Bad trip

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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.

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Christine Biederman