Bad trip

Milan Michael Malina wasn't the first Plano youth to die of a heroin overdose. In the endless game of death and law enforcement that we call the war on drugs, it's hard to tell what number he rolled. According to The Plano Star-Courier, he was the eighth of 15 deaths "tied to [heroin] in Plano" since January 1996. The Plano Police Department's official tally lists the 20-year-old Malina as the ninth of 13 Plano heroin deaths between June 1995 and February 1998.

But looking back, Malina's death clearly was a turning point in Plano's long funeral dirge. It was the event that, for better or worse, brought federal investigators to Plano and spawned a joint federal-state task force. It was the first of four deaths that resulted in last summer's federal indictment of 29 people for dealing drugs, a case in which most defendants faced the possibility of life in prison.

Now, 22 months after Malina's body was wheeled into a Plano emergency room, his father and the parents of other overdose victims are asking whether law enforcement's tough-on-drugs answer to the city's heroin epidemic solved the problem or simply made more victims.

At 1:20 p.m. on June 8, 1997, 19-year-old Bryan Embry and 18-year-old Rocky Battista burst into the emergency room at Columbia Medical Center of Plano. With them was a comatose Malina, who the two Plano teens said had been drinking. They also told emergency-room personnel they had found a heroin syringe near his body.

The nursing staff called Plano police as Dr. Kneeland Youngblood spent a few moments vainly attempting to revive Malina. At 1:32, Youngblood pronounced him dead.

The doctor told police Malina had been dead for some time. Though the cause of death was listed as "acute narcotism," the Collin County medical examiner reported that Malina in fact died of bronchial pneumonia, which he contracted after inhaling his own vomit. The medical examiner deduced that Malina had been in respiratory "distress" for anywhere from four to 10 hours.

Dr. William Rohr, the medical examiner, said a number of recent heroin deaths he had seen were disturbingly similar to Malina's. In two of the most recent overdose cases, witnesses admitted they had not sought medical help until after the victim died. In Malina's case, Embry and Battista said they had been worried about Malina for as long as six hours, according to police reports. During that time they tried to wake him, repeatedly checked his pulse and breathing, and even tried to administer Malina's asthma medicine. After he died on Battista's couch, they cleaned up the evidence of heroin use before taking his stiffening, blue body to the hospital.

Neither Battista nor Embry was charged in Malina's death. In police interviews, they suggested the blame lay with others: Malina, his family, kids who used heroin, kids who were "known drug dealers." Battista and Embry weren't alone. A half-dozen other youths who procured everything from the prescription drugs Valium and Xanax to alcohol for themselves and their underage friends that night blamed other kids--among them Chris Cooper, the Plano teen who helped Malina buy the heroin that did him in.

Yet even after he was identified by his peers, it was doubtful that Cooper would face charges. No one had been charged in any of the previous deaths, and in early July, Plano police told Malina's grieving father, George, that they were closing the file, having determined that his son was "both victim and perpetrator."

In response, an outraged George Malina called the FBI. He met with Drug Enforcement Administration agents. He demanded that those responsible for his son's death be brought to justice. Malina got his wish. Federal and local law-enforcement officers soon formed the Plano heroin joint task force, which last summer brought a precedent-setting federal indictment against Chris Cooper and dozens of other addicts. Also charged was a group of illegal immigrants that authorities claim was the "primary source for heroin and much of the cocaine in Plano."

Twenty-two months after Malina's death, those deemed responsible for his overdose have been brought to justice. Chris Cooper has pleaded guilty to using the telephone to get heroin; the crime likely will earn him four years in federal prison. Cooper's supplier, and Cooper's supplier's suppliers, junkies or minor dealers all, have pleaded or been found guilty of conspiring to distribute heroin. Police and federal agents have declared victory over Plano's heroin problem. In February, a jury convicted 11 of the 12 remaining defendants of conspiring to distribute the heroin that killed Milan Malina and three other Plano teens. That same day, Plano detective Billy Meeks told his hometown paper that "since the arrests, the presence of heroin in Plano has been cut by 91 percent." The DEA is touting Plano's effort as a model for how to combat heroin, and Plano is sending law-enforcement delegations as far away as New Jersey to educate their brethren on how it was done.