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.

And George Malina, the man whose anguished call for justice helped bring it all about, isn't happy.

"For us, there is no satisfaction," says Malina, seated on the sofa in his airy North Dallas home. "In fact, I'm writing a letter on behalf of [Chris Cooper], asking the judge to give him probation."

Malina isn't alone. Most families of the dead are asking U.S. District Judge Richard A. Schell not to send one or more of those found responsible to prison. Slowly, reluctantly, painfully, they have concluded that turning users into federal inmates is at best misguided policy. Some feel that the retribution and rhetoric used in the drug war are barbaric; others feel that warehousing addicts does little to solve the problem of addiction even as it provides the public with a false sense of security. Still others know that, had the fates been just a little kinder, their own dead children could be the ones facing federal time.

"The problem isn't them, the people they prosecuted," Malina explains. "The problem is the [drug] policy." Based on what they have observed over the last two years, Malina and his wife are no believers in drug interdiction, especially the newest, latest tough-on-drug laws used on their behalf. They've formed a nascent foundation hoping to help reform what they call "medieval" drug laws, as well as to provide treatment and counseling.

"These kids are sick," George Malina explains. "They have a medical problem. And instead of helping them, we label them criminals and drive them further underground."

By the time Milan Michael Malina died, an epidemic was well under way, yet the good people of Plano hardly knew it. It started in the early '90s, as scientists at the National Institutes of Health began to notice the numbers measuring heroin abuse creep up nationwide. At first, the increases were among youth reporting they had tried it; by the mid-'90s came hospital reports of a growing number of overdoses. And for the first time in recent history, the increases were not only in inner-city hospitals, but in suburban ones.

Still, for the most part, these reports were from far away: Seattle. Baltimore. Not North Texas, and certainly not Plano. "You've got to understand, in Plano, over the last decade, roughly '84-'95, we'd only dealt with 14 cases of heroin," says Bruce Glasscock, Plano's police chief. And those, Glasscock says, were just "street cases"--possession, not overdoses.

However, Glasscock says that beginning in late '95, Plano police began seeing "preliminary indications of heroin use."

"The first indication we saw was, our burglary detectives started detecting suspects coming in who were using heroin," he recalls. Though there may have been few arrests, state and county health officials say that heroin deaths were not exactly unknown in Collin County. Between 1987 and December 1995, the Collin County medical examiner recalls seeing at least eight heroin-overdose deaths. According to the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, an average of three Collin County residents died of heroin overdoses each year between 1987 and 1995. For the most part, though, the victims were junkies in their late 30s, and their deaths received little notice.

But in 1994, the ages of the dead began to plummet: 27, 18, 21. In 1996, the heroin dead averaged 18 years old. Still, Glasscock recalls, "the deaths...were spread out such that, you know, no patterns really started jumping out. No one was panicking; that came much later, in the fall of '97, followed quickly by the media, everyone from Newsweek to MTV pursuing tales of teenage suburban junkies. During the first eight months of 1997, the county would average more than one heroin death a month. The median victim's age was 21; the youngest was 15.

George and Joanne Malina never expected heroin to follow them to Plano. "We didn't want to raise kids in New York," recalls George Malina, who was raised in Brooklyn. Joanne was reared in Harlem and had walked past shooting galleries on her way to school. Both were the offspring of blue-collar families, and they came to Texas in search of opportunity, safe neighborhoods, and good schools. Since arriving in the mid-'70s, Malina has been in businesses varying from real estate to vitamins, diamonds to delis. Currently he works as an "international financial consultant."

"I want to share something with you," says Joanne, pulling out a brown 3-by-5 photo album. As her visitor leafs through the photos, she provides a narrative: There's Milan as a wrinkled, red-faced newborn; there, as a cute brown-headed kid with a Beatles-style haircut, posing with his two older brothers, David and George, in front of the Parthenon. A few pages later, he's a gawky adolescent; then, suddenly, a darkly handsome teen.

The photos, and the occasional call or letter from a friend of Milan's, are what they have to remember their son by. There is no gravestone; his body was cremated, and his brothers spread the ashes on a mountaintop in Silverton, Colorado.

Unlike many parents, the Malinas knew about their son's drug use--most of it, anyway. Milan had spoken with his parents about trying marijuana, and they knew he was experimenting with other substances.

"Kids, they make up their own patchwork of beliefs," George Malina says, and sighs. "He said he liked [marijuana], that this other kid's dad had been smoking it for 40 years, it didn't cause any harm. I said, 'It's illegal. If nothing else harms you, that will.'"

