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November 24, 2008

Heroin: from Baltimore to Virginia

The Washington Post had a fascinating article in Sunday's editions about heroin sales and fatal overdoes at Westfield High School in western Fairfax County, Va. Reading throuugh the story you quickly learn that federal authorities allege the heroin these teens bought came from right here in Baltimore.

A DEA agent was quoted noting the purity of heroin in Baltimore, which of course makes it attractive. The story didn't spend a lot of time on Baltimore, and I pulled the court file from the U.S. District Courthouse for Eastern Virginia. It too only mentions Baltimore in passing, noting that starting in January, one suspect is alleged to have bought "between 2 and 8 grams of heroin multiple times per week from his Baltimore source of supply." The 8 grams of heroin cost $1,000, the court papers allege.

The documents don't say where in Baltimore the drugs were purchased. Suburbanites come into the city all the time. A decade ago, Baltimore Sun photographer Kim Hairston and I documented suburban drug users treating the city like a supermarket for heroin and cocaine.

One man had to change public transportation three times to reach a suspected drug house, which had been taken over by undercover cops. Then Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier noted how bad the problem was with this quote: "If you are on a corner and selling drugs, it means you shot someone for the right to stand there. If you live in the suburbs and come into the city to buy drugs, you have blood on your hands."

One police commander back then wanted to put up a billboard warning visitors not to buy drugs or risk going to jail. The story focused on Corrie Simpson, who had attended a Howard County high school but was coming to the city to buy her drugs. "For what I do, you have to go to Baltimore to get it." A cop noted that just like people know where to get the best wines or steaks, drug users know where to get the best heroin.

The story also got me thinking about Annie McCann, the 16-year-old girl from Fairfax, Va., who ran away from home earlier this month and was found dead in Baltimore in Perkins Homes, a drug neighborhood in Southeast Baltimore. So far, there doesn't appear to be a connection between her death and the suspected drug ring uncovered by federal authorities. The high schools are in different parts of the county and the group involved in the latest case apparently was tight. Also, the Maryland Medical Examiner has not ruled on how Annie died; she had a bruise on her head but police say it wasn't enough to kill her. We're still awaiting autopsy results to help shed light on this mystery.

Here is the story from 1998 -- the numbers are a bit old. Also, I was unable to find Corrie Simpson to see how she's doing today but I'd love to hear from her. The photo was taken by Baltimore Sun photographer Kim Hairston at an undercover police sting in Southwest Baltimore:


 Corrie Simpson wakes up every morning in a stone rancher outside Westminster and heads to Shipley Street and Fairmount Avenue, a drab pocket of sagging brick rowhouses and concrete front yards in Southwest Baltimore.

There, her boyfriend, Patrick Cook, 35, leans out of the 1984 Chevrolet and shouts to a stocky man wearing a red bandanna. "Any Ready?" he asks, using street-corner slang for crack cocaine. The seller nods. "Give me six." 

The drugs are for Simpson, a 19-year-old former Glenelg High School student from western Howard County. "For what I do, you have to go to Baltimore to get it," the teen with shoulder-length, dark-blond hair said. 

The drug scourge that has helped wreck city neighborhoods is fueled, police say, by people who live in the comfort of suburbia, immune from the daily violence that consumes inner-city streets and has claimed a generation of young men. 

Now, police say, even with an estimated 55,000 addicts in Baltimore, the supply of heroin and cocaine far exceeds the demand. Business at some of the city's drug corners wouldn't be as brisk without middle-class buyers from places such as Glen Burnie, Dundalk and Sykesville. 

"If you are on a corner and selling drugs, it means you shot someone for the right to stand there," said Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. "If you live in the suburbs and come into the city to buy drugs, you have blood on your hands."

But police seem to be the only people doing something about it. The Sun accompanied officers on numerous stings over the past three months in which they posed as drug dealers and arrested nearly 100 people from Dundalk to Frederick and beyond. 

A review of court files suggests, however, that few, if any, will go to prison. They are charged with trying to buy drugs, a rarely used misdemeanor offense that makes the act of asking for an illegal substance a crime. 

City prosecutors -- who require a minimum seizure of 30 vials of crack to bring a felony drug charge -- often do not pursue the seemingly trivial charge. In December, an entire group of defendants arrested at an East Baltimore corner was sent home from court, their charges dismissed en masse without explanation. 

