March 512, 1998
The kids brought some of the weirdness back home with them in glassine packets marked Dead Calm, High Power, Volcano and Dracula.
"Before the counselor was finished asking questions, he said, 'Stop. You are a 17-year-old male from a good family and you are hooked on heroin. You must be from the Ephrata area.'"
Dispatches from the Drug War: The second in an occasional series about Philadelphia's flourishing underground drug economy.
From the Badlands to the hinterlands: How Philadelphia became the world's second largest dope depot.
Part One: Dara's Story
by Howard Altman
It is a warm January afternoon, and undercover cop James Blaine has taken up his customary perch on the roof of an apartment building overlooking bucolic downtown Ephrata and the rolling hills of middle Pennsylvania.
The unmistakable, pungent odor of horseshit is thick in the air as Blaine peers out over the railing.
Just a few miles down the road from Zinn's Diner, the tourist trap with the 10-foot plaster Amish farmer, Blaine is playing shadow games with the mostly white, affluent teenagers of Greater Ephrata.
There's a real problem with the teenagers these days, says Blaine (a pseudonym, for obvious reasons).
The kids are ripping each other off.
Swapping sex for drugs. Contracting AIDS.
It's happening here in Ephrata.
And it's happening to the demographically damned black and Latino kids 11 miles away in Lancaster.
And it's happening in Harrisburg and Reading and Scranton, Williamsport and many, many other communities in the hills and dales of the Keystone State.
Children are falling prey to the lure of heroin.
Taking families and communities down with them.
Thanks to an unholy cocktail of adolescent ennui, peer pressure and the marketing acumen of shrewd Colombian businessmen.
Tired of dealing with the hassles of crack cocaine, the Colombians have turned Philadelphia into the world's second largest heroin distribution center, moving tons of astonishingly pure, competitively priced product from the Badlands into the hinterlands.
Three years ago, according to the DEA, the Colombians, looking to diversify their investment portfolio, staged a bloodless coup, taking control of the heroin business from the Southeast Asians.
They did it by taking the Crazy Eddy approach to dopenomics.
Boost the purity tenfold.
Slash the prices by 60 percent.
Until they're crazzzzzy.
And package it with names like Turbo and Drop Zone and Volcano and Homicide to create brand loyalty.
It worked. Older dopers who used to pay $35 a bag ran for the cheap new thrill, retailing for $20 a bag out in the sticks. And young people, lured by the Pulp-Fictional, Kate Moss-waifish world of heroin hipness, dropped coke and speed and ran even faster, risking their lives to pay wholesale$10 a bag in Philadelphia.
In short order, the Colombians cornered the market, creating new wealth for neophyte cartels while turning Philadelphia into a dope depot second only to New York in gross heroin tonnage.
The flow of drugs into Lancaster, Dauphin, Lycoming and numerous other Pennsylvania counties, combined with the influx of dealers fleeing the crime, dirt and competition of Philadelphia, has created havoc.
This double whammy is so bad that Steven Cappelli, the mayor of Williamsport, filed a formal request with Ed Rendell on Feb. 27 asking Philadelphia to send some cops up north because "the flow of criminals and dope from Philadelphia to North Central Pennsylvania is clear and evident."
Lancaster County Drug Task-Force undercover detective James Blaine keeps an eye out for teens in downtown Ephrata
It is so bad that State Attorney General Michael Fisher was willing to risk political fallout by asking the legislature last week for $1.5 million to fund an additional 25 drug enforcement copsto be stationed in Philly despite desperate pleas from small towns begging for help with their own drug problems.
James Blaine, a Lancaster County Drug Task Force undercover agent, knows from experience the end result of dopenomics.
"We've had nine overdose deaths in the last two years in the Ephrata area," says Blaine, a bit weary from the endless game of cat and mouse he plays with teenagers running heroin between Philly and Ephrata. "There are more that I don't know of."
The piercing wail of Blaine's beeper shatters the eerie silence atop the roof.
Blaine looks at the number and punches it into the small back-lit rubber pads of a cell phone.
"Hey, what's up?" asks Blaine.
"They might be up at the hotel," says the voice on the other end. "We're staking it out now."