By the time he was 16, Milan was struggling in school. According to police records, he got in a series of scrapes with the law, incidents from stealing a bottle of rum to smoking dope in a hotel room. But he managed to hide most of it from his parents, and they wrote off the school problems to a learning disability. Gradually, however, they came to suspect that he had a substance-abuse problem. "When he was using, he slept all the time," Joanne recalls. "He couldn't get anything done." The seriousness was brought home in the spring of 1997, after Milan moved to Santa Barbara, California, to be near a girlfriend. Shortly afterward, he and the girlfriend landed in the Santa Barbara County jail for driving while intoxicated, forging a Valium prescription, and trying to write a check from a stolen checkbook.

Practicing a bit of tough love, George Malina refused to bail his son out for several days. When Milan did get out, his father insisted he come home and get clean. Milan moved in with his big brother David, who was helping his parents keep an eye on his younger brother. George Malina sent his son to a private drug counselor and made him submit to a weekly urine screen.

"The next few months we had with him, when I look back, they were like a gift from God," Malina recalls. Milan was off the drugs. He began to gain weight, to work out again, to think about the future. He enrolled in a community college, determined to study art. They thought he had turned the corner.

"We didn't understand about relapse," he says.
On a Sunday morning five days after his 20th birthday, Milan's family gathered for church. "David came in by himself," Malina recalls. "I asked him, 'Where's Milan? And he said, 'Milan didn't come home last night.'"

After church, George and Joanne went shopping. When they got home at about 2 p.m., a message was waiting from David.

"He said 'Beep me,'" George recalls. "So I did. He said, 'Dad, you need to come to the hospital.' I said, 'How come?' He said, 'You just need to come.' I said, 'Tell me.' And he said, 'Milan's dead.'"

"I've known Milan since the ninth grade," says Chris Cooper. "We had a mutual friend. It really was sort of a drug friendship. Our mutual friend was the one who got Milan doing cocaine."

Cooper is speaking from the Grayson County jail, where he and most of the other 29 federal defendants are doing time as they await sentencing. It's easy to see why teachers, school administrators, parole officers, and rehab directors alike describe him--a handsome 20-year-old, personable and funny, with coffee-and-cream skin and soft brown eyes--as a "born leader."

He looks out of place in this setting, a depressing, squat building of cement and cinder blocks covered by peeling paint. The jail lacks the most rudimentary comforts; the exercise area is a 10-by-10 room with a hole in the ceiling, and inmates are not allowed to receive books. It's a tough life for a 20-year-old who attended good schools (Highland Park, Plano), plays violin, and pines for Italian language tapes (also not allowed). A natural storyteller, Cooper writes poetry and prose; he hopes someday to work in a creative field, maybe journalism, maybe film, maybe advertising. On a recent April morning he regaled visitors with tales of jailhouse life, wearing a gee-whiz, slightly startled look, like an amateur anthropologist suddenly transported to Samoa. Certainly he is no saint. He was once suspended for a high school prank. By the time he was a junior, he was failing in school, mostly because of absences caused by drugs. He dropped out and was arrested for marijuana possession.

Unlike many present the night Malina died, he's happy to talk about it all: Malina's death, heroin, his role, his addiction. Though they ran in different circles, the pair crossed paths at weekend parties, which is how they hooked up the night Malina died. That evening's big bash was held at the home of a newly minted Plano Senior High grad, and police reports state that the entertainment, for 60 or more underage visitors, included "a large amount of alcoholic beverages," marijuana, Xanax, and Valium--the latter two available for purchase from a fellow partygoer for $3 a pill. (The host told police his mother was present the entire night, in her bedroom.)

Bryan Embry, one of the two kids who were with Malina when he died, told police that drugs were more readily available at these weekly Plano parties than at college. The party host, in turn, told police that Milan and some others were "haranguing" Chris Cooper to get them chiva, a blend of heroin and antihistamines that is snorted or injected. Rocky Battista said he overheard Cooper saying he was "out of it and had none on his person, but he would make some phone calls and try to hook some deals up."

Eventually, the party shut down, and Cooper drifted over to Battista's, where Milan and another addict were. At that point, Cooper says, he agreed to take them to his supplier, a Plano grad in his mid-20s who dealt to support his own addiction. Police reports say that the other kid gave Cooper the money and that Cooper turned the heroin over to Malina and his friend. Cooper made nothing on the transaction and went home without sampling the drugs.

"I was trying to quit," he recalls. "And I knew if I went back [to Battista's], I'd end up doing it. We had a long talk about it, and Milan knew what I was trying to do. He said, 'I'm proud of you for trying to stay clean.'"

