Shooting Up

Heroin Use Reaches Epidemic Levels In Frederick County Scarring the Community, Frustrating Law Enforcement and Leaving Addicts Challenged with Recovery

By Gina Gallucci-White | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 05.13.14 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Johnnie first tried drugs when he was 12, on a visit to his father’s home in Georgia. It was during this trip that Johnnie, who grew up in the Mount Airy/Damascus area, discovered his father was a drug dealer who had a garage stuffed with thousands of pounds of marijuana. Johnnie tried his first joint during that visit and four years later his father convinced him to try cocaine.

His dad once asked Johnnie to hold on to $16,000 during a party. Johnnie, who asked that his last name not be used for this story, took the money—annoyed that his father never paid child support—and came back to Maryland, buying himself a Chevy Camero and another car for his sister. He also bought his sister a prom dress. He then took the rest of his dad’s loot to start his own illicit business, appropriately called Cocaine Cowboys. “I thought to myself, I’m going to be bigger and badder than you ever were.”

Over the next decade, Johnnie racked up drug sales and criminal charges, sending him to prison for several years. “When I got out [of prison in 1999], I was focused on never going back,” Johnnie says. “And I haven’t sold anything since then.”  At about the same time, he met his future wife and they eventually started a family in Monrovia. Life was turning around for Johnnie.

But tragedy struck on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Johnnie was watching the Redskins game on TV while his wife was cleaning up from dinner. Undetected to the couple, their 20-month-old son managed to unlock a door and climb into their hot tub, where he drowned. During the viewing for the toddler, one of Johnnie’s buddies offered what seemed to be words of support. “He said, ‘I know what you are going through.’ He said, ‘I’ve got something that will help you,’ and I was like ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘Heroin.’”

“It’s really exploded”

When Frederick Police Chief Thomas Ledwell was a member of the city’s Drug Enforcement Unit in the mid-1990s, heroin was “the once in a blue moon drug that we came across.” Even when he later served as the unit’s supervisor for several years, he rarely saw the drug. But now heroin has emerged as a drug of choice and has law enforcement and health agencies scrambling to contain its destruction of lives. The DEU sees heroin almost every day. “It’s really exploded on the scene here recently,” says Sgt. John Corbett, the unit’s current supervisor.

In 2012, there were 17 heroin-related overdoses in Frederick County, of which six were fatal. Last year, 49 heroin overdoses occurred with 18 fatalities, an increase of 188 percent, which has been fueled by both increase use and a product with purity levels that varies from purchase to purchase. “There have been many times,” Corbett says, “when one of us has purchased heroin undercover and the dealer will caution us, ‘Be careful. That stuff is potent.’”

In response, law enforcement agencies are using a variety of methods to stop heroin, including undercover investigations, partnering with other allied agencies, conducting surveillance, using informants, executing search-and-seizure warrants and making traffic stops. But it takes time, staffing and resources to build cases, and time is on the side of the heroin trade.

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins says heroin has been growing in popularity for the past year and a half and is now at epidemic levels. “Heroin affects everybody. It knows no social class. It knows no ethnicity. It knows no race,” he says. “When you think of the addict back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, they were always the lower class, lying in a dark alley with a needle in their arm. Well, now they are our kids. All social classes, all income levels. That’s the concern.”

“I need another shot”

Following the death of his son, Johnnie started going to Baltimore every other day to get a fix. “I was going downhill quick,” he says. “I went through $80,000 in six months.” He overdosed five times. Once, he sniffed a dose and was found five hours later barely breathing with his hands in a locked grip position in the arms of a chair.

Another time he shot up at a chain restaurant in Baltimore with friends. He was rushed to the emergency room holding three grams of heroin in his pocket. “I remember there were three officers in the room and I am thinking ‘Lord, have mercy. I am in all kinds of trouble,’” he remembers. The nurse told the police he was stable.  “As soon as they left the room—this is how we [addicts] think— I’m thinking, I’ve got three grams. I’m all better now. I need another shot.” He jumped up, put his clothes back on and sneaked out of the hospital. He ran to a gas station, called a friend and shot up again. 

He once overdosed at a gas station in New Market after shooting the needle into his neck because he could not find a suitable vein in his arm. Another time, he flipped his vehicle on Md. 550 near Walkersville and was flown to a hospital for treatment. “I remember waking up in the helicopter and the state trooper saying, ‘Hang in there,’” he says. Another time, he was outside and his oldest teenage daughter videotaped him while high walking into trees and falling down. “Everybody was sick of me,” he says. The family left and he passed out in the driveway. A friend, driving by their house, called his wife, telling her a man was lying in her driveway, blue and about to die.

