budweiser.

She drank them. She wound up with old friends who sold heroin. She knew it was "creamer," the Fentanyl-laced stuff. She didn't care.

Paramedics found her in a hotel parking lot, shivering in the rain, with needles.

Three weeks later, she relapsed again.

Facing Greenholtz that day, she explained what happened on Feb. 25:

"I tried to get in touch with somebody to get high," she said. "Then I called my sister, who's pregnant.

"It didn't matter. I knew she could find me stuff.

"And so I went back to somebody's house where I hadn't been for two to three years.

"And I got what I wanted.

"I got high.

"I did it even after I knew Logan had passed away."

* * *

If you look through the numbers on heroin, you'll find press releases, public statements and numerous court documents that point to a breaking wave.

In 2010, there were no heroin-related arrests in state court here, according to a review of all charges in the category of drugs for resale.

Then, in 2011, one crept into the docket.

Two emerged in 2012 and 2013.

Four appeared in 2014.

And in 2015, that number jumped to 18.

Although methamphetamine, cocaine and DUIs tend to dominate the dockets in much higher numbers, the heroin increase coincides with the overdoses.

And not just here, but statewide.

This year, Shelby County prosecutors said the number of heroin-related deaths in Memphis had jumped from nine in 2011 to 80 in 2015.

Then state officials parceled out $800,000 among three health centers in Knoxville, Nashville and Jellico to provide services to opioid abusers.

Meanwhile, in Chattanooga, local law enforcement agencies are collaborating with the DEA's office to crack down on bigger dealers while interdisciplinary health groups discuss the best ways to attack the disease.

"We would rather treat them as victims of uncontrolled substances that are killing them," said Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher, who lends one officer to the DEA's office to focus on heroin. Several other agencies have a similar setup.

"They tend to commit property crimes," he said. "So the disorder has affected our residents more than it has affected our crime."

Last week, after Congress passed legislation to attack the nationwide drug crisis through a series of awareness campaigns, alternative sentencing programs and heroin task forces, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., addressed the issue.

"The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic is destroying lives and tearing apart families," he said in a prepared statement.

And as suppliers increasingly cut the heroin with painkillers, that destruction is happening more and more in public view.

"In previous times, somebody would use and they wouldn't get the full effect for 15 to 20 minutes," said Wilkerson, the county emergency services director. "So they're not at the same location. They're back at home, at a party, wherever they want to be.

"Now," he said, "the effect is hitting so quickly they're still at the location where they injected."

* * *

He was sitting on a witness stand in federal court, but task force officer James Hixson couldn't help but smile at the naivete of the prosecutor's question.

Did he believe heroin was on Hamilton County's doorstep?

Hixson stared at U.S. prosecutor Michael Porter, who'd been quizzing him all morning on Curtis Coleman, the man charged with selling and distributing heroin to the couple who overdosed in the gas station parking lot.

"It's not just on our doorstep, Mr. Porter," he replied. "It's well within the residence."

After responding to the Speedway that day, Hixson said he drove to Erlanger hospital to interview the Cleveland victims.

The man said he'd texted "C" to meet up and buy $60 worth of heroin. The woman said they'd both been using for the past few months, always from "C."

After 12 years of investigating narcotics for the DEA's office, Hixson knew what he was looking for: a group text message.

And on the man's phone, he found a string of communication he believed belonged to Coleman.

Hixson ran some intelligence and roped in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which set up surveillance at Coleman's home.

A short time later, a white Toyota pulled out of the driveway. TBI agents trailed it to a Kentucky Fried Chicken before making a stop.

An agent walked to the window, saw a man in woman in the passenger seat, and asked for some identification.

The man handed over a license. He said he went by "C."

* * *

Like most Drug Court participants, Thomas Locke found drugs at a young age.

Growing up in a small town 20 minutes north of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Locke was surrounded by everything but heroin.

Drinking was easy, you just had to know a 21-year-old. Marijuana. Ecstasy. Cocaine. It was all an arm's length away on the basketball team.

At 15, Locke hit a crack pipe in a McDonald's parking lot.

That was the first time.

Then his face sunk into his lips, his body soared, everything started vibrating. The 22-year-old was so high, he heard the train a comin', straight out of the Johnny Cash song.

The first time Locke smoked meth, it was out of a light bulb. He would play tennis doubles matches, electrified on the stuff. He started giving speeches, too, as student body president. At 18, Locke needed something harder, so he stuck a needle in his arm.

All the while, he vowed to never do heroin.

But that changed in 2012, when he snorted heroin during his fall semester at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"I never turned back," Locke said, "kept snorting it two or three times."

At the time, though, Locke's dealer was shooting heroin. Locke had already shot meth, and he knew what that felt like. So why not?

And just like that, he was hooked.

Locke couldn't quit. Not when his grades plummeted, forcing him to abandon his studies at UT, forcing him to remember when he maintained a 3.92 GPA in high school.

Not when he was set up by a childhood friend and arrested in a drug sting and splayed across his hometown newspapers and TV channels.

Not even when he overdosed, again, his second time, and he could only see red on the walls as he waited for an ambulance.

This week, Locke had to send a text message that's become all too familiar:

"Just found out someone that I was in rehab withdied yesterday on heroin overdose. Disease is real as hell."

* * *

In the fall, Locke plans to return to school to study accounting.

He calls his sponsor twice a day. He prays and attends Drug Court and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Right now, he works 60 hours a week, but he's considering dropping one of his service industry jobs to focus on his recovery network.

Amanda was recently promoted at the Krystal on Hixson Pike and is training for her new responsibilities. She owns a house, has money in the bank and is in a healthy relationship — all firsts in her life.

Coleman, who appeared in federal court earlier this week, is being held without bond until his trial begins.

And then there's Jordan Cross, a 29-year-old recovering heroin addict who works a second-shift cook job.

He balances a relationship, two children and an online course that will help him pass a state exam and allow him to sell life insurance.

Whenever it becomes too much, he has his reminders, the pair of "lucky stars" tattooed on his wrist.

One represents his first near-fatal overdose when he was 20 and snorted four or five different kinds of cocaine.

The other comes from a heroin overdose three years ago, when he was shooting up daily.

For kicks, he decided to layer his dosage with another dab.

"I shot it up and everything got real slow, real hot. My vision got real cartoonish. And surreal.

"I fell down, off a bed, and threw up on my side.

"I was not moving. I was not responsive."

Because Cross was still breathing, his girlfriend didn't call 911.

Three or four minutes later, he woke up with a pounding headache. Perhaps he'd fallen, he couldn't remember.

Cross had wet his pants. But it didn't matter. He thought he still had a bag of heroin to shoot.

And he was looking forward to doing it again.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow @zackpeterson918.


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