UPDATE: After a Grapevine Teen's Overdose, the Hunt to Hold Her Heroin Dealer Responsible

Suzanne Seward with a photo of her daughter, Cassidy.
Suzanne Seward with a photo of her daughter, Cassidy.
Dylan Hollingswoth

UPDATE, MARCH 4, 2016: Grapevine city officials recently announced its participation in a nationwide program called Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, in hopes of curbing the black tar heroin problem affecting young people across North Texas.

The nationwide program, which started in Gloucester, Mass., takes a compassionate approach instead of a punitive one toward heroin addicts and transforms the police department into a place where drug users can receive help. The program allows drug users to walk into a police station and turn over their drugs and needles and get treatment instead of jail.

Grapevine Police Chief Eddie Salame told a group of treatment providers and a state representative on Wednesday, "We just have to quit incarcerating sick people," especially since county jails are filled with the mentally ill, according to "Overincarceration of People with Mental Illness," a June 2015 report by Texas Public Policy Foundation.

This move by city officials is just one of several out-of-the box initiatives started in hopes of combating the rising tide of heroin addiction. Other moves included tracing heroin overdoses back to the drug dealer, who often are addicts themselves, to hold them accountable. We covered this issue in the following story from February 2015:

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Rebecca Graves, a detective with the Grapevine police, was driving back to the station one day in 2012 when she heard the call from dispatch: Possible overdose off Holly Street, officer assistance requested. Graves, an eight-year veteran of the force, usually worked violent crimes. But Holly was just a few blocks away, so she steered her cruiser in that direction.

The victim, an 18-year-old woman named Cassidy Seward, was already in the back of an ambulance. Paramedics had found her in the bathroom, the shower still running, her body turning blue. They'd loaded her onto the stretcher and, after Graves arrived, continued trying to revive her. Her 21-year-old sister Samantha was standing outside, weeping into the phone. Their mother, Suzanne, was on the other end.

Graves swallowed her emotions and worked through the standard protocol for a death investigation, examining the scene, gathering details from witnesses. While she did, paramedics drove Seward to Baylor Medical in Grapevine, with her sister and close friend following behind. Seward was soon pronounced dead — killed, as a toxicology report would later confirm, by a combination of heroin and methamphetamine.

As a suburban Dallas cop, Graves knew well how common it was for heroin to be combined with these narcotic sidecars, and how deadly those combinations could be. Heroin's recent resurgence has been aided by an increasing tendency to combine it with other drugs, both illegal and legal: In Flower Mound, heroin and cough medicine, known by users as Cheese, has killed enough kids to spawn support groups. In Irving, the combo of heroin and Xanax has earned its own nickname: tar and a bar. For Seward and other users, it's heroin and meth. "They're just popping up dead all over the place," Graves says.

But Graves also knew that, historically, there isn't much police can do. Holding someone accountable for overdose deaths is a difficult and legally questionable task, for myriad and complex reasons, including available resources, state laws and questions of fairness.

"I don't think that at a state level our laws and offenses have kept up with holding people accountable," Graves says. "It doesn't seem that they're getting punished as much as they should."

She didn't hold out much hope that Seward's case would play out differently than usual: a toxicology report, a ruling of accidental death, case closed. Then, a couple months later, her phone rang.


 

Allen Lee's son was dropped off in front of a hospital by his drug dealer.
Allen Lee's son was dropped off in front of a hospital by his drug dealer.
Dylan Hollingswoth

Police cars, their lights flashing, were already parked in front of the Texas Health Methodist emergency room in Hurst when Allan Lee arrived with his ex-wife, Allyson, on February 9, 2011.

"Our heart is already sunk because you have to go there," Lee says. "And then your heart drops more when officers give you the devastating news."

Their son, Corey, had been dropped off by a drug dealer. Toxicologists later reported a lethal combination of heroin and Xanax had killed the 19-year-old. Detectives told Lee that the drug dealer who dumped his son at the hospital had cooperated with police, and he was going to serve three months for a parole violation. Beyond that, they said, there wasn't much else they could do to hold him accountable. Lee didn't expect anything more, either.

"This drug dealer didn't shove the needle in my kid's arm," Lee says. "My son paid the ultimate price for choosing to do that. It wasn't that drug dealer's choice. My kid has to show some responsibility to resist that influence."

This has long been the prevailing attitude toward drug overdoses. Even if it wasn't, it's hard to prove the origins of the lethal dose, experts and lawyers say. The manpower required for even a routine drug investigation is overwhelming to detectives who already have stacks of cases to investigate. Then consider the overburdened court system, and it's easy to understand why dealers are so infrequently held responsible for overdoses.

"The system isn't very effective," says Stuart Parker, a longtime criminal defense lawyer in Dallas. "The war on drugs was lost many years ago and will not be won. The demand is part of the problem."