Milan and the other kid returned to Battista's, where they did some more chiva, then passed out. From there, the tale gets vague. The other kid, who told police he remembers little of that night, woke up at 7 a.m. and ran home. Battista and Embry said they tried to wake Milan several times that morning, and both apparently knew he was in trouble, since they took his pulse, attempted to administer his asthma medication, and even held a mirrored coaster to his nose and mouth to see whether he was breathing. (They got the idea, Embry told police, from watching Pulp Fiction.) They went back to bed, and when they finally awoke at 1 p.m., they "noticed a chunky yellow substance oozing out of the mouth of Milan," police reported. Noting that his "appendages were very cold," they rifled his pockets. The two told police that was when they discovered the chiva, which they flushed down the toilet before heading for the hospital.

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.

"Even then, he thought he could do it by himself. They'd make pacts with each other to stop. It was like, 'Me and so-and-so, we're gonna do this together.'" She laughs at the naivete. "Some of these kids, they honestly didn't know what it was when they started using. It was called chiva. It came in a capsule and you snorted it. They didn't know it was heroin." Nor did they know much about addiction. She recalls one kid telling her that he wasn't hooked because he "didn't have to snort it every day."

Like many kids who ended up addicted, Chris Cooper says he didn't know it was heroin. He does recall when he first tried it, though. It was the fall of 1996, just after dinner. A friend of his named Yasa had given him a couple of capsules. "The next day, I went and got some more," he recalls from his jail cell. "At first I used it every other day. Then every day. Then I got to where I was real careful to keep a little before I went to bed, so I had a bump when I woke up in the morning. I had to do it just to feel normal." Cooper turned to low-level dealing, taking other addicts to get heroin from his sources in exchange for the occasional free gram.

After her son told her about his addiction, Sheila Cooper urged him to get professional help. From her days in the newsroom, she'd seen many people dealing with substance abuse; she'd even helped nurse a close friend over cocaine addiction. But she also knew that effective treatment options were limited. Like too many middle-class parents, she didn't have insurance. Not that it would have helped much--virtually no insurer will cover more than a couple of weeks of residential treatment. The budget for methadone treatment, which the federal government bankrolled in an earlier era and which helped curb an earlier generation's rising use, was slashed in the early '80s. In the Dallas-Fort Worth region, there is one clinic that dispenses methadone, which addicts must pick up every day to fight withdrawal symptoms. These days, addicts are largely left to their own devices, fighting the cycle of too-short rehab and relapse, and trying to get clean on their own or with the help of a few privately funded charities. Sheila Cooper knew of one of these, and she urged her son to go to the House of Isiah, a faith-based long-term residential program run by former NFL star Isiah Robertson in tiny Mabank, Texas. Chris resisted, insisting he could lick this himself.

Sheila Cooper knew better, but she also knew that her son had to want to do it himself. "He had to be ready for treatment. So I tried to help him as best I could. And I prayed. And from June to November [1997], every time the phone rang, I just knew it was going to be, 'He's dead.'"

"You've got to understand," says Chief Glasscock. "Pre-'97, the typical way law enforcement responded to an overdose [was]...to investigate it as [an accidental] death. The M.E. would make a ruling that the death was the result of an overdose. An accidental overdose. Case closed. Unfortunate set of circumstances. Right or wrong, that was the way."

It was certainly Plano's way until the day after Glasscock's confrontation with George Malina. No one had been prosecuted out of any heroin-related overdoses, but Glasscock knew his town was not going to reject more aggressive law enforcement. He ordered his staff to review the file, and on July 17, Plano police brass held a meeting about Milan Malina's death.

They decided to investigate Chris Cooper, and the file was given to Billy Meeks, a homicide detective newly assigned to narcotics duty. Meeks learned that Chris Cooper got his chiva from an older Plano High graduate named Ray Hancock, as well as from a young Plano teen named Yasa Khanbabaee who was said to have particularly potent stuff.

While the police were studying Cooper, another Plano youth died. Shortly after 3 a.m. on July 24, 1997, three teens dropped George Wesley Scott, 19, at the hospital emergency room then fled. As in the case of Malina, Scott had been dead for some time; as with Malina, the kids had shared drugs bought with pooled money. Once again, police were less concerned with who could have saved Scott than with determining who called the dealer, yet another Plano teenage addict supporting his habit by dealing rather than stealing.

Police also met with Scott's parents, who were specific about their wishes. "They requested that we not make criminals out of Wes' friends," Meeks wrote. "Instead, we should help them get into some kind of rehab--as opposed to some type of prison."

It was not to be. The law-enforcement machinery, though slow to crank up, was now lumbering forward.