The "they," he explains, are drug dealers, who may be holed up at one of the many Dutch-this or Dutch-that motels just off Route 30. Though this shell game is taking place amidst the commercialized quaintness of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Blaine points out that the Amish people themselves have as little involvement with the heroin trade as they do with the rest of the outside world.
Tonight's dealers, says Blaine, are a boyfriend-girlfriend team.
They might still be around.
Then again, they might not.
You can never tell about dealers.
Either way, Blaine wants to see for himself.
Dodging puddles that have pooled up on the flat roof from a recent rain, he heads toward the stairs, talking longingly about an upcoming trip to Florida.
"I love the fishing down there," he says, galloping down the stairs. But now he's on a fishing expedition of a different kind.
As he gets into the car, Blaine says that misery began visiting Lancaster County in the summer of 1995.
"There is a kid who went into Philly to get some heroin," says Blaine. "Everyone says he was the kid that started the whole thing. He was 14 or 15 at the time."
The kid, whom Blaine will not name because he was a juvenile, is now dead.
"It was a shooting," he says matter-of-factly.
The kid's death, says Blaine, has done nothing to discourage others from hopping into a car and driving to the worst parts of Philadelphia three or four times a day, sometimes more.
"They go to Philly because Reading's not any safer," says Blaine. "We had one shot and killed [in Reading] this summer. A week or two before that, one was shot in Philly. The one in Philly was just shot in the hip. He drove all the way back to Ephrata with the bullet still in him. [The dealers] jumped him and shot him and took the drugs he just bought. They probably turned around and sold them to somebody else."
Blaine turns onto Main Street, a wide boulevard with, among other businesses, an antique shop, a sporting goods store, a flea market and Darlene's Country Cooking and Ice Cream Parlor, where the specialty is sautéed cow hearts.
The only statuary downtown is the cinderblock edifice of the Ephrata Public Comfort Station, an underground bathroom built in 1939 which at first glance looks like a subway entrance.
There are other underground attractions.
Like the Grotto, a coffeehouse open only on Friday and Saturday night. Kids under 16 are not allowed without a parent.
And the Ephrata Lanes Bowling and Food, which is conveniently located in the basement of the borough hall and police station.
Blaine points out that, until recently, groups of teens would hang out on Main Street, at night and in the middle of the day, waiting to cop.
That began to change last summer, says Blaine, when borough officials, led by Mayor Ralph Mowen, realized there was a major problem and embarked on an aggressive campaign to heighten public awareness.
Mowen called emergency meetings, pushed for the passage of an 11 p.m. curfew for teens and alerted the weekly Ephrata Review, which ran a 12-part series on the heroin crisis.
Local police and the county drug task force became more proactive, rousting teens whenever they congregated.
A couple of civic groupsAdvantage Ephrata and TRACK (Teens Responding to Caring and Kindness)sprouted up to help get kids off drugs and keep them away.
Area rehab centers saw a tremendous increase in business.
But despite these efforts, says Blaine, the flow of heroin continues.
"There are hundreds of heroin users in Ephrata now," says Blaine. Driving onto the highway after having checked another motel parking lot, he's satisfied that Bonnie and Clyde are nowhere to be found. "They are kids. Kids are always experimenting with drugs. Coke. Weed. Pills. Let's try this, let's try that they jump around. That doesn't happen with heroin. They try it and fall in love."
Dara Singley fell in love almost immediately. She snorted her first bag of heroin when she was 13 years old.
It wasn't her first experience with drugs, says Singley, sitting at the dining room table of her mother's well-kept gray one-story home, a comfortable abode with a hot tub in the sunroom and a manicured lawn in a middle-class neighborhood of tidy, comfortable abodes with manicured lawns.
Singley, now 17, had been smoking pot since she was 10 ("which is not unusual around here," she claims) and hanging out with her father and older brother, both of whom were heroin addicts living in another town.
As she tells her story, her mother, Doris Good, looks on not with surprise, but with the wary gaze of a mother scared to death of what stunt her daughter might pull next. A feeling of dread exacerbated by the fact that her second husband, who owns a local professional service business, has a hard time fathoming how this could happen to a family that on the surface appears to be living the American middle-class dream.
