Heroin High

DEBBIE MARSTEN CAN TELL YOU exactly how her son became a statistic. On Nov. 12, 1998, she and her husband, Todd, bailed 18-year-old Tyler out of a Plano, Texas, jail after an arrest for heroin possession. The family had tried rehab and they'd tried kicking Tyler out of the house, but after two years of addiction they were out of ideas. So they brought him home. Tyler knew he had missed a lot of schoolwork during his three days in jail, but he didn't realize that his body's tolerance to heroin had dipped. When the goateed senior went to school the next day to pick up some homework, he also picked up a lethal dose of the drug. When he went to bed that night he seemed happy to be home, telling Todd, ""Good night, Dad, I love you. My alarm is set.'' But it was Tyler's dog Skeeter that woke the family at 3 a.m., not an alarm clock. When the barking wouldn't stop, Debbie ran into her son's room. ""He was cold. Gone,'' she remembers. ""He wasn't even home 36 hours.''

In the last three years, the affluent town of Plano has buried 19 young people because of heroin. The most recent casualty, Tyler Marsten, wasn't like some of the early ones, kids who didn't know what was actually inside the $10 ""chiva'' capsules they were buying, often from Mexican dealers. He knew he was snorting heroin, with a purity that ran as high as 35 percent. Nor were his parents in denial. Debbie used to cut out of the local papers pictures of kids who had OD'd and use them as a starting point for discussions about the dangers of drugs. But Tyler still died. When leaders of this manicured Dallas suburb realized in 1997 that Plano was in the middle of an epidemic and that not even the ""good'' kids were safe, they also attacked the problem head on. Elaborate undercover drug stings have led to dozens of arrests. But some kids there are still using heroin. In recent years there's been a well-publicized national increase in heroin use among middle-class teens. Even in that context, though, Plano remains a mystery. Many of the town's 200,000 residents--the ER doctor, the undercover cop, the preppy 18-year-old who OD'd--can tell you how this tragedy happened. What they can't tell you is when, or if, it will ever be over.

""In the beginning I was so against it. I was raised in a real strong Christian home, and I'm strong-willed. But once you're around it every day it becomes pretty ordinary. Then you get curious, and you think it's not a big deal to do it one time.'' For ""Lindsey,'' heroin stopped being ordinary in July 1996, when she woke up in the emergency room; the Sunday-school teacher and recent East Plano High grad was one of the city's first ODs. Heroin had come to Plano early that year. Though the local schools had their share of burnouts and stoners, they weren't the ones who discovered the drug first. Instead, it was a core group of wealthier cool kids, preppies and jocks, who started sniffing and smoking the brown powder at parties. Older Plano kids, some of whom had gone on to nearby University of Texas at Dallas, threw the parties in their apartments or rented out motel rooms. By the end of the school year, plenty of other teens had taken up the drug, and it was common to hear both girls and guys whisper that they ""had a Mexican''--a dealer who could be found at the gas station, or in a church parking lot. Tyler Marsten, for one, was introduced to heroin by his co-workers at a fast-food restaurant. But most of the future addicts were white, middle-class kids with plenty to lose. ""Cheerleaders, the football players, the popular group, the pretty girls,'' Lindsey remembers. ""Everyone was at least trying it.''

Lindsey was released from the hospital into the custody of her angry parents on July 6. Later the same day, 17-year-old Jason Blair wasn't so lucky--he became one of three city kids who would die a heroin-related death in 1996. He'd thrown up after injecting heroin into his stomach, and he drowned after his friends dumped him in a Jacuzzi to clean him off. Despite those deaths, the city and its parents were still in ""big-time denial,'' says Dr. Larry Alexander, attending physician at the Medical Center of Plano. The hospital saw an estimated 75 ODs between November 1996 and November 1997; under Texas law, administrators couldn't even report the specifics of overdoses to the police. Alexander recalls telling one father that his son had tested positive for opiates, only to have the man throw him up against the wall in the ER and shout, ""You g--d----- liar--you don't know what you're talking about!'' Even when the boy confessed he was sniffing heroin, Alexander says, the father replied, ""No, son. You're just confused about what you're doing.''