Even the administrative judge of the Circuit Court, Joseph H. H. Kaplan, said he doesn't believe that police "are accomplishing anything" by arresting addicts. 

Yet officers continue their initiatives, delighting residents who live on streets overwhelmed by vacant and boarded houses, who helplessly watch more prosperous outsiders visit their Baltimore neighborhoods to feed their hunger for cocaine and heroin. 

"These are viable taxpaying homeowners who have lived in their homes for years, and they are watching their neighborhood crash around them," said Maj. John L. Bergbower, commander of the Southwestern District. "They don't know what to do and they want us to do something about it." 

The back doors of a police van swing open, and suburbanites -- shackled with plastic handcuffs -- are paraded to the van past some of the neatly kept rowhouses of North Denison Street near Edmondson Avenue. 

Deborah Randall, a quarter-century resident of the once-thriving middle-class African-American neighborhood, offered a bemused smile as the stream of white faces marched past. 

She had just returned from a bridal shower in a predominantly white area of North Baltimore, where, she said, "people watched every move we made. We were not wanted in that neighborhood, but they come down here to buy their drugs." 

The blight from Edmondson Avenue -- drunks, addicts, dealers -- has spread to Denison Street, where vacant shells of houses are sandwiched between homes where children play, fathers mow small plots of grass and families hold cookouts. 

In five sweeps by police this year in predominantly black neighborhoods of Southwest Baltimore, police arrested 110 people, 68 of them white. Of those from outside the city, 25 lived in Baltimore County; 23 in Anne Arundel; 15 in Howard; three in Carroll; two each in Prince George's and Montgomery; one in Frederick; and five out of state. 

Bergbower wants a billboard on Washington Boulevard: "Welcome to Baltimore. If you are coming here to buy drugs, you might be buying from a police officer." 

Some suburbanites say they come because the drugs are better. Others say they're cheaper. Sonya Price, a 27-year-old recovering heroin addict who lives in Southwest Baltimore's Shipley Hill, offers a simpler explanation. "They come to where the drugs are." 

"It's the same way we know where to get the best steak or find the best bottle of wine," said Officer Kenneth Parks. "The addicts know where to get the best heroin or the best cocaine." 

That often means a dangerous trek into unfamiliar neighborhoods. Three Carroll County residents were killed last year in botched drug deals on city streets. There are 41 identified open-air drug markets within the Southwestern Police District. In Shipley Hill, there have been five homicides from January to May, most of them drug-related. 

Suburban residents "know that the distribution of drugs is a dangerous business," Bergbower said. "Yet they are willing to come here, get out of their cars and walk to a vacant rowhouse in the middle of the block in the inner city. 

"It astounds me. The average citizen thinks this is an inner-city problem. It's not," the major said. "My drug dealers are making a living off middle-class citizens who come here to buy drugs and then retreat to their homes in relative safety." 

Even with heroin use becoming a frightening reality on suburban cul-de-sacs, inner-city corners remain the supermarkets of the drug culture, drawing in thousands from outside the city limits attracted by cut-rate deals and a better high. 

Arresting people doesn't translate into prison. The only jail most suburbanites who are arrested ever see is a temporary holding cell at the downtown Central Booking and Intake Center, where they are held for a bail hearing. 

Punishment comes in other ways. Prisoners are often held more than 20 hours before they get bail. If they drove into the city, their cars will be waiting at the impound lot on Pulaski Highway and can be retrieved for $120. 

Add a lawyer and court fees, and the price tag on a single arrest jumps to nearly $1,000. Out-of-pocket expenses, missed work and embarrassment are often the severest punishments. 

Police are hoping that publicity will deter customers such as John Kaiser of Dundalk, one of 56 people caught in a sting in East Baltimore last year. 

Kaiser, 45, who said he has been addicted to heroin for eight years, admits he was buying drugs on North Bradford Street that day in October. But he doesn't think the police had probable cause to arrest him. 

"I pulled up and was asked by the undercover officer, 'What's up,' " Kaiser said. "I said, 'I'm here to get one.' " He was arrested at gunpoint when he turned up in an alley to meet a supposed seller. 

"I was up there doing no good, but even the bail commissioner said she didn't think they had probable cause to arrest me," Kaiser said. 

In a courtroom two months later, the judge had everyone charged with attempted possession stand up. "She said, 'Your cases are [dropped] and you are free to go.' " 

Prosecutors say they don't routinely drop cases. "We will prosecute all crimes," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "We review every one of these cases on an individual basis." 