Good says that she didn't realize the extent of her children's drug use until a few years ago, when she found her son passed out in his bed, an aerosol can from a tire pressure spray near his bed.
Since then, both children have been in trouble, both have been arrested and both have spent time in rehabilitation centers.
It wasn't always this bad for Singley.
"When I was in grade school, I had nice friends. No one smoked pot. It was a good crew who would say 'Get away from me if you are going to do that.'"
But under the influence of her father, whom her mother says she divorced after catching him cheating, Singley started smoking pot.
"My friends started pushing me away," she says. "It was no big deal. I found other friends. They were deeper into it than I was and to be cool, or whatever, I did what they did and it was all downhill from there."
Soon the thrill of pot was gone.
So she joined her father and brother in heroin happyland.
"When I started, I was like, 'How bad can it be? My father is doing it in the house that he owns. How bad can it be if you are doing it on your own property with your own kids?'"
Singley says she had no idea what she was getting into.
"At first I was scared," says Singley, softly, the still-dark circles under her pale blue eyes exposing the fatigue of fighting a four-year addiction. "My father and brother and my friends were using it. They said that it was great and so I thought it must be good. The first time was a horrible experience. I was vomiting and passed out. I didn't do it again until the next day, and that felt really good, so I did it more and more and more."
In the beginning, says Singley, she was only using a bag or two a day.
"There are some people who only need a bag or two a day," she says, wistfully, enviously. "Those people are lucky."
After about a year, Singley says she realized that she wasn't one of the lucky ones.
Not only was she using more, she started shooting it into her veins, increasing the buzz but also increasing the risk of AIDS and overdose as well.
The constant drug-related activityscrounging up money, running to Philly to find heroin, constantly getting highruined her academically.
"I went from straight B's to straight F's," she says, casually, adding that while school officials eventually noticed what was going on, their response was to send her to rehabilitation, which, to her and her friends, "was a joke."
"We didn't take it seriously," she says.
Singley knew the dangers her lifestyle presented.
But she didn't care.
"Usually, my schedule was I woke up, I needed a bag to get through the day. I would get to school in the morning and do a bag. Before lunch, I would do a bag. After school ended, I would do a bag. Throughout the night, I would do a couple of bags and at the end of the night, I would do a bag. It was like I couldn't fall asleep without it."
Singley pauses. An epiphany:
"I could be a millionaire right now," she says. "Not a million that I made, but a million that I stole."
The $100-a-day cost of her heroin addiction far exceeded the money she made working after school at the Log Cabin restaurant and the Subway sub shop. Even at wholesale, which often meant three or four trips into Philadelphia a day.
Singley, like so many other kids in Ephrata over the last two years, became a pint-sized, one-girl crime wave.
She started shoplifting, boosting clothing and other goods out of stores for teenagers who placed special orders.
"I did that a lot," says Singley. "I did it at least 70 times."
Singley says she must have stolen between $20,000 and $30,000 in that time.
"I only got caught once," she says. It happened about a year and a half ago at J.C. Penney. She was stealing three pairs of jeans, which she was going to keep for herself, and a $30 shirt that a kid offered to pay $10 for.
Stealing wasn't enough, though.
She began cheating her friends.
"I beat people, not physically, but for their money," she says bluntly. "I would give them a bag of cut-up Tylenol and I would be like, 'Yeah, here, that will be 20 bucks.'
"That would happen a couple of times a day," she adds. "If they were looking for it and coming to me, they were coming to the wrong person, because they were going to get beat. I mean, you don't come to an addict. If you are selling something, you can't be using it, because you are going to be doing it more than selling it."
In a way, Singley is proud of her business skills.
Unlike some of the addicts she knows, she says she didn't use sex as a commodity to be swapped for a baggie.
"I never went that far, to sleep with a guy for heroin," says Singley. "Some people do sleep with people, but I never did."
Didn't have to, she says.
Seeing that her increasingly large circle of dope pals was so willing to pay so much for so little, Singley says she hung with a crowd that went into the retail market, making trips to a Lee Street drug corner in South Philly where the dealers would give them a discount in the form of extra bags.
