By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Jen had just woken up that morning last March when she got the call from her ex-boyfriend, the third in their trio, about Brett's overdose. He was crying so hard it took him awhile to tell her. "It was weird," she says. "I already knew what he was gonna say."
A few days later, she spoke at Brett's funeral.
"I've never even been to a funeral before," she says. "Seeing a dead person who was your friend — I basically had to be carried out."
After the third of the three young men died, the Flower Mound Police Department started investigating where the heroin that killed them was coming from. The DEA eventually joined in, on a tip from a parent. Together, they say, they were able to trace the heroin trail back to Joe Hoffman, a 19-year-old Flower Mound man, from the class behind Jen and Brett at Flower Mound High.
Hoffman had been in the news before, for his role in a car accident that killed one of his friends. He'd rear-ended the friend while they caravanned to a party, sending the 20-year-old flying off his motorcycle. Hoffman failed a field sobriety test, and cops reported seeing an open bottle of gin on the floor next to him when they arrived on the scene. Six months after the accident, he was arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide, but a grand jury in Denton County later declined to indict him.
A year or so after the accident, Hoffman was the first to be charged in the heroin busts. A federal grand jury accused him of "possession with intent to distribute" 100 grams or less of "a mixture" including heroin, a crime that carries a potential prison sentence of five to 40 years. The court documents allege that he and two other men were responsible for "manufacturing cheese heroin," which they then sold and distributed to other "co-conspirators." He was also charged with possessing a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol, which authorities say he intended to use "in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime." (Hoffman could not be reached.)
Over time, 16 more people were charged. All but one were under the age of 21, and most "came from middle or upper-middle class homes," says Wess Griffin, a captain with the Flower Mound Police Department. Kevin Lee Oates, 38, is the outlying older person indicted. Griffin says his name jumped out at reporters, who assumed he was "some kind of kingpin" and the other kids indicted "were his minions." In reality, Griffin says, "he was just another user."
Griffin is realistic about the fact that heroin isn't gone forever from the North Texas suburbs. "But as far as the supply into Flower Mound, I think we greatly affected it," he said. "We definitely stunted it here."
That's the authorities' bird's-eye view of things, something like a tiny prop plane flying very far above a dense, complicated jungle. On the ground, the young users of Flower Mound describe the cops' haul as a strange grab-bag of junkies, some of them more serious than others, all of whom just had the misfortune of getting caught.
"Everyone was confused when they made all those arrests," Jen says. "They were like, 'Oh, we got the heroin ring.' But that wasn't the ring at all. Those were like random junkies who were buying it." To her knowledge, the vast majority of heroin was coming from small-time dealers in Dallas.
"None of those kids are actually suppliers," says another of Brett O'Keefe's friends. "That's all down in Dallas."
Jen went along a few times on drug buys with friends, although she's not sure just where in the city they went. "It was the worst part of Dallas," she remembers. "South Dallas, like where Jamaica [Street] is. There was a lot coming out of there. The most common one we went to, it was kinda weird. It was like a family home. It was this guy, his wife, and they had babies, I guess."
It's a mistake, Kathy O'Keefe says, to see the indicted group as anything other than junkies doing whatever was necessary to feed their habits. "They're not dealers," she says. "Well, obviously they are. But really, they're drug addicts. They just had big habits. I'd venture to say Brett did the same thing."
Investigators may actually agree. Bold talk of busting a "heroin ring" has been quietly replaced with a more prosaic reality, court documents show. Most of the indicted have taken plea bargains that include time in rehab and parole, with only a handful appearing trial-bound. The actual plea bargains themselves are sealed, and lawyers for the defendants, the Department of Justice and the DEA all declined to discuss the case. If 1990s Plano is any indication, the indictments will be followed by a round of arrests of other low-level dealers. (A couple weeks ago, the feds separately announced that they'd busted a large heroin ring in Fort Worth, a high-volume, high-dollar organization that was importing heroin from Mexico and distributing it nationwide.)
The goal in these cases, it seems, is to follow the chain of drugs far enough back to net the big fishes, the main sources of heroin in North Texas. In 1999, police said they'd caught four dealers in Dallas, labeled in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as "a large heroin distribution ring." The arrest, the DEA said, "should result in a smaller supply of heroin in North Texas."