But an onslaught of heroin overdoses, especially in middle- and upper-class communities, is threatening to challenge these entrenched attitudes and protocols. With a generation of prescription opiate users turning to heroin, and with a recent effort to cut off access to those pain pills, heroin use increased 66 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Heroin overdose deaths in the United States have more than doubled in the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control, to 42,000 in 2012.

Desperate to combat the surge, law enforcement officials nationwide have begun implementing little-used statutes, applying enhanced penalties and changing how they investigate overdoses. In New Jersey, prosecutors are using a "strict liability for drug death" statute to charge dealers with a first degree felony that adds a 20-year maximum sentence. In Wisconsin, prosecutors are pursuing charges called "reckless homicide by drug delivery." Illinois, Pennsylvania and Kansas recently enacted drug-induced homicide laws. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors across the country are increasingly working with local and federal investigators to connect drug dealers to lethal overdoses, increasing prison time for convicted dealers.

In Dallas County, local prosecutors are more frequently using a state law that increases the sentence of a dealer whose drugs lead directly to a user's death. Delivery of less than one gram of a controlled substance is a state jail felony — good for 180 days to two years in prison — but with an enhancement, the charge becomes more serious: a second or third degree felony with an additional two to 20 or five to 99 years in prison.

It's a trend with its critics. Some legal experts and defense attorneys say dealers should be held responsible for the intent of their crime, not an outcome beyond their control, and that the push to prosecute dealers stems from the demographics of heroin's largest growth market: young white people.

Legally sound or not, the practice is also simply difficult, says Brooke Grona-Robb, an assistant district attorney for Dallas County. Whether because family, friends and fellow drug users clean the crime scene or because of a lack of evidence pointing to the drug dealer, in the "majority of overdoses we're not able to find the middle man," Grona-Robb says.

To make a case, she says, investigators have to go much deeper than the average drug case: They need witnesses and a paper trail, data from social media, text messages and email systems, search warrants from companies like Google, a timeline of events. They need to do what's being done in Irving.


 

Cassidy Seward started using at Pharm Parties in Grapevine.
Cassidy Seward started using at Pharm Parties in Grapevine.

Cassidy Seward was 4 years old when her parents, Jerry and Suzanne, divorced. Her father moved out, and she stayed with her mother in Grapevine. As a little girl, raven-haired Seward told friends at sleepovers that she wanted to be a marine biologist one day. Later, she picked up the guitar and nurtured a passion for old school rock music. "She always used to say that if she was born in another life, she'd be a hippie girl or a '70s girl," her mother says.

Megan Buxbaum met Seward when they were in kindergarten. They lived near the elementary school, and they would often sleepover at each other's house. They spent time walking around the neighborhood and chasing toads or whatever caught their eyes.

"She was one of those people who could just fit in with any group of people," Buxbaum says. "She was a bubbly person and happy all the time."

In high school, Seward pulled away from her childhood friends and started hanging out with a crowd that experimented with drugs. "I remember when she had first started smoking pot in 9th grade," Buxbaum says, "and she knew that it wasn't something I approved of. We didn't talk about it a whole lot."

Suzanne remembers her daughter struggling with her and her husband's divorce and other domestic issues. "She was masking with the drugs and all of that," her mom says, "and it just escalated from there."

Seward started skipping school, and her grades tumbled. She entered an alternative program, graduated high school in 2011 at the age of 17 and began looking into colleges in Florida, still clutching to her dream of becoming a marine biologist. That, her mom says, is when heroin entered her life.

She had been attending "pharming parties," gatherings of young people who dump pills into a bowl, mix them up and take handfuls with alcohol. In October 2011, her mom says, she experienced her first overdose. She'd taken a combination of ecstasy and Xanax and had a seizure while driving with her older brother, Zachary.

Suzanne sent her to rehab, she says, but her insurance would only pay for 30 days at the facility. "Mom, I am not ready," she said when the 30 days were up. "I am not ready to come home." But at $1,000 per week, her parents could only afford a couple more weeks.

It was after rehab that Seward admitted trying heroin. She vowed to stop.

"I don't think she was addicted to it at that point," Suzanne says. "She told me she tried it, but she said, 'Mom, I'm done with it. I don't want to do that.' She said it was just with a group of people that she was introduced to."

After rehab, Seward was staying home more often, getting back into life. She talked about school and marine biology again and hung out with her "real friends." Suzanne thought that her daughter had finally escaped the drug world. There had been a few relapses, but overall she seemed to be doing much better.

Then, a few months later, her mother returned home from work early one day to find a guy in her house — a guy she recognized as one of Seward's drug buddies. Seward was in her bedroom, searching for something.