“I really wanted to get off of it,” he says. “Every time I tried, the withdrawals were so bad—the aching, the chilling, the sickness. The only way I could feel better … was to crawl out of that bed with everything I had and try to get to Baltimore and when I got that fix, I was alive again.”

“Supply and demand”

So what’s behind the skyrocketing demand for heroin? Surprisingly, a major factor for the growth has been prescription pills like oxycontin and hydrocodone.

“Not only are [the pills] easily accessible, but selling your prescription is actually quite lucrative,” says Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith. “At $50 for a 50 mg pill, a typical 20-pill script can result in a quick $1,000. I can’t count how many cases we prosecute where someone goes into a [chain drug store] or similar pharmacy only to come out and sell it in the parking lot. The last defendant was a 62-year-old white male with a regular day job.  What then happens is an addiction to opiates gets expensive—fast. So, in come the heroin dealers and, for a fraction of the price, addicts can get their opiate fix.”

Depending on quality, the average cost of a tenth of a gram, known as a “dub”—for double bag—is $20, a half gram is $60 to $80 and a gram is $140 to $200. “Dealers, they set prices based on supply and demand,” Corbett says. “A typical user is going to be using somewhere between a tenth of a gram and a half a gram at a time.” Intravenous use is the most popular. “Almost nobody snorts it because the high is so much more immediate when it’s injected.”

And the fix is powerful. Heroin is “changing their brain,” says State Police Maj. James Pyles, a commander in the Criminal Enforcement Division. “They have a desire. They have a need. A heroin addiction is not something you are going to beat today, tomorrow, next year. … When addicted, they are going to have to think about it every single day to not use that drug.”

“The math ain’t hard”

Korey Shorb started out drinking and smoking weed. He got into cocaine and then peer pressure turned him onto heroin. “There was a group of my friends doing heroin and, at the time, I was doing good,” the Emmitsburg native recalls. “I was working at a bank down in Frederick. I held out for a while not doing [heroin], but eventually I gave in. I sniffed it.” While he was spending $200 to $300 a day to get high from snorting heroin, his friends who used needles would spend $20 to $30.

“The math ain’t hard there,” he says. “I let a friend put a needle in my arm one day and it went downhill. I never sniffed it again after that.” Shorb stopped working and began stealing items to pawn to support his habit. “I did not want to do that,” he says. “It was not my intention, but when you are dope sick—for me—when I put [heroin] in me, it gave me permission to do whatever I wanted to do. I’m not proud of that at all.”

Over the years, he would amass criminal charges and jail time for selling heroin to an undercover officer, as well as theft and burglary in an effort to support his habit. His father called the police in 1998 and asked them to search his room. “I thank God [my dad] gave me tough love because if it wasn’t for him giving me tough love and calling the cops on me, I probably would not be alive today or I’d be in prison.”

“It’s not hard to do”

Another factor in the growth of heroin is how easily it can be found. “Once you get introduced to the illegal drug world, drugs become available,” Chief Ledwell says. “They just need to know somebody who uses who knows somebody who sells and then the connection is made.”

While Baltimore is considered a “source” city for the drug, more and more dealers are setting up sales locally. “There are places here in Frederick, as there are in any community that is a good size, where there are certain areas you can go. You can make some inquiries and someone will approach you and sell you drugs,” Corbett says. “It’s not hard to do. Now, the heroin people are a little bit different from users and abusers of other drugs. They tend to be rather insular. They tend to use in groups. They tend to purchase in groups. They pool their money and one person will be entrusted with the money to go purchase the drugs and then bring it back to the group and use it together. For lack of a better word, it’s a much friendlier environment of users than you would typically find.”

Mike Folio, director of the county’s Youthful Offender Program, says technology is also important, especially among younger users. Because of cell phones and social media, teens have the world at their fingertips, including how to get hold of drugs. “A lot of parents are afraid to confront their children,” he says. “They just don’t want the turmoil in the household. Parenting has become a lost art. It truly has.”

The three-week Youthful Offender program, run by the county’s State’s Attorney’s Office, meets every month with troubled teens in an effort to educate them on how to make better decisions. A majority of the participants are referred because of drug and alcohol issues. “Most people think we are here just to prosecute,” Folio says. “No. We are here to help. … I want to get to these kids as soon as possible and before they are even in the system.”