Kaplan said police should spend their time on other crimes, as they do in Boston. Officers there "spend their time arresting violent offenders," the judge said. Three years ago, the Baltimore police commissioner said he wanted his officers to concentrate on violent dealers and ignore addicts, arguing that grabbing users did nothing more than pad arrest statistics. 

But police say that these stings target suburban residents to scare them off and to give temporary relief to neighborhoods. 

"When we lock them up, it's almost like a joke," said Officer Parks. "But [judges] will have to answer when we have elections." 

Kaplan said the problem can be solved only through treatment. "There are 55,000 addicts in Baltimore," he said. "That's 8 percent of the population. You can't arrest 8 percent of the population. I don't know why we haven't figured this out." 

Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, the administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court, agreed that arresting people like Kaiser "probably doesn't work." 

"But I just feel so sorry for people who own houses in these neighborhoods," she said. "They feel they are hostages in their ,, homes." 

To help neighborhoods, police turn the tables on the drug trade by running dealers out and taking their places. On June 5, North Shipley Street and West Fairmount Avenue belonged to the Baltimore Police Department. 

Three officers displaying the cool swagger of drug dealers and wearing baggy pants, oversize T-shirts and flashy sneakers leaned against a Formstone wall and waited. Within three hours, 28 people -- more than half from the suburbs -- tried to buy drugs from them.

Corrie Simpson came clutching six $10 bills, along with a small vial of crack, a spoon, a syringe and a container of marijuana. Angry at being arrested, she unleashed a string of profanities. 

Parks said Simpson exhibited what he called the typical "cocky white attitude: 'Why are you locking me up for this?' "

Later, after having spent 20 hours in custody awaiting a bail hearing, Simpson had a different attitude. "It really opened my eyes," she said. "I've been doing this for too long. A jail cell isn't where I need to be." 

Those arrested in similar stings throughout the city this year have included parole officers, city school teachers -- three in one afternoon at the same west-side corner -- waiters, machinists, nurses, counselors and department store clerks. 

One man took the Light Rail from Severn and changed buses three times to get to a vacant house in Southwest Baltimore. 

They arrive knowing the street slang. "Give me some raw" for heroin, or, "Give me a dime of Ready," for crack cocaine. 

Sitting on an old blue couch in the un-air-conditioned corner house in the 500 block of N. Denison Street, one of the arrestees shouted to an officer who complained of the stifling 100-degree heat. "Why do you do this?" 

"Because the people in this neighborhood have got to live here," Sgt. Tim Devine shot back. "Nobody really cares too much about your personal comfort." 

It was the third time in a month Devine and his officers had used the house to stage arrests. There was no shortage of suspects. 

William Nowak, 58, a construction worker from Catonsville, said he saw someone get arrested at the house on the news a week earlier and thought it would be a good place. Scott Jones, 19, also from Catonsville, said, "I just thought I'd try this." Charges against both men are pending. \

White suburban drug users once stuck to the city's perimeter, afraid to venture too far into the inner city. Now, Randall said, North Denison Street is often lined with pricey cars from the suburbs, full of neatly dressed people holding out folded 10- and 20-dollar bills, waiting to be served drugs as if the vacant house next door to hers were a restaurant's drive-up window. 

"This is a new thing, them coming this far into the inner city," said Devine. "Three or four years ago, you might get one or two white guys up here. Now, they're the majority. It's the depth of their addiction, I guess." 

Even suburbanites arrested say they can't understand why Baltimore remains a drug center. 

"I really think they could clean it up," Simpson said a week after her arrest while charges were still pending. 

"They have to go after the dealers who are bringing it in. It's greed; that's why it never changes.    "They lock us up and make everyone think they are doing something about it," she said. "People in the city are the problem. If they got rid of all the dealers, then we wouldn't have any place left to buy. They aren't doing anything by arresting the addicts."

Kaiser's mother, Ruth Cook, 68, accompanied her son to tTC Bradford Street twice to see where he went. "I will not do that anymore," she said. "It was like a jungle. There were cops and people standing on corners selling drugs and all kinds of dope." 

Cook said it's the city that contributes to her son's addiction. "From what I saw, there were very few innocent people. It's like all of them were doing the drug thing. It's not all the users' fault." 

