Addicted: Twenty years ago, a heroin crisis in Plano left 19 young people dead; the impact is still felt today

Let’s start with something good. Dr. Fred Hansen, an addiction psychologist at Life Management Resources, has practiced in the Collin County area for several decades, long enough to see healing take place.

“There is a young man I know and about three of his closest friends died during the crisis of the ‘90s,” Dr. Hansen says. “He decided to embrace recovery at 19 years old.” Dr. Hansen motions to a large room we can see through a glass wall, where a man is speaking at a group counseling session. “That’s him over there. He’s one of my therapists. He’s a licensed professional counselor with a master’s in counseling. He came here and started working while going to school. Here he is—twenty years later.”

Unfortunately, not all addicts become success stories. In the late ‘90s, Plano and its surrounding cities found that out the hard way.

1995

Current Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin, then the newly appointed Assistant Police Chief, recalls the first heroin overdose he saw. It was June 1995. Around this same time, burglary detectives noticed a string of burglaries involving heroin addicts. Before this, Plano cops had seen plenty of marijuana and cocaine, but very little heroin.

Heroin, compared to other drugs, is in a league of its own. Users of drugs like painkillers and morphine can build up a low tolerance within three to four days, while heroin users can reach a high tolerance in about a week.

“By the time any addict has reached a high tolerance [for heroin], that addict doesn’t [shoot up to] get high. They shoot up to get as close to normal as they can, like how you and I feel today,” Dr. Hansen explains. “But it’s the psychological impression opiates make that are different than amphetamines [or uppers].”

Human brains remember not just the high from heroin, but also the people around, the place, paraphernalia like a spoon or syringe: these are all parts of the positive experience which can trigger drug cravings in users for years, even after they get clean.

“When you see overdose deaths as accidents in the eyes of the law, [officials] weren’t recording any statistics or investigating the deaths like you would a homicide. So no one really knew what they had,” Chief Rushing explains. “Plano officials were asking Dallas and other cities and they didn’t know [where this new form of heroin was from]… It was scary and we felt a great obligation to stop it.”

1996

On January 2, 1996 Plano saw the second heroin overdose death, 22-year-old Matt Shaunfield. Just three weeks later, 21-year-old Jeff Potter also died of an overdose. Hospitals all over the area began to see spikes in patients coming in on the brink of death from heroin; more often than not their friends dumped them on the steps of the ER and drove off to go use again.

Sabina Stern, an alcohol and drug counselor, ran the Collin County Substance Abuse program in the late ‘90s. The program would perform substance evaluations for adults who were arrested, but then started seeing teenagers who got caught with drugs at school or whose parents had found a stash in their bedroom. “I would ask [the teen] when did you first drink alcohol, how often, how much? All of a sudden, kids started talking about chiva. I would ask them, ‘Have you ever used heroin?’ ‘Oh no, I would never.’ ‘Have you used chiva?’ ‘Well yeah.’ They didn’t know. They had no idea that chiva was Mexican slang [for black tar heroin].”

Chiva was potent, nearly 30 percent purer than what officials were used to seeing. It was so powerful that users didn’t have to inject it; they could smoke or snort it.

“[Drug dealers] were taking it to parties and calling it chiva because who would shoot heroin up? They told people it was a natural herb so people wouldn’t feel bad taking it. It’s really an insidious crime when you think about how they did it,” Chief Rushin says.

Ectiserio Martinez Garcia was the amateur kingpin of the operation. He and his wife, Irma Lopez Vega, made the 500-mile trek from Mexico to the border in 1994 in an attempt to escape crushing poverty. They settled in McKinney and continued to struggle financiallyuntil Martinez laid his eyes upon Plano. It was the perfect untapped market for high-quality heroin: the growth in the business sector meant a booming population, bringing in a large amount of teenagers and young adults with money to burn, busy parents or, better yet, busy parents who turned a blind eye.

Martinez enlisted friends and family back in Mexico to grow poppies and process them into high-grade black-tar heroin. It was shipped to the border near Laredo, where hired drug mules smuggled it in a few ounces at a time. In McKinney, the heroin was frozen, ground up in a coffee grinder and then mixed with Dormin, a nighttime sleeping aid, until it looked like cinnamon or brown sugar. The mix was packaged into capsules and marketed as chiva, sold from $5 to $20 a pop. The first taste was free. For many teenagers, it took just one hit to get addicted.  

On July 6, 17-year-old Jason Blair died.

On December 31, a 19-year-old Marine, Adam Goforth, died while home for the holidays.