In late July, Malina met with Julio Mercado.
"I still have George's pictures that he dropped off at the time," Mercado says, waving the pictures nearly two years later. "This is George's son. They're still here; I still have them. They stay on top of my desk all the time."

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."

Other young men and women who were hooked on heroin had similar epiphanies. Some went into a long-term residential

treatment program run by the Texas Department of Corrections. Some underwent private treatment. A few relapsed or remained on the street. By February, almost everyone who would later be included in the federal indictment had been through the state court system.

And despite the arrests, despite the announcement that the problem was under control, the deaths continued. On February 9, 1998, 17-year-old Natacha Campbell, a popular young Plano dropout and regular on the party circuit, died of an overdose. Her panicked companion abandoned her at a gas station and called police to come get her.

Police continued to make arrests. In March 1998, a contingent of Plano police and DEA and FBI agents showed up on Plano school campuses with warrants for a dozen students. Another dozen or more individuals were arrested off-campus in what the task force called "Operation Rockfest." All were charged with possession of small amounts of heroin: a gram here, four grams there. The task force paraded its achievement before the media.

That was when George Malina really began to get angry.
To deal with their grief, Malina and his wife had set up a foundation in their son's name. They began to talk with experts, to look for money, to act as a clearinghouse for information. They studied the problem of drug addiction, and the more they studied, the more they became convinced that the arrests were window dressing. They believed not only that the problem had not been contained, but that it was simply uncontainable.

Then, too, there was the problem of police tactics.
"I get this call from an AP reporter," says George Malina. "He says, 'This defense lawyer I know has some pretty explosive documents, and he's scared to death.' So the defense lawyer comes over, and he gives them to me. And there it all is, how the minister's kid got jammed up by the undercover cop."

In the fall of 1997, Brenda Leudke, an undercover officer in her mid-20s, passed herself off as a teenage junkie in search of chiva. The act was good enough to fool Jonathan Kollman, a minister's son who had been struggling with heroin addiction. According to police reports signed by Leudke's supervisor, she drove Kollman to get dope and gave him the money to buy it. On one occasion the previous October, after the two bought 15 caps of heroin and two of cocaine with $100 of Plano's money and $10 of Jonathan's, Leudke let Kollman keep four heroin caps and the cocaine.

Kollman was one of those in Operation Rockfest. When his defense attorney leaked the story of Leudke's action to The Associated Press, Glasscock denied wrongdoing. (Kollman later recanted his accusations against Leudke in exchange for probation on drug charges, one of his attorneys says.)

"So I call up Julio Mercado," recalls Malina, "and I say, 'Do you know what this task force is doing with your money?' I said, 'You're supposed to be going after criminals, not addicts.'"

For Mercado and the other drug warriors, however, the end justified the means. "Look," Mercado says. "We don't just go out and target innocent people. When we target somebody, we have intelligence that they are involved in drugs."

He has little patience for the argument that we shouldn't be jailing addicts.

"If you go across the country, everywhere you go, addicts are the ones who are pushing the drugs. They're the ones who are destroying [communities].

"I mean, sooner or later, we have to stop and say this is a war. They're destroying our kids. Our economy is being destroyed by these people...Look at all the money. Treatment centers. Medication. Hospital bills. This all a result of drugs. Instead of going out and having to spend so much money on treatment centers, on hospitals, you know, we can use it on something else--on jails to put them in."

On July 22, 1998, Sheila Cooper attended a graduation ceremony for all of the kids who had completed treatment at the House of Isiah. "Everyone got up and told their stories. We all cried and cried again. It was this...picture of redemption. It was very moving."

Three days later, someone pounding on her door awakened her from sleep. "I tried to look out the window, and all I could see was this dark car in the driveway. And that's about the time I heard the guys around back, yelling, 'FBI. Open up.'"

No fewer than 10 armed federal and state agents were looking for Chris Cooper. When Sheila told them he was in Fort Worth, they didn't believe her. "They looked through the house with big flashlights," she says. "That's when I heard about the indictment. And I knew the bottom had fallen out."

She turned on the TV, and there they were: The DEA. The FBI. Mike Bradford, the U.S attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. Twenty-nine people were indicted on various charges of conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, they announced. Among them were Chris Cooper and other addicts who procured drugs for friends. Most faced possible life sentences under the new death-enhancement law.

"They said they all faced 20-to-life," she recalls. "I just sat there and screamed."

She wasn't alone. The indictments were full of good kids from good families who'd ended up with drug problems. The worst of the lot had records for petty crimes they had committed to support their habits. At the top were 12 illegal immigrants, alleged to be the masterminds of a drug distribution system. The addicts themselves were alleged to be co-conspirators.

