By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A few days later, police tried to interview Chris Cooper over the telephone.
"I said, 'I'd like to help you, but I really can't answer any questions without an attorney," Cooper says. He also told them he "felt guilty" about having to protect himself when a friend had died. "That was the last I heard from them for five or six months," he says.
When they got to Columbia Medical Center, George and Joanne Malina were escorted in to see their son's body. They recall that the Plano Police Department was with them the whole time, guiding the grieving family. "They were totally prepared," marvels George Malina. "They had a preacher there in uniform, under the employ of the Plano police...They make sure they are the vent for the parents, so it never gets out of hand." Malina shakes his head. "And I know when I'm being handled. I was handled by the best, and taught how to handle [other] people, because it had to stand up in court."
Although the Plano police didn't know it, George Malina is a former FBI informant.
"About 20 years ago," Malina explains,
"I was indicted. For extortion, money laundering, that sort of thing. I beat the charge," he says.
In 1990, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York indicted Malina again, this time for possession of stolen securities. Rather than fight the government this time, he became an undercover informant. (Federal authorities confirm that Malina was an informant working on a range of cases, from illegal arms deals to credit-card fraud, but they declined to provide any details.)
At the time of Milan's death, Malina knew little about heroin or addiction. What he knew was that his son was dead and his family devastated. A short, dark bulldog of a man, Malina recalls his first response: Somebody should pay. He badgered Plano police, who, in his view, were being less than aggressive in the pursuit of his son's killers.
"He wanted something done," Glasscock says. "He wanted arrests made. He wanted people held responsible for the death of his son. And the frustrating part was trying to explain to him that under current Texas law, there wasn't anything we could do."
Despite the "killing our children" rhetoric of the drug war, for more than a hundred years drug overdoses have been considered accidental deaths. The victims willingly took the drugs; the suppliers don't typically intend to kill their customers. Unless the defendant tied the victim down and stuck the needle in, you simply don't have a case of murder.
But in 1994, President Clinton signed into law a federal "death enhancement" penalty to be tacked on when someone sells drugs that cause the death of another. The law adds to the federal sentencing calculations, so someone who might serve as few as five years for selling drugs that don't cause a death can end up doing life if the user overdoses and dies. Of course, to use the law, the federal authorities had to be involved. George Malina would see to that.
In early July, Malina had a meeting with Glasscock. He didn't get the response he wanted.
"He said, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Malina. I know you don't know anything about police business,'" Malina recalls. So he called his pals at the FBI, who called Glasscock and the DEA. (Julio Mercado, special agent in charge of the Dallas DEA office, doesn't quite deny George Malina's version of events, but says, "We already had [a joint task force] in the works anyway.")
The deaths were on their way to being federalized, And though Cooper didn't know it, he would be one of the first targets in the government's crosshairs.
"I'm not proud of the choices my son made," Sheila Cooper says. "But it was all the parents' nightmare--not just the ones who died. We were all living the nightmare."
Cooper, 43, sits at a Plano coffeehouse, sipping hot chocolate and talking about her son Chris. Like the Malinas, she comes bearing photos: Chris playing the violin with his baby brother, Chris standing in front of the house. A former television news producer, Sheila Cooper saw her hell begin around the time George and Joanne Malina learned their son had died.
"It was the next morning," she recalls. "Chris came into my room. And if you can imagine it, there was no color in his face [Cooper is black]. He said a friend of his had overdosed and he had to go to the hospital. Someone had just called him, and they came by to pick him up.
"He called me a couple of hours later, and it was like he was at the bottom of a tunnel. He said his friend had died. A couple more hours pass, and he comes home, and says, 'Ma, I need to tell you about last night.'
"He said, 'Ma, they wouldn't leave me alone.' He even left for a while and went to another party. If only he'd stayed...but he didn't."
Sheila Cooper knew he was in big trouble--though her first concern wasn't necessarily the law. "I was like, 'Well, how did you know where to go?' So then he tells me he's been using--but not for a couple of days, he says." She pauses. "It sounds so absurd to say I didn't know. But I didn't. And then, suddenly, a lot of things started to make sense." The dropping grades, the problems in school, the mysterious illnesses, the furtive comings and goings.