In Heartland Death, Traces of Heroin’s Spread
GROVE CITY, Ohio — For five hours, Dana Smith huddled stunned and bewildered in her suburban living room while the body of her son Arthur Eisel IV, 31, lay slumped in an upstairs bathroom, next to a hypodermic needle.
Family and friends streamed in. Detectives scurried about. For Mrs. Smith, the cold realization set in that her oldest son Artie — quiet, shy, car enthusiast, football and softball fanatic — was dead of a heroin overdose.
The death was the end of a particular horror for Mrs. Smith, whose two other children, Mr. Eisel’s younger brothers, also fell into heroin addiction “like dominoes,” she said, and still struggle with it.
To the federal government, which prosecuted the heroin dealers for Mr. Eisel’s death, it was a stark illustration of how Mexican Drug Cartels have pushed heroin sales beyond major cities into America’s suburban and rural byways, some of which had seen little heroin before.
In Ohio, for instance, heroin-related deaths spread into 18 new counties from 2004 to 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available. Their numbers rose to 546 in that period, from 376 for 2000 to 2003.
Federal officials now consider the cartels the greatest organized crime threat to the United States. Officials say the groups are taking over heroin distribution from Colombians and Dominicans and making new inroads across the country, pushing a powerful form of heroin grown and processed in Mexico known as “black tar” for its dark color and sticky texture.
Their operations often piggyback on a growing and struggling Mexican immigrant population. In a case that provides a window into how this works, two illegal immigrant dealers pleaded guilty to manslaughter last year in Mr. Eisel’s death, in a rare federal manslaughter prosecution from a drug overdose.
Investigators determined that the two immigrants, Jose Manuel Cazeras-Contreras, 30, and Victor Delgadillo Parra, 23, began distributing heroin when they were unable to find jobs. Mr. Parra, in an interview from prison, where he was sentenced to spend 16 ½ years, said he was afraid of being arrested at first, but took the job to support his wife and son, as well as relatives in Mexico.
“I was living a hard life here in the United States,” Mr. Parra said. “And I didn’t have any other job I was going to go to.”
Another man in the drug ring, who was not directly connected to the death and therefore not charged with manslaughter, was recruited off the streets of Mexico and smuggled into the country expressly to peddle drugs in Ohio, the government said.
Fat on profits made largely in the United States, drug traffickers in Mexico are engaged there in a bloody war among themselves and with the government, which began a crackdown on them three years ago. Since then the violence, including assaults on the police and the army, has left more than 10,000 people dead.
But on this side of the border, the traffickers continue to expand their reach.
Drug Enforcement Agency officials say that Ohio is of particular concern because of the crisscrossing network of freeways here that make it well suited as a transshipment point. Anthony C. Marotta, who heads the agency’s Columbus office, said heroin tied to the Columbus-area dealers had been cropping up in nearby states like Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia and as far away as the Baltimore area.
The case of Arthur Eisel and the men arrested for selling him heroin shows how the traffickers pushed their product and how in Mr. Eisel, already addicted to expensive pain killers because of a back injury, they found a ready customer for heroin, which was cheaper.
Investigators say that Arthur Eisel was not alone in switching from a prescription painkiller to heroin. It gives a similar, euphoric high at a fraction of the cost, $10 to $20 for a “balloon” — one dose, usually a gram or less — as opposed to upwards of $60 for a typical prescription pill dose on the street.
The traffickers found a ripe market in Grove City, a suburb of Columbus, as they have elsewhere in the nation. Drug seizures ebb and flow over the years, but the amount of heroin confiscated nationwide has been arcing up since the mid-90s, going from 370 kilograms in 1998 nationwide to about 600 kilograms — roughly $150 million worth of heroin — last year, though officials believe it is a small fraction of what is available on the street.
The share of heroin-related prosecutions among federal drug cases in this region has also been climbing, reaching 15 percent of cases last year compared with 4 percent a decade ago.
The numbers here are small in comparison with other populous states like New York, California or Texas, which have always been centers of drug use. But the growth here has prompted much soul-searching.
