Across York County, investigators fight spread of deadly heroin
Heroin has spread from the city streets to rural roads in a wave of addiction that has pushed into every unsuspecting corner of York County.
Drug investigators such as York City Detective First Class Andy Shaffer have seen it slowly surpass crack cocaine as "the drug of choice" over the past few years, rising in popularity as "normal people" become addicted to prescription painkillers, he said.
After a while, the pills become too expensive and they switch to the street drug.
Supply is booming, so plentiful that the drug has become cheaper as its purity has increased, he said.
The demand is driven by its trendiness among 18- to 24-year-olds.
"With crack, people looked down on (users) and called them crackheads," the detective said. "With Caucasians, (heroin is) considered cool."
Many of them only realize how profoundly "uncool" it really is after they lose their jobs and friends and start stealing from their families, committing retail theft or prostituting themselves just to stave off the incredible sickness they feel when they can't get the dope, he said.
"I can't explain how powerful that heroin is," he said. "So many times, once a person uses heroin, they just can't go back."
Coming to York: The drug originates as an abundance of poppies from Afghanistan, but it enters the United States through cartels pushing it into major cities, Shaffer said.
Baltimore, whose suburbs bump York County on its southern side, has been called the "U.S. Heroin Capital," but most of the stuff entering York comes from Philadelphia or New York, Shaffer said.
Investigators can tell by the packaging: Baltimore uses vials, while most of the junk found in York is packaged in glassine bags of translucent wax paper, he said.
The drugs are also branded with names so people can track down the ones they liked. One particularly potent variety was aptly named "Instant Death," but people still chased after it, said David Sunday, chief deputy prosecutor with the York County District Attorney's Office.
The county's increasing caseload of heroin-related criminal charges ranges from the actual drug offenses to the secondary offenses used to support addiction, including retail theft and prostitution, said District Attorney Tom Kearney.
Those prosecutions are a lagging indicator of what's happening right now in society, Sunday said.
Price and availability: York, like other third-class cities, is a draw to dealers because they can fetch higher prices for the trouble of transporting it to a smaller metro area, Shaffer said.
What's $2,000 worth of heroin in Philadelphia commands about $4,000 in York, he said, and that's the price after dealers "step on it," or cut it.
The price to the buyer, $5 to $10 per bag, is still cheap, the detective said.
Heroin's low price, ample supply and potency are all factors that combine to worsen the problem, said York County Detective Craig Fenstermacher, who heads the York County Drug Task Force.
When Fenstermacher started working the drug beat in the '80s, heroin was only found in Harrisburg, Lancaster and York, and it couldn't be bought in the suburbs or rural areas, where it's now flourishing, he said.
"If we have the people working with us ... you can buy heroin in Paradise Township or Red Lion borough," he said. "I am no longer shocked whatsoever by where we're buying heroin."
Narcotics officers in both the city and the county said they're spending the bulk of their time tracking down heroin dealers to stem the flow of drugs to the street.
Busting dealers: Using informants and undercover officers, police are able to bust street-level dealers and work up the supply chain from there, Fenstermacher said.
Information also comes from people who want to trade names for leniency on charges they're facing, including users who were busted for retail theft or other offenses committed to feed their addiction, he said. Tips come in from neighbors, parents, former wives and girlfriends; dealers often separate themselves from their stash, hiding it at the home of a girlfriend or another female, he said.
Users who become scared after another user dies from an overdose also will contact police, he said.
Some of the dealers are users, selling the drugs just to support their habit, he said.
"Street-level" dealers don't typically stand on the corners as they have in years past. Most deals and meeting locations are arranged by cellphone, so police can use phone history to identify connections, he said.
Big busts: The quantity of heroin seized when dealers have been caught over the past couple of years is the largest Shaffer has seen in his 19-year career, he said.
Last April, York City police used undercover officers to break up a drug operation run out of a bodega in the city's west end.
Two men were using a grocery and deli storefront as their base, selling about $1,000 in heroin and cocaine per day.
Among the items seized was more than $100,000 in raw heroin and 412 bags of heroin with a street value of $8,240. The raw heroin seized was enough to make more than 5,000 individual bags of heroin with a street value of $10 to $20 each, Chief Wes Kahley said at the time.
In Oct. 14, Shaffer and other drug detectives got word that a Philadelphia-area man would be coming to the area with a large amount of heroin to be sold in York. Detectives lay in wait for the man and arrested him, finding more than 1,100 individual packets of heroin — valued at more than $22,000 — and other drugs.
In November, a twice-convicted York City drug dealer was sent back to prison after city narcotics officers raided his home and seized nearly $24,000 worth of raw heroin. After being stepped on, that heroin would likely have doubled its value, Shaffer said.
Though officers also are seeing an increase in minor drug offenses, such as possession, Shaffer said police are focusing on arresting dealers.
"The major thing is, people are dying from it," he said. "We want the users to get help. Our goal is to arrest the drug dealers. ... Any time we seize heroin, especially in significant amounts, you're saving lives."
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.