A number were pulled out of treatment programs and thrown into jail. Some who had never been in treatment were put in jail, where they went through varying degrees of withdrawal. "We pled my guy because that was the only way we could get him into treatment," says Ron Goranson, who represented Steven Kapp, a dropout from J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson. "But there isn't a dime's worth of difference between my guy and the girl who died except she was just a little bit unluckier." Kapp had helped Erin Baker get the heroin that killed her; like many indicted, he took pooled money to the door and made no profit off the deal. But he had a record of junkie crime, so a federal magistrate refused to release him into treatment. Kapp pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Most, including Chris Cooper, quickly pleaded to lesser counts in an effort to minimize the risk. "You think, 'We should have fought it," says Sheila Cooper. "But then you think, 'He was looking at life in the federal pen.'" The Mexican citizens weren't offered such favorable deals; last February, they went to trial. All but one were convicted, and with just two exceptions, everyone's awaiting sentencing.

Last November, Steven Kapp was sentenced. Despite the fact that Erin Baker's dad showed up, and cried, and asked the judge to give Kapp treatment, he received 48 months.

Other parents of the dead kids remain optimistic. George Malina is organizing a letter-writing campaign on Chris Cooper's behalf, as well as for Cooper's supplier. He isn't alone. Last month, Wes Scott's parents wrote the judge on behalf of six kids, including those charged in connection with their son's death. "If they were guilty of conspiracy in this case," Larry Scott wrote, "then so was my son. And I hardly think Wes would have conspired in his own death. I don't know the specifics of each of the other youngsters' situations, but I do think the prescribed punishments do not fit the crime.

"Two wrongs do not make a right. I've never been an advocate of 'an eye for an eye' kind of thinking. It's uncivilized...It just seems to me that sanity should prevail. It is what my son would have wanted. Why society, through our elected officials, insists on resorting to such knee-jerk simple solutions to such complex problems as substance abuse boggles my mind."

For his part, Chris Cooper regrets the decisions he made. At the same time, he's proud: He hasn't relapsed since going into treatment in November 1997, and he can't help feeling that, to some degree, he and his peers have been sacrificed. "It's kind of like, they had to hang us to satisfy the public," he says. "I feel sometimes like we were the guinea pigs.

"Every one of my friends--80 or 90 percent--are in jail or rehab," he says. "That's like 40 or 45 out of 50 people. They're just gone."

Plano authorities don't necessarily disagree. "Nationally, we took our eye off the ball," Glasscock says. "Five, 10 years ago, if you recall, you could see on TV ads about 'don't do drugs.' That federal funding went away. And there is a direct correlation--in fact, there are graphs that show, when the funding for those public education announcements went down, use went up."

Everyone agrees that to some extent word has now gotten out; kids are wiser to the consequences of heroin use, and new addicts aren't being made at the same rate. Where they disagree is on whether this is a result of interdiction or of education. As evidence of success, the drug warriors say the price of heroin in Plano has increased 50 to 100 percent, but realistically, that means it went from $10 or $15 to $20 a capsule. And the declarations of victory have a distinctly not-in-my-back-yard aspect. "The source of heroin now is not in Plano," Glasscock says. "They are going to other locations besides Plano [to buy it]...We have displaced the problem." All the way to Dallas and northeast Tarrant County, where five people died in the last three months of 1998, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

"I got disappointed with [law enforcement]," George Malina says. "But, realistically, what were they going to do? Take everybody out and shoot them?

"The truth is, they didn't have it under control and it's still not under control. They got some users and some bottom-level mules. That's all. Because the big guys, you can't get them. They sit over the border and protect themselves."

The Plano Star-Courier has continued to count the deaths. According to the newspaper, since last summer's federal indictments, at least two youths "with ties to Plano" have died. Glasscock, meanwhile, is just tired of the attention. "We're kind of saying to the media, 'Go on to somebody else that's having this problem, because it's old hat. There's no more story here.'

"And I mean unfortunately what happened to us is, what we found the media doing is, if there was a death in Salt Lake City--you know...because he was a Plano student, that became a Plano death. So if there was a Plano link in some way, that became our death. And if you really look at the number of deaths that occurred within our jurisdiction, we're probably down around 12 to 14."

Whoever they are, the deaths continue. On March 29, 1999, another overdose victim was dumped on a sidewalk. Though the body was abandoned in Richardson, the victim, an 18-year-old named Yasa Khanbabaee, was known to Plano police. He gave Chris Cooper his first chiva.

According to an official death tally dated April 1, neither the Star-Courier nor Plano is counting Yasa Khanbabaee as theirs.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Christine Biederman