Mr. Marotta said he had been alarmed recently to see dealing in the parking lot of a supermarket in Dublin, a quiet, upscale suburb of Columbus, where he was shopping.
Paul Coleman, the director of Maryhaven, the largest rehabilitation center in the region, said the percentage of patients reporting opiates, principally heroin, as their preferred drug — whether it is smoked, inhaled or injected — grew to 68 percent last year from 38 percent in 2002.
Mr. Coleman said he believed that the trend reflected an increased supply of heroin.
Mike G., who is undergoing treatment at Maryhaven and asked that his last name be withheld for fear enemies on the street would find him there, said, “In some places it is like going to pick up beer.”
A Fatal Link
The group linked to the Mexican cartel that sold Arthur Eisel his fatal dose was just one of at least 10 trafficking organizations, known by the authorities as cells, operating in central Ohio, said Tim Reagan, a D.E.A. agent who investigated the case as part of the Southwest Border Task Force, a group of Ohio law enforcement officials focused on drugs coming from Mexico.
Each cell consists of a handful of people who distribute the drug after it is smuggled across the Southwest border, 1,500 miles away. Many cell members, like Mr. Parra and Mr. Contreras, have roots in Nayarit, a state on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
Mexican authorities say that growers in Nayarit are using a highly productive form of the poppy from Colombia and processing the heroin in laboratories scattered around Tepic, Nayarit’s capital, despite efforts to kill the plants through fumigation.
The cells take orders over disposable mobile phones, making it hard for the police to trace them or their calls. They use a system of “dispatchers” and “runners” to take orders and deliver the drug. Members of the cells typically stay in an area for only four or five months before replacements arrive. The drugs are sold at rendezvous points, usually in shopping center parking lots, in an effort to blend in with the bustle.
The men convicted in the Eisel case told the authorities similar stories. Mr. Contreras, the dispatcher in the case, told federal authorities that he had crossed the border illegally and lived in Oregon for several years before moving to Columbus in 2007 on the promise of a job as an auto mechanic. But that job never materialized. In a letter to The New York Times, he said he had worked a variety of other jobs but had hit an unemployment streak that left him without a car or a house for his wife and two young children.
Desperate for work, he said he found an acquaintance in Columbus who promised him easy money for distributing heroin.
“Since I spoke English and Spanish, they proposed that I answer the phone only,” Mr. Contreras wrote. “I didn’t touch the drug or see it. I was only answering the phone. I was with them for three months, and that was when they caught me.”
He said he never imagined that anyone could die from the heroin, “since I have used the drug and nothing ever happened to me.”
Mr. Parra said he illegally crossed the border in 2005 and settled in California, working in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant for several months. When that work and other jobs dried up, friends suggested he come to Ohio for work. But when he arrived, Mr. Parra said, he learned that the work would be helping to distribute heroin.
At turns repentant and defiant, Mr. Parra said he felt sorry for the family of Mr. Eisel but did not fully accept responsibility for his death and wondered aloud if the government was making an example of him.
“It was never my intention for someone to die,” Mr. Parra said, “but neither did I put a syringe or something in somebody so that they could inject the drug,” adding, “I am serving as an example” to discourage other dealers.
Jose Garcia Morales, a third man who was arrested in the case but was not prosecuted for the death of Mr. Eisel, was recruited off the streets of Nayarit’s capital, according to a memorandum his lawyer prepared for the court in urging a lenient sentence.
The document describes how the ring arranged for the payment of a “coyote,” or human smuggler, to bring Mr. Morales across the border. Then, he piled into the back of a Ryder truck, was driven to Columbus and, over a two-week training period, was taught to deliver heroin by other drug traffickers already established there.
“Mr. Morales was promised that he would make a lot of money,” the document said. “In reality, when he was paid, if it all, he generally received between $400 and $500 a week, a place to sleep, and occasionally some food. As expected, Mr. Morales sent much of the money he earned back to his family in Mexico.”
