Bad trip

As anguished Plano watched heroin pick off its children one by one, a cry went up for police to do anything to stop the deadly plague. Months later, some parents say they went too far.

Although Mercado says that the DEA and Glasscock were already discussing a task force, it didn't come about until August 25, 1997--four days after the next kid, 19-year-old Plano East High School grad Rob Hill, died. The task force consisted of Plano police, Dallas narcotics officers, the Dallas County sheriff's office, and agents from the DEA and FBI. Everyone provided manpower, equipment, and money for undercover buys, while the DEA provided drug-war expertise.

"We came in, and we had like nicknames [for users and dealers]," Mercado recalled. "Within a month, we had all of them identified." Police seized the address books and phone records of the dead, fed them into a computer, and targeted those whose names and numbers came up too often. They stepped up arrests for possession, pressuring many into becoming informants, offering to let them go free if they made cases against their friends.

"We were just typically in shock," George Malina says. "You know, working in that space. Just reacting more than anything else. A friend of mine says when your kid dies, you don't feel it for a couple of years, when everyone who's been around you goes away."

But it was bad enough. "Every meal, there's an empty seat. Every family occasion, you're miserable because your son's not there. You wake up in the middle of the night, and your first thought is that child."

Neither did the presence of law enforcement do much to ease the pain. "I got disappointed with them," Malina says. "My big disappointment was, they never, ever told the truth about how serious it was. It was always, 'These are just isolated incidents.' And it's only in looking back that you realize how bad it really was."

Unfortunately, there are no reliable overdose statistics from Collin County hospitals, but every week seemed to bring multiple stories of kids admitted for overdoses. Although the problem was still getting little media attention, the community knew what was going on, and it was in fear.

Nobody seemed to have a handle on the problem--not the police, the DEA, the hospitals, or the parents. Each death seemed to disprove the cherished notion that you could save your kids. On a Saturday morning in early November 1997, Erin Baker's parents learned from another kid's mother that their daughter might have used heroin. According to police reports, Erin's panicked parents ferried her to a North Dallas doctor's office, where they made her undergo a urine test; by the time they received the results 48 hours later, their daughter was dead.

Drug testing was unreliable. Knowing where your kids were turned out to be no guarantee. Knowing the parents of their friends didn't seem to help. Kids snorted it under their parents' noses, shot up in the bathroom, sneaked out the window to go to drug parties. Even those who didn't use drugs stood by and watched their friends doing them. They never broke the adolescent code of silence--not until someone was in the morgue.

By the beginning of November 1997, the pressure was palpable. Rumors were rampant, and the media were beginning to come around. On November 13, four days after Erin Baker died, some 1,800 anxious Plano residents packed into the town's civic center for a meeting.

"That was more to let steam out of a situation that was going to explode," Malina recalls. "[Authorities] figured out that they needed to do something. And then they said, 'Oh, we have a problem, but we've got it under control.'"

On November 23, 1997, the task force made what would turn out to be its biggest arrest in terms of dope and cash seized. They nabbed five residents of a house in McKinney who, agents subsequently alleged, were the source of most of the heroin in Collin County. All were illegal immigrants from Mexico. Police seized 150 grams of heroin, 250 grams of cocaine, and $30,000 cash.

At the same time, the task force began arresting a number of youths who had been investigated for three months. For the most part, they were nabbed for possessing small amounts of heroin or marijuana, which helped build the criminal records that would ultimately put them away.

One of those was Chris Cooper. From June until November, he tried to shake the monkey; like most addicts, he would stay clean for a while, then backslide. His mother begged him to go to treatment, but knew he had to make the decision himself. Finally, on November 23, he was arrested and charged for possession of heroin. He was questioned, though not about the arrest. "They said, 'We don't want to know about this. Just forget about this one,'" he recalls. "'We want to know about Milan Malina.'"

It was Cooper's second arrest for possession in 18 months, so he decided he'd better start cooperating. He also decided that his life had become unmanageable and enrolled at the House of Isiah. For six months, he got up at 6:30 a.m. to feed cows and string barbed-wire fences. He built houses, went to church, finished his GED, even started to think about the future.

"He really grew in those six months," Sheila Cooper says. "He was making good decisions. When he graduated from that program in May, he took another good step, enrolling in their aftercare program. He committed to being there, living in a halfway house in Fort Worth, for an entire year. He was going to church, to AA. He was going to have a better chance."

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