1997

Less than a month later a 36-year-old father, Larry Bramlett, died. Two months later it was 21-year-old Jeff Bedell. And just three weeks after that, on April 4, 14-year-old Victor Garcia was found dead in a church parking lot. Two days later, 17-year-old Mary Catherine Sharp died from overdose even after completing an outpatient drug treatment program.  

At this time Baylor Medical Dallas and Parkland Hospital already knew heroin was “back in style” but doctors in Plano didn’t know what to do. Dr. Larry Alexander, who worked at at Medical Center of Plano, now Medical City Plano, told Rolling Stone in 1999 that officials suggested he stay quiet about the spike in overdoses. “People don’t want the community to be known for having a drug problem,” Alexander said. “The city council, the police department, big business, whatever. They don’t want to talk about it.”

But by this time, city officials and police didn’t have a choice but to come forward. They held a town hall meeting in May. The police chief at the time, Bruce Glasscock, knew the solution had to come from three different angles: police cracking down on dealers by collaborating with federal agencies, educating people with the support of City officials and the high schools, and the community rallying together.

“We realized…that this wasn’t a situation where we should be trying to do PR for the city, if we really wanted to save lives,” former Plano Mayor John Longstreet says. “We knew if we got the word out, it would help save kids. We also knew [Plano’s reputation was] going to take a hit. My comment was: look, if we save one kid’s life in Kansas because they find out about this before snorting or ingesting it, then it’s worth it.”

The campaign for drug education came too late for 20-year-old Milan Malina who died June 8 and Wes Scott who died two weeks later.  

It was August of 1997 when the Plano Heroin Task Force formed. Officers from several federal agencies from the DEA to the FBI were involved. By including federal agencies, prosecutors could tack on an extra federal penalty that was created during Reagan’s War on Drugs campaign in the ‘80s. Those deemed “responsible” for an overdose, those that gave or sold to the person who died, could be tried and receive a minimum of 20 years to life. Plano Police was one of the first departments to utilize this law, and today, it’s common practice across the nation.  

Word of the overdoses began to spread beyond Plano, while two more 18-year-olds, Rob Hill and Shad Welsh, died in the fall. The city reeled from shock and grief.

On November 13, the city held a community meeting at the Plano Centre; a panel which included the police chief and the mayor as well as doctors and counselors were there to answer any questions parents had about chiva.

“This was a turning point. We were supposed to start [the meeting] at 7 p.m. and an officer said we need to delay,” Bruce Glasscock, now Plano City Manager, explains. “We had cars backed up all the way to Spring Creek from the Plano Centre. The community was starving for information.”

The truth was hard for many parents to swallow. “I told parents to look for physical symptoms: sleeping a lot, wistfulness, loss of appetite. Know your kids’ friends,” Glasscock says. “It’s this idea ‘I trust my child and I’m not going to search their room’, but if your child is showing some of these symptoms, which do you want? Allow his privacy to result in his death?”

Rebecca Baker is the founder of The Jim Utley Foundation, which helps kids live healthy and productive lives without the use of illegal or prescription drugs. “The thing that I can say about running an anti-drug foundation in Plano…parents never cease to amaze me. In this area [they] are very naive. Parents say, ‘…not my kid.’ Well, drugs cross all socioeconomic backgrounds; all walks of life.”

The campaign also came too late for 16-year-old Erin Baker who died on November 11.

Finally on November 23, 1997 the task force made its biggest bust in terms of drugs and cash, arresting five residents—all illegal immigrants from Mexico—in the McKinney house including Garcia and his wife.

At this time, news platforms from The New York Times to The Economist to 60 Minutes were talking about the nationwide heroin crisis. Plano was the poster child.

Why Plano?

“You go back and read the bios of those kids and you just ask why? You don’t understand why someone who has everything in the world would do this. But a lot of it was peer pressure,” Glasscock says.

But why not Plano? There was a market of young adults and teens, with a lot of pressure not just from friends, a lot of blind trust from their parents and a lot of money.

“The pressure to excelin school, sports, sociallycan be overwhelming in Plano and other affluent areas. You don’t have to be from a low income family or an inner city neighborhood to be exposed to drugs and alcohol,” Rebecca Baker explains. “Many middle class to upper class youth have their own recipe for disaster.”

Dr. Hansen says when people turn to a substance, from alcohol to heroin, it’s because the person is seeking relief generally from stress. “Unfortunately we have a society built on substances as solutions. Feeling anxious? There’s Xanax. Can’t sleep? [A doctor will] give me something. It’s understandable why people fall into [addiction].”