“I had a hole in my soul”

After getting out of prison in 2005, Shorb went to a rehabilitation center, but was kicked out for getting high. Later, more charges led him back in to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center where he would be placed in State’s Attorney’s Office’s diversions program called Drug Court. “I believe that program saved my life,” he says. “All my life I felt like I had a hole in my soul. I was always trying to fill it with things. What I know today is there are not enough things in this world to fill the hole in people’s souls.” 

Shorb vividly remembers being miserable detoxing off heroin. His skin felt clammy. His body would twitch. He felt anxious and suffered from anxiety. “I would rather die than go through full-blown heroin sickness again,” he says. “It wasn’t easy, but neither was getting high every day. I was told early on by a guy who said, ‘If you chase your recovery like you were chasing heroin, you won’t have any problems staying clean,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing and I have been clean for six years now.”

Today, Shorb is a counselor at Mountain Manor where he talks to clients, helps teach them life skills, started a garden to instill healthy living lessons and got into running. Shorb recently completed the New York City and Marine Corps marathons and is organizing a 5K race, A Run for Recovery, to be held Aug. 16 at Monocacy Village Park with proceeds benefitting Drug Court. “I just try to let them know there is another way,” he says of those he works with. “You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. There is a way up and out of that lifestyle.”

“Crippled the local effort”

For several years, Maryland State Police and the Sheriff’s Office formed the Frederick County Bureau of Investigations, which included drug case work. Last year, MSP pulled out to form a new partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called the Western Maryland Major Trafficking Initiative, which is responsible for identifying and dismantling major traffic organizations that are smuggling drugs, money, illegal commerce and involved in human trafficking in the state. The group focuses on Frederick, Washington, Allegheny and Garrett counties. Deputies who were in the Bureau of Investigations are now part of the Sheriff’s Office’s narcotics task force.

“It really crippled the local effort when the state police pulled out,” Sheriff Jenkins says. “That’s five bodies you don’t have working local enforcement” investigations. Maj. Pyles counters that the new group has been quite successful, including seizing more than 500 grams of heroin over the past year in the western region of the state.

The Thurmont Police Department has installed cameras in known drug areas of the town and has started to work with some landlords who rent to known dealers and users. If drugs are found in a rental, the department will notify the owner which could lead to tenant eviction. In June 2013, the department purchased Buddy, a black Labrador retriever drug dog. “It’s just an extra tool that we can use to try to suppress and deter any drug activity here in town,” says Chief Greg Eyler. “It is working. We haven’t made many arrests off of it, but the people in town know we have a drug dog available.”

Another effort has been drug-disposal events to get unused and expired prescription pills out of accessible cabinets. A Drug Awareness Coalition of law enforcement officials, former addicts and health department officials was formed last year and has been touring the county hosting meetings at area high schools. Attendance was large when the meetings first began in late spring last year, but Jenkins says he’s extremely disappointed with recent turnouts at Gov. Thomas Johnson and Middletown high schools. “I would just like to see the public take the time to come out and really spend the time being educated, being made aware of what to look for, how to identify if your family member is involved. … That’s what’s important.”

“This might be my chance”

After a heroin charge in Damascus and lying about an overdose to his probation agent, Johnnie was sent to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center. “It was actually a sigh of relief. … When I got into the jail cell I was like, ‘Lord, thank you. I can’t get a hold of anything. This might be my chance.’”

He credits Frederick County Circuit Court Judge Julie Stevenson Solt with helping to save his life by authorizing substance abuse treatment and sentencing him to work release. “I thought somebody really cares,” he says. “She gave me the rope. … I went to a meeting every single night of the week. I took my recovery seriously.”

Johnnie has been clean for almost a year and attends no less than five meetings a week. “When I went into bars, [I’d say] there are the regulars,” he says. “Now when I go to my meetings, I see my regulars. The love I get when I come in the room and the love I give. It’s so beautiful.”

While participating in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting recently, he noticed two men who were trying to get off heroin. While AA is a great program, he says, he knew these guys needed direct counseling on heroin. He wondered, with such an epidemic taking over the state and nation, why there was no Heroin Anonymous, so he decided to help create one. Since mid-March, HA meets on Friday night and Saturday afternoon at CrossRoads Center on West South Street. The response from the community has been tremendous, he says. Johnnie is also working on forming Soldiers Against Heroin, a nonprofit dedicated to helping addicts and family members. “I don’t want to be a negative to the community anymore,” Johnnie says. “I want to be a positive.”