Her son, a jobless Vietnam veteran, said he has bought drugs in East Baltimore for eight years, paying for them by driving others to city corners and keeping a cut of what they buy. 

"Baltimore has a big problem," he said. "I definitely think I'm part of the problem. If it wasn't for people like me, the dealers wouldn't be in business." 

He recalled news stories about one family who reportedly helped police arrest some local dealers -- part of the same sweep in which he was arrested -- whose house was shot up the next day. 

"That's a shame," Kaiser said. "Here they are trying to do something to help their neighbors, and they paid the consequences. The drugs are everywhere out there. It's amazing that the police haven't found a way to shut it down." 

Kaiser said he lives in a quiet Dundalk community. "I wouldn't want someone coming into my neighborhood to buy drugs," he said. Asked how many times he's driven to Bradford Street since he was arrested there eight months ago, he paused, then quietly whispered: "More than I can count."


Posted by Peter Hermann at 4:04 PM | | Comments (5)


Interesting and well written essay.

Am I to infer that you or anyone else expects anything to change?

here's a hint: The equation is constant. Absent some (quite substantial) change in the factors the game will remain the same.

thanks to the sun for re-publishing this article. as a newcomer to baltimore, i wondered how it is that this condition has lasted so long. mr, hermann, has there been a detailed account of drug treatment from what hopkins does in study to what the faith community offers. you quoted a judge kaplan in 1998 about remedies and yet i find so little talk about rehab in this town. its astonishing! so too is the story itself. i do not understand why there isnt a concensus on drug treatment for this city. why is it taking so long? peace, emmet

We in Pigtown get to look out our windows and watch an assortment of out-of-towners come into our neighborhood everyday and buy drugs, pulling off MLK, heading onto Washington BLVD then turn onto the side streets. These folks appear to be 3-6 months away from being homeless (whom they sometimes hire to buy for them since they already have the connections and have less of a chance getting caught if someone buys for them) themselves, driving all sorts of beat-up cars more often then not. Instead of a sign about buying drugs from an undercover cop, maybe we need a sign that tells people not to offer money to the homeless who are almost all addicts and in turn also provide a client base for the dealers who in turn bring violence and gangs into our neighborhood. The kind-hearted visitors may be better off donating money to local organizations that feed the hungry, offer counseling and job training instead of seeing their money fuel a drug economy (and to an extent, the few local eateries). Pessimistic about seeing change...let's also see real cases be built to eliminate the suppliers instead of just going after highly replaceable dealers and buyers.

i was a heroin addict for almost a decade, and the many times that i tried to quit, there simply was no one there to help. i would scour the yellow pages looking for something, anything, to help me and my bf get off it, but it just didnt exist at that time. i hear things are better now as far as treatment availability, but b-more still has a LOOOOONG way to go. so much wasted time, so many wasted lives.

Its not just Baltimore, people. You got Chicago, Detroit, New York..... And the simple fact is this... Unless the government ends the prohibition on drugs(all drugs), well then there will always be a violent gangster underworld fueling the scene. And it ain't ever gonna go away. There will always be dealers on the corners.

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About Peter Hermann
Peter Hermann started covering news for The Baltimore Sun in 1990, first in Anne Arundel County and, starting in 1994, reporting on the Baltimore Police Department. In 2001, he was assigned to Jerusalem as the Baltimore Sun's Middle East correspondent. He returned in 2005 as an assistant city editor overseeing crime coverage. In 2008, Peter returned to the beat as a daily reporter and blogger. A recent BBC report featured him in a segment on the harsh realities of covering crime in Baltimore.

Coverage will focus on crime trends, problems in neighborhoods in the city and elsewhere, profiles of victims and police officers and try to offer readers a fresh perspective on one of the most vexing issues facing Baltimore and its future.

Contributing to this blog is Justin Fenton, who joined The Sun in 2005 and has covered the Baltimore City Police Department and the criminal justice system since 2008. His work includes an investigation into Cal Ripken Jr.’s minor league baseball stadium deal with his hometown of Aberdeen, a three-part series chronicling a ruthless con woman, coverage of the killing of five Amish children at a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., and a job swap with a British crime reporter to explore differences in crime-fighting. A special report looking into how city police handle rape cases led to sweeping reforms that changed the way sexual assaults are investigated in Baltimore. He was recognized as the best reporter in Baltimore by the City Paper in 2010 and by Baltimore Magazine in 2011.

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