Bad trip

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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.

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Christine Biederman