Bad trip

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"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.

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Christine Biederman