"Every hair on the back of my neck stood up," Suzanne says. "His aura was so bad. I just creeped, and when he turned around, I knew he wasn't a good person."

The guy, a 24-year-old Irving man named Misael Perla, tried to say something to Suzanne, but she held up her hand and said, "Don't. Don't. I don't know you. But don't you ever come near my house again. If I could stop it, you wouldn't be near my block." She begged her daughter to stay home and followed her outside, but Seward wouldn't listen.

"You just watch your child deteriorating," Suzanne says. "Her desire for life, for living, for her music, just gone. And that's not Cass. I saw what the drugs were doing to her. But she always knew I had her back."

In late July 2012, Seward wrecked her car and went to the hospital, high on a combination of heroin, meth and Xanax. Suzanne says she went to Bedford detectives, begging for somebody to arrest her daughter and ship her back to rehab.

"He looked at me and said, 'The courts won't listen to you because she is a tadpole in the pond,'" she says. "'There are 10,000 cases and she was part of the 5,000 they won't look at.' I looked at him and said, 'I'll let you know when her funeral is.'"

The next month, Suzanne took Seward to her grandmother's house, hoping to keep her away from her friends who were using heroin. She stayed a few days before frantically searching for someone to pick her up. Perla answered her call.

"She told my mother, 'A friend is coming to pick me up. He's married and got a baby, no worries,'" Suzanne says. "I knew it was a lie."

On August 26, Seward called her mom and asked her to come pick her up at a friend's house in Grapevine. She had just returned from Sunset, a small town 60 miles northwest of Grapevine, where she spent a few days with her dad in an effort to distance herself from drugs. After returning from her dad's, she told her mom that she was willing to return to rehab, and they began looking into programs, settling on Origins in Corpus Christi.

"My mother's instinct said we were going to pull through this," Suzanne says. "We talked a lot in the car. We talked in the driveway. I felt positive for the first time in a really long time."

But a few hours later, Seward told her mom she needed to leave to take care of a few things. Suzanne asked her to stay and spend time with her and her sister, but Seward said she couldn't. She promised to make it up to them the next night.

That night, Seward went with Perla to his mobile home in Arlington where he and his roommate Hugo Sanchez sold drugs. Perla took Seward back to her mother's house around 11 a.m. the next day. She carried a Chick-fil-A bag — her favorite fast food — and a backpack holding some of her belongings. She told her sister, Samantha, that she wanted to take a shower.

The shower kept running and running, so her sister eventually checked on her. She found Seward lying on the bathroom floor with a needle protruding from her arm. Samantha tried to revive her, but she was already turning blue.

"She was just trying to be the hero trying to save her sister," says Suzanne. "If I could take one thing from my child and carry the burden forever, I would carry that burden for her."

Suzanne was working at the time. Once the paramedics took over, Samantha called. "Mom," she screamed. "It's Cass."


 

An Irving drug cop followed the trail to Seward's dealer.
An Irving drug cop followed the trail to Seward's dealer.
Dylan Hollingswoth

"Help, help!" the 25-year-old man yelled from his pick-up truck, which he'd just pulled up to the emergency room at Baylor Medical Center of Irving. "I think this girl has overdosed!"

ER workers rushed to the truck to retrieve the girl, and the man drove off. It was a warm July morning in 2012. The 20-year-old woman, Alexandra Moreno, was pronounced dead shortly after. An autopsy later concluded that she died as a result of the "toxic effects of heroin."

The Irving police issued a standard police report, which in most jurisdictions would have gone nowhere. But in this Dallas suburb, a narcotics detective who investigates overdose deaths reviewed the report, and something caught his eye: a blue Ford Ranger pickup.

The detective, an Irving native and 22-year veteran of the force, had spent the last several years trying to trace overdoses back to dealers, and find ways to prosecute them. (He spoke to the Observer on the condition that we don't identify him, since he still works undercover on drug cases.)

Later that summer, the detective visited a drug addict in jail who had said she got her heroin and Xanax from a drug dealer known as "Juice" and his roommate named "Irving," at a mobile home in Arlington. He showed her the hospital video feed of the guy in the blue Ford Ranger pickup. That's Irving, she said. Take me to them, the detective said. So they drove there.

"I'll be damned if the blue Ford Ranger pickup isn't sitting out front of the trailer," he says.

The detective quickly determined that Juice's real name was Hugo Sanchez, 23, a criminal who had some pending drug cases and was currently out on bond. He also learned Irving's real name: Misael Perla.

Sanchez owned two mobile homes in the Arlington trailer park, and the undercover detective went to work monitoring and investigating the two dealers. He later got a warrant to search Sanchez's mobile homes, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Homeland Security Investigations helped execute the raid. On September 13, Sanchez was arrested with 200 grams of cocaine, 70 grams of heroin, 20 grams of methamphetamine and an AK-47 rifle, an SKS rifle and two pistols. Arresting officers also found digital scales and drug distribution paraphernalia, court records show.