Connecting the distribution rings to the cartel leadership in Mexico has proved difficult. Those arrested here typically say they fear for the safety of their families in Mexico if word gets back that they have been too cooperative.
“If they are caught, they are terrified what will happen to their families, and for good reason,” said David M. DeVillers, a federal prosecutor here who has handled several drug cases. “They want to do the prison time.”
The authorities say that local arrests rarely make a difference. New dealers pop up within weeks.
“It’s like sweeping sunshine off the roof,” Mr. Marotta of the D.E.A. said.
Standing before a federal judge last summer as he faced the prospect of 20 years in prison on manslaughter charges in Mr. Eisel’s death, Mr. Contreras begged for forgiveness.
“I truly did not intend to do any damage to their family,” said Mr. Contreras, 30, before the judge handed down a 15-year sentence. “I have two children, and I would not like something like this to happen to my sons.”
Dana Smith listened, horrified. At home, her two younger sons were still struggling with addiction.
Arthur had been, in her eyes, a typical suburban child, shy around girls, a devotee of the radio host Howard Stern, a member of a local softball league, popular with the children of friends.
He eventually found work as a bank clerk and rented an apartment with one of his brothers, Robby. Robby Eisel, who is undergoing treatment at a residential center in Columbus, said the progression from prescription medicine to heroin was easy “because the heroin is everywhere around here.”
When Arthur Eisel injured his back in a car accident in 2005, he started taking prescription medication, Percocet and OxyContin, for chronic pain, under a doctor’s supervision.
Robby Eisel said he had been taking similar medications after he broke his arm on the job as a maintenance worker at a golf course. Soon, all three brothers were acquiring OxyContin illegally and sharing it. When supplies dried up and their dealer suggested heroin, they tried it and quickly developed an addiction.
Mrs. Smith said she struggled to comprehend what took hold of her sons. She works as a clerk at a courthouse and had seen the regular parade of drug addicts and offenders come through. But one day in 2007, she heard the names of two of her boys, Arthur and Robby, announced in arraignment court. They had broken into a store.
“It was devastating,” she said.
More horrors came. She would find needles in pillow cases, in coats, under living room chairs. She watched her sons writhe in agony from head and bone pain and diarrhea as they experienced withdrawal trying to beat the addiction at home.
Mrs. Smith said she sometimes feels pangs of guilt and wonders if she could have done more to help Arthur break the addiction. She concedes that she gave him food, a place to stay and sometimes even money when his stupor made clear what he was up to.
“I was an enabler,” she said quietly. “I was his mother.”
At one point, she called a private rehabilitation facility in Florida, hoping to get all of her sons in treatment. But she was told the facility did not accept siblings.
“Which one has it the worst?” she recalled a counselor there asking.
The question still gnaws at her.
“How do you choose which one of your children to save?” Mrs. Smith asks now. She decided at the time that she could not choose and sent none of them to Florida.
Regret and Resolve
Arthur Eisel went through a revolving door of treatment centers in the Columbus area in the months before his death. He would get free of the drug, seemingly set on a positive path only to relapse and fall into it again. But, his family said, he did not appear to be using heavily in the weeks before his death.
The night before he died, he and his brother Ryan paid their mother a visit, watching television there until late in the evening.
At work the next morning, Mrs. Smith got the kind of call parents dread. She remembers hearing Ryan say, “His lips are blue.” Mrs. Smith spent the next months in a state of shock. She said she does not remember much.
As it turned out, investigators had already been trailing the ring that sold Arthur his fatal dose. That work, in addition to confidential informants whose testimony would have allowed investigators to trace Mr. Eisel’s dose to Mr. Parra and Mr. Contreras, emboldened prosecutors to charge them with manslaughter and other crimes.
Prosecutors asked Mrs. Smith to go to the sentencing hearings and make a statement. She stood feet from the men accused of killing her son and listened to their words of regret.
“Part of my heart goes out to their families,” she said in a recent interview. “But something has got to be done to stop this.”