Normally, she says, the Philly dealers will sell a bundle of 10 bags for $100, often throwing in an extra two or three bags as a bonus. Singley says she and her crew were such frequent customers that the dealers might throw in an extra five bags per bundle.
Much of which she replaced with Tylenol or baby powder and sold to her friends.
Which led her back, once again, to Philadelphia, ignoring the danger of being a vulnerable, well-to-do white hick chick wandering around in a heroin stupor in the middle of one of earth's largest open-air drug markets.
It was a practice that almost got her killed two years ago, on a drug run to Philly with her 19-year-old boyfriend and another 19-year-old addict.
"We got ripped off. But we said we were not leaving without our drugs. We just spent $140. The seller got really mad that we weren't just going to leave him alone and pulled out a gun."
Singley says she and the boys departed with no further ado and, with their last $100, found another dealer who sold them a bundle without ripping them off.
It was a frightening experience, she says.
Enough to make her quit?
"No, I just found somebody else to go to."
As Singley and her cronies made more such trips to Philly, Ephrata became a more dangerous place. The kids brought some of the weirdness back home with them in glassine packets marked Dead Calm, High Power, Volcano and Dracula.
"There is a lot of violence, but you don't see too many guns," says Singley of her hometown, though that is slowly beginning to change.
Kids grew tired of being ripped off, Singley says. She would get into shoving matches and verbal bouts in school or at parties.
"You would be at a party and someone would be drunk or on dope and say, 'This is bad. I can't believe you beat me.' They'll throw punches, fight, shout, 'Go ahead and mess with me,' that kind of thing. It's not like I ever came home with a broken nose or anything.
"As an addict," she says, "you get used to it."
Last summer, she says, a group of guys grabbed a kid, took him to another house, put a pillowcase over his head and beat him with a bat. Then they drove him up to the park and threw him out of the car.
"All because he stole an ounce of pot from somebody's house," she says.
As heroin poured into Amish Country, overdoses, AIDS and death became frequent visitors.
"I knew a few that have died," says Singley very calmly. Her mother looks at her, mouth agape.
They didn't all die.
Some merely came close.
"I knew two girls who went into Philly last summer and they got some bad heroin. It was laced with rat poison. One girl shot it up and went into convulsions. She said her heart was racing real fast, like it was going to explode. The other girl didn't know what to do, so they both went back to Ephrata."
The girl who was driving, says Singley, was afraid to take the other girl to the hospital "because she didn't want to get in trouble." Fortunately, the girl who ingested rat poison was able to ride it out without too many complications.
A good thing, because eventually, the complications do take their toll.
Singley has a couple of collapsed veins and permanent liver damage.
"I was getting tested for AIDS and diseases and it came out that I had liver damage. That is one of the side effects of using heroin."
She has yet to contract HIV, she says, adding that five of her friends now have full-blown AIDS after sharing needles.
One risk, she says proudly, that she never took.
"I would even pay the extra $7 to buy a clean needle," says Singley, adding that she stole a prescription card from her grandmother, a diabetic, to obtain the needles.
Still, the risk of AIDS was always there and Singley says she made sure she was tested.
The first time, she says, was when she was 14.
At Planned Parenthood to pick up a prescription for birth control pills, Singley says she wanted to know.
"The longest wait in your life is when you wait for the results of an AIDS test," she says. "It took about two weeks for the test to come back. I was a wreck. When it turned out negative, I was so happy. Thank God."
Though she's been able to dodge the AIDS bullet so far, she couldn't avoid overdosing, which she did last year.
"I don't know what happened," she says. "I woke up in the hospital. My face was blue. I was blue. They were giving me CPR. I woke up with IVs in my veins and I said, 'This isn't worth it. I don't need it.'"
Singley says she has only used heroin once or twice since. "I never shot up after that," she stresses, adding that she is clean now.
But still there are problems with drugs and her family.
Trying to quit drugs, her father moved to Florida.
But he still isn't clean.
"I tell her that this is her last chance," says Singley's mom. "That if she screws up, she will have to go live with her father and see what that is like."
It is a promise that Singley appears to take quite seriously.
"I have caused my mom a lot of pain and I am not proud of that. I am clean and trying to stay that way and I don't want to go live with my dad."