1998

Not long after the town meeting, the warnings about chiva still fell on deaf ears. Some parents weren’t ready to face the reality of treating their children for heroin addiction, while others were desperate for a solution to save their kid.

On February 2, 17-year-old Tasha Campbell died.

Convinced that drug deals were rampant in Plano schools, the police began Operation Rockfest, an undercover operation infiltrating three high schools for an entire year. A single female officer went undercover; she dressed in punk style clothing, made sure students saw cigarettes casually in her backpack. Getting connected to the drugs wasn’t an issue. The operation finished in March and resulted in the arrest of 31 people; 14 of them were Plano students.

“We received a lot of criticism for arresting kids in school,” Glasscock explains. “We did that intentionally. It was a conscious decision. We pulled them out of class, handcuffed them, took them away. We wanted to send a message.”

The message was starting to disseminate, but some were already too far gone; 19-year-old Jay Aguanno died on July 7.

Less than two weeks later, on July 22, 29 people were indicted on heroin overdoses by a federal grand jury. As the court case moved forward, overdoses became less frequent. But many young people were still dealing with addiction, like Tyler Marsten. He had gotten clean and fallen off the wagon a few times, and died at 18 years old in mid-November.

1999

In February the court ruled. No mercy was shown. Ten of 11 defendants were deemed guilty of conspiring to distribute heroin and cocaine in Plano and sent to federal jail. Only Irma Lopez Vega, wife of ring leader Ecliserio Martinez Garcia, was acquitted on all counts and deported.

In June, a Beaumont court sent 28 people to jail including some of the teenagers arrested at Plano schools. “The hardest thing was the deaths and speaking to those parents,” Glasscock says. “They were irate and felt nothing was being done in the early stages. It was tough and in many cases we couldn’t talk; as far as some thought we weren’t doing anything because of the undercover operation. It was hard keeping them in the dark.”

The deaths dwindled—in Plano.

“We were successful in dealing with the chiva problem in Plano. But we displaced it,” Glasscock explains. “We didn’t solve it. What we saw afterwards was surrounding communities having overdoses, just not to the [same] degree.”

Today

Opiate addiction continues to rise across the nation. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, from 2007 to 2013, the number of heroin users grew 80 percent. Over 3,000 people died from heroin overdose in the United States in 2010, a 55 percent increase from 2000.

“Now, today, we see heroin crises on the East Coast, the Midwest—it’s all over,” Chief Rushin explains. “[Those areas are] seeing the same problems we saw back in the ‘90s. We don’t see the level of problems we had back then with heroin, but I don’t see how we’re ever going to solve the problem with drugs. We’ll always have drugs, but we’re going to do all that we can. You can’t just focus on enforcement. You also have to focus on treatment and prevention. You have to focus on families working together; people in schools looking out for one another making sure they don’t get involved in that kind of activity.”

Since the heroin crisis in Plano, cities from Dallas to the Northeast will often charge people involved in an overdose death with a federal crime, sending them to prison for a minimum of 20 years. Meant as a deterrent to selling or giving drugs to friends, it’s also made people hesitate calling 911out of fear of not falling under the Good Samaritan Law.

Senator Kirk Watson of Austin is once again proposing a bill to the current legislative session that would change this. “Unfortunately we have a major drug addiction problem in America that we are just starting to respond to. Part of that response has to include encouraging victims and bystanders to seek professional medical help when there’s a possible overdose. We can do that by ensuring people won’t be prosecuted for minor drug-related offenses when they call 911.” Sen. Watson proposed this bill during the last session but it was vetoed by Governor Greg Abbott.

Sen. Watson filed the bill again after the tragic overdose of a Texas A&M student last year, even though bystanders called a hospital twice, asking what to do. There were drugs on the scene so no one wanted to call the copsby the time 911 was called it was too late.

“Removing this barrier for people to call for life-saving care can be the difference between life and death. Deterrence alone will never solve our drug-addiction crisis. Protections for those who call 911 to help overdose victims should be part of the conversation,” Sen. Watson believes.

Back to something good. Despite losing hundreds of patients, Dr. Hansen’s hope remains. “Even coming out of the worst of the worst, and maybe one of the worst times [Plano has] ever seen, there’s certainly great help. When people come in and ask, ‘We have a 37-year-old son who’s been a heroin addict since he was 17, is there any hope?’ What do I say? Always. There’s always hope. I have to believe that. If we don’t believe that, then it will win.”