By early 1997, A. D. Paul, a burly police sergeant in charge of the city's undercover squad, had become all too familiar with the heroin horror stories: The seventh-grade soccer player whose friends dumped his stiffening body in a church parking lot. The member of the girls' varsity swim team caught trading sex for heroin. The clean-cut young marine home on leave just long enough to OD. Sergeant Paul began speaking at schools, at community groups, even at ladies' coffee klatsches about heroin--""community policing at its rawest,'' as he remembers it. Sometimes Alexander would go along, delivering a speech on how it feels to die of a heroin overdose so graphic that students would burst into tears or even faint. But Sergeant Paul knew that even as his officers were busting street- corner dealers, a more dramatic step was needed. He got Police Chief Bruce Glasscock to fund a $14,000 undercover sting at Plano East and Plano Senior Highs. Code name: Operation Rockfest.

But Rockfest would take months, and by May 1997, three more Plano teens were dead. The time had come to confront the crisis, so Glasscock, Mayor John Longstreet and state Sen. Florence Shapiro made a brave--and desperate--decision. ""I said, "We're going to significantly increase media presence and take a marketing approach to educating the community','' remembers Glasscock. The task force had decided to voluntarily brand Plano as Heroin City, USA. As the city implemented high-profile drug-prevention programs in the schools and advised parents to search their children's rooms for drugs, the TV news trucks started rolling into town. ""The initial negative publicity may have been painful,'' Longstreet maintains, ""but in the long run it was going to save lives.'' The community campaign reached its climax in November 1997, when more than 1,800 people showed up at a citywide meeting to mourn their dead and talk about the future. The silence, at least, was over.

The teenagers crying in the audience that November night didn't know that Sergeant Paul's hand-chosen narc was already in their midst. Ashley Lomen (not her real name), 28, was fresh-faced and fresh from the police academy. In the late summer, she had gone ""deep undercover,'' telling everyone but her mother that she had given up police work, and ""enrolled'' at Plano Senior High. She started wearing an eight-ball necklace and baggy pants, streaking her flowing red hair blond and rarely washing it (which, coupled with heavy makeup, caused some authentically teenage acne). Adopting the persona of a troubled, artistic loner, Ashley sat sullenly at her desk drawing endless psychedelic doodles and made sure her pack of Marlboros was visible peeking out of her purse. Her most precarious moment came when a sociology teacher used an unnervingly accurate analogy for why control groups were necessary in experiments: ""She said, "For example, sometimes the police department will put an undercover officer in the school','' Lomen remembers. "" "What if the police first came up in front of you and said, ""Students, I'd like you to meet your undercover cop, Ashley''? You'd change the way you acted in front of her'.'' None of the heroin-using crowd she had finally infiltrated took the teacher's unwitting advice.

While the November 1997 town meeting had had an immediate effect--just one death in the first three months of 1998 and a sharp increase in kids enrolling in rehab--the undercover officer still had no problem buying heroin. Lomen was scoring chiva, even ""freaking out'' when a dealer cheated. Halfway through the year she got herself transferred to Plano East, where she kept writing down the names of dealers and users on the soles of her shoes after each transaction. Then, in March of last year--when the Plano death toll stood at 16--the squad cars pulled up at the high schools. Rockfest was a success: in total, 19 students and 19 adults were arrested, including members of the area's largest heroin ring. A more conventional bust in July 1998 netted 29 more suspected dealers. When 16 defendants go before federal court on Feb. 2, prosecutors will ask that the judge consider tacking 15 years onto any eventual sentence, under a little-used law that says dealers can be penalized if a fatal dose can be linked to their drug supply. Senator Shapiro has also sponsored four drug-abuse-prevention bills, one of which would allow hospitals to report ODs to a state agency so epidemics can be identified more quickly.

After three years, heroin is slowly, slowly loosening its grip on Plano, Texas. Will Tyler Marsten be the last casualty? Many of the remaining dealers have moved on to other suburbs. ""We displaced the problem, we didn't solve it,'' admits Chief Glasscock. Maybe kids like Tyler have picked up some of the junkie's street savvy and now know better than to let their friends ""sleep off'' a potentially fatal OD. But after all the police work and community organization, the real reason drug use is beginning to taper off is depressingly simple. Standing in the parking lot of Plano Senior on a cold January day, spiky-haired softball player Kris Kidwell, 17, tosses off the answer as if it's the most obvious thing in the world: ""Nearly everyone knows somebody that's died.''