Perla wasn't staying at Sanchez's mobile home when they stormed the front door. He was arrested at his mother's house just down the road from the Irving Police Department.

The detective interviewed Perla at the station. He showed Perla the hospital video of the blue Ford Ranger pickup driving away as hospital staff strapped Moreno on the stretcher. Perla admitted that it was him in the video, but he lied about the circumstances that led to him dumping her off at the emergency room. I don't even use heroin, he said.

Throughout the interview, a thought lingered in the detective's head. He remembered hearing about Cassidy Seward's overdose death in Grapevine, and decided to bluff and see if Perla knew anything.

"Not only would I like to talk to you about [Alexandra], but also the girl in Grapevine," he recalls telling him.

"You mean Cassidy?" Perla responded.

Like most cops do after heroin overdoses, Graves had moved on. Then she got the call: The drug dealers who supplied Seward the heroin and meth that led to her death were being held at the Irving Police Department.

Graves and another detective peppered Perla with questions about Seward's death, but he wouldn't crack. "Perla kept saying, 'Why would I give her heroin when I loved her?'" Graves says. "But it was a warped love. He bad mouthed her to his dealer buddy and bragged about using a 'dead girl's bong.' He was heartless."

Still, using evidence gathered from text messages, social media accounts and witness statements, detectives were able to link Moreno's and Seward's overdose deaths to Perla. With the help of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Dallas, they also linked four overdose deaths to his roommate, Sanchez, who was also responsible for Seward's death since he provided the methamphetamine found in her system.

The narcotics detective thought he could prove a federal conspiracy case against Perla and Sanchez because guns, drugs and fatalities were involved. So he presented his findings to Jason Schall, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Dallas. Schall, who has since left that office for private practice, understood all too well the hidden problem with accountability in heroin overdose-related deaths.

"There is a real discontent between the investigation of heroin overdose deaths and investigators assigned," Schall says. This detective, though, "is like a lone wolf. He's the heroin whisperer."

Schall credits the Irving Police Department with giving their detective "a long leash" to work his cases. He also credits them with sending a drug cop in the first place. Most send homicide investigators.

"And what happens — and this is kind of the shame of it all — these homicide detectives quickly ascertain it's an overdose if there is a needle in the arm and no sign of knives," Schall says. "They wait for the overdose autopsy to come back, and the case is marked as an accidental death and the investigation stops.

"It's clear to the homicide detective," he adds, "that the city doesn't want homicide cases sitting open on their desk, and the case is basically closed. Then you get parents of deceased heroin victims asking why hasn't anything happened. They rightfully suspected their child was murdered."

Schall and the detective began linking other deaths to the drug dealers, and a federal grand jury indicted them on a variety of drug charges. Perla pleaded guilty in January 2014 to two counts of heroin with intent to distribute, causing the death to Moreno, 20, and Seward, 18. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Three months later, Sanchez pleaded guilty to a litany of drug charges, including five overdose deaths. He was sentenced to 30 years.

After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Sarah R. Saldan of the Northern District of Texas issued a statement:

"Often drug users are seen as victims of their own choice. Today, however, in federal court, two drug dealers who preyed upon those addictions faced families who have been forever harmed because of their actions. While we cannot replace the young lives that were lost to heroin and other dangerous drugs, this office will continue to hold those accountable who make those poisons available in our communities."


 

Suzanne stands in the middle of Seward's room, which looks the same as it did when Seward died almost two years ago. She's added a few more pictures, actually, and a stuffed bear she had made out of her daughter's blanket. She finally folded her daughter's clothes not too long ago.

"She would always give me a kiss," Suzanne says, "and oh my god, her hugs, body hugs, let me tell you. Complete. You knew you were hugged. And you could just feel the warmth of true love and acceptance."

Like the other family members at Perla and Sanchez's sentencing hearing, Suzanne read a "victim impact statement." She'd heard Perla's mother plead with the judge for mercy because he had a young son. At least you still have him, she told Perla.

"Have I forgiven him?" she asks in her daughter's room. "I have to because I can't bear that. But I hate him for life. I don't feel sorry for him."

Since Seward's death, Suzanne has founded a nonprofit called "Love, Cassidy" with her daughter Samantha and her son Zach. She wants to honor Seward's memory by helping other young people struggling with drug addiction. The foundation provides financial resources and support tools, including mentoring programs and music and art therapy sessions.

"I was brought to my knees the day we lost Cassidy," Suzanne wrote on the foundation's blog. "I still struggle to get to my feet some days. I am forever changed, and my family is forever changed. There is an ever-present void, a deep sorrow, and a relearning of how to build our relationships without her."


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