But even with her dad out of the picture, drugs are still a problem. Last year, her mom had Singley's brother arrested. For stealing her engagement ring to pay for drugs.
"He tried to commit suicide in jail," says Good, the hurt and helplessness evident in her eyes.
And Singley is still having problems of her own.
A few weeks ago, while at church with her grandmother, Singley met a guy she thought was 21 and living with his parents.
The young man asked her out to breakfast. Singley says she asked her grandmother if that was okay and, receiving an affirmative answer, dropped her grandmother back home and then joined the young man at the restaurant.
"We had a nice time, talking," says Singley.
Her mother, looking on with just a touch of incredulity, steps in and explains what happened.
"A few nights later, she asks me if it is alright to go shopping with this guy and I said it was okay. She met him at church. A few days later, I found a safe under Dara's bed and a bowl."
The safe, Good later learned, contained half-smoked joints.
The safe's owner, it turns out, was not 21 and living with his folks, but 23 and living with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old.
The bowl, Good says, came from a shop in Lancaster that sells cherry tobacco as a front to peddle drug paraphernalia.
Dara claims she was holding it for a friend.
Both the safe and the bowl were eventually taken out of the house by police.
"I think I caught my daughter in time," she says of this most recent drug drama. "I hope so. She knows that I cannot take this anymore."
So how bad is the heroin problem in Pennsylvania's heartland?
Crime statistics compiled by the state and Ephrata Borough and Ephrata Township (the township is a separate municipality surrounding the borough, making for a combined population of about 45,000) show two trends.
While police in both municipalities made nearly the same number of drug arrests in 1997 (45) as they did in 1996 (46), the number of burglaries (30 percent increase), assaults (38 percent increase), robberies (40 percent increase), forgeries (89 percent increase) and weapons charges (83 percent increase) skyrocketed in that same period.
"Has the problem gone away? No," says Ephrata Borough Mayor Ralph Mowen. "Are we making inroads? I hope so. We are winding up with increased numbers of young people in rehab, some in jail. We are seeing a decline in activity. Not so much in drugs overall, but in heroin."
Clearly, the flow of heroin has created serious problems.
"It puts a strain on the community," he says. "The increase in burglaries. The increase in family problems. Kids stealing from each other. This is a tough nut to handle. We don't have an overabundance of police manpower."
Mowen says the heroin problem is not new in this small, economically vibrant bedroom community that is "about 90 percent white."
"We've had heroin in the area for a long time. We have 35-year-old to 45-year-old heroin addicts. The unfortunate thing is that there are individuals who went to Philadelphia and Reading and established a pipeline. It mushroomed from there."
And, says the mayor, "It's not just the bums."
"These are good students from good families. In fact, what hit home for me is that someone I am well acquainted with has a son who was involved in heroin. I had no idea. They eventually took their kid out of the state to a drug rehabilitation foundation."
What was really shocking, says Mowen, is how well-known Ephrata has become for its drug problem.
"Before the counselor was finished asking questions, he said, 'Stop. You are a 17-year-old male from a good family and you are hooked on heroin. You must be from the Ephrata area.'"
Still, Mowen says that he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
"We have had over 60 kids who dropped out of high school go back and get their GEDs," says Mowen. "We are having an impact."
As much as Mowen says the heroin problem has diminished, Dara Singley and her mom Doris Good have a different opinion, one at least partially borne out by the stats showing the radical increase in violence and property crimes.
Singley and her mom share their opinion with a maverick used car dealer in town named Rick Luczewski, owner of Rick's East Main Auto.
Luczewski, himself a former cokehead, has waged war against what he sees as the borough's failure to deal with the heroin problem.
Last summer, Luczewski held meetings at a park where he would gather hundreds of local teens, feed them pizza and talk to them about the perils of drug abuse.
Not everyone in town thought Luczewski was doing the right thing. But nobody wants to talk on the record about it. Sources in town opposed to Luczewski called his lectures crude, his approach misguided.
Luczewski responds by saying that the problem is crude and that dancing around it will only make it worse.
But the main weapon in Luczewski's war has been the sign he places on the edge of his property in full view of everyone traveling Main Street.
Reacting to headlines in the local paper, or complaints of parents who have come to him because, he says, borough officials won't listen, Luczewski has turned his sign into a cause célèbre.
"Wanted: Other people with balls to help fight the heroin crisis," read one message.
"I have a list of 200 heroin sellers. Who wants it?" read another.
On this day, the hot news was about an Ephrata middle schooler who was carrying a gun on the street in the middle of the day when it went off, sending a bullet into a house.
"Child Found With 9mm Gun!" read Luczewski's sign on this day. "& Borough Says 'No Problem'?"
Luczewski, who "moved out of Reading to get away from this shit," says he got involved because "the police do nothing."
A sentiment that seems to be contradicted by undercover officer Blaine's never-ending surveillance of the area's youth.
And a sentiment that Mayor Mowen refuses to comment on.
And what of Dara Singley?
Undercover officer Blaine says that from what he knows, she is telling the truth about how heroin ravaged her life.
But how unusual is it for a girl from Ephrata to start smoking pot at 10, use heroin at 13 and jump into a life of crime to pay for it all?
Not very, according to Peter Czabafy, a drug treatment counselor with Recovery Unlimited, one of the area's many outpatient drug treatment centers.
"It's very typical to use drugs at that age," says Czabafy, speaking in general terms. "Society's pressures on kids have increased tenfold. As a result, kids' coping skills are not as developed as they need to be in order to deal with it."
What kind of pressures?
"School, peer, what parents and society expect from them. Broken homes, divorce, you name it," says Czabafy, whose office walls are adorned with two dozen pictures of Albert Einstein and one photo of the Three Stooges. Czabafy himself closely resembles a cross between Einstein and long-time Stooge foil Emil Sitka.
Czabafy, who has not treated Singley and does not know her, says that the lying, cheating and stealing she talks about is not farfetched. He's heard similar stories firsthand from his patients.
"I have heard everything from kids saving their lunch money for drugs to stealing their parents' money, a television. I even know someone who stole their parents' car."
And the problem, he says, is getting worse.
When he started at Recovery Unlimited 15 months ago, they had two active cases. Now there are 10.
"This is a significant increase," says Czabafy. "These are not small numbers. These are people being identified as heroin addicts. They are no longer being identified as social drug users."
As an outsider, Czabafy has gained an interesting perspective on the heroin problem in Amish Country.
The Amish have nothing to do with the heroin traffic, says Czabafy, yet more and more people are coming into their area because of heroin.
Which is not to say that the Amish aren't without their own problems when it comes to chemicals, says Czabafy.
"The only chemicals they use are alcohol and possibly marijuana," says the therapist, echoing a sentiment shared by undercover officer Blaine. "And that doesn't lead to the kind of problems you are seeing in Ephrata."
The reason, says Czabafy, is that Amish culture "is totally different. They allow for a time from where the young adults, particularly the males, have a window when they can get whatever they need to out of their systems, from the time they are about 14 or 15 until the time they settle down, get married and join the church."
The non-Amish society has had a much harder time dealing with adolescence.
Czabafy says that the greater Ephrata community's reaction to the heroin problem "has created fear and a lot of denial.
"I do," he adds, "have to commend the community as far as the energy and initiative that it has put into place. At this point, I feel it's only the beginning and it needs to be continued very enthusiastically. Not only intervention, but prevention."
And that is perhaps the greatest challenge facing rural Pennsylvania.
As much trouble as Dara Singley and her cohorts have caused, they are small potatoes compared to the organized professionals like Ramon Melendez-Rodriguez, a carpenter-turned-gangster known as "Red" who ran the first major pipeline pumping heroin from Philly into Harrisburg in bulk.
Like their colleagues in Ephrata, police officials in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Williamsport and other small communities say they are overwhelmed by the problems spewed out of Philadelphia by big-time dopers like Melendez-Rodriguez.
"We are getting our asses kicked," says Dauphin County Drug Task Force detective David Laudermilch.
And as bad as Melendez-Rodriguez is, says Laudermilch, "There's probably another half dozen out there just like him, if not bigger."
Part Two: Red Alert
How Dauphin County cops used a dealer's own marketing strategy against him, and other true stories from the Heroin Highway.