Pubdate: Sun, 25 Jun 2006
Source: Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA)
Copyright: 2006 New England Newspapers, Inc.
Author: Benning W. De La Mater, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Bookmark: (Heroin)
Bookmark: (Methadone)
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


The Berkshires has a heroin problem. Some addicts survive it. Some don't.

Local vagabond Eric Wickenheisser escapes the drizzle of a Pittsfield 
morning by darting inside the Dunkin' Donuts on First Street.

He's homeless but handsome, looking especially sharp in the new khaki 
shorts and button-down shirt his daughter gave him for Father's Day.

It's 11:20 a.m. on July 8, but it feels more like April. The 
temperature struggles to reach 60.

Two blocks away, Mayor James M. Ruberto announces Barrington Stage 
Company's arrival in Pittsfield. Down the street, teenagers play 
baseball at Mark Belanger Field. In Lenox, James Levine readies for 
his first night as musical director inside the Tanglewood Shed.

No one notices Wickenheisser -- a 46-year-old piano mover, father of 
three, part-time petty thief and full-time heroin addict -- as he 
heads to the bathroom and locks the door behind him, a red "OCCUPIED" 
sign slipping into a slot on the front.

It takes him seconds to make a heroin and water solution, fill a 
needle, and plunge it into his arm. By the time the needle's out, 
he's high. And by the time firefighters take the hinges off the door, 
he's dead.

That was nearly a year ago. Today, friends and family say Eric wasn't 
trying to kill himself -- he was "a smart addict," a 20-year veteran 
of the heroin scene who knew how to handle a strong bag of dope, 
loved life, and wore a constant smile, even when he didn't have much 
to smile about.

His death is emblematic of the worst that happens when people become 
addicted to one of the strongest drugs on the streets.

Heroin -- cheap and potent -- is being pipelined from Latin America 
through New England's veins to the heart of Berkshire County. The 
narcotic's popularity is sparking a spike in drug rehabilitation 
center and hospital visits and is killing people in record numbers. 
That popularity also is giving Massachusetts one of the worst heroin 
problems in the nation, according to state health officials.

Local health care workers describe the situation as "frightening." 
But also troubling to them is a proliferation of available 
prescription opioid pills -- potent pain relievers that mimic a high 
similar to their chemical cousin, heroin. People as young as 14 are 
becoming addicted to the pain relievers -- which are marketed as 
OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and other brand names -- and then are 
switching to the cheaper, stronger heroin.

"The heroin problem is getting out of hand. It's sick," Pittsfield 
Police Detective Glenn F. Decker said. "And the opioid pills are just 
adding to it. It's a vicious cycle."

Fatalities On The Rise

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's most 
recent report, the number of heroin- and opioid-related overdoses 
statewide increased from 94 in 1990 to 574 in 2003.

Of the 65 drug-overdose deaths in Berkshire County since 2000, 47 
have been caused by either heroin or prescription opioids. 2005 was 
the worst year yet, with 13 opioid deaths. That number may rise, as 
six sudden deaths are being investigated by the state medical 
examiner as possible opioid overdoses.

Six confirmed heroin overdose deaths -- the highest total ever -- 
occurred in 2005.

Those on the front lines believe the local problem has a lot to do 
with the Berkshires' proximity to heroin hotbeds in Holyoke and Springfield.

Decker and Pittsfield Detective Michael Nykorchuck, who have 
collectively fought the war on drugs for more than 25 years, are 
members of the Berkshire County Drug Task Force, an organization of 
local police officers who operate countywide investigations with the 
help of state police.

They say heroin is much easier to overdose on than any other street drug.

It's also tougher to bust.

"The dealing is not as open as crack or cocaine," Decker said. "And 
we have a lot of people driving out of the county to get the drug."

"It involves lots of cliques," Nykorchuck added. "You have to know 
someone who does it, and then do it with them to show you're OK. It 
makes it harder for us to get them."

Police say they've seen bags, 0.025 grams in weight -- a pinch of 
light brown powder -- sell in Pittsfield anywhere from $8 to $20. In 
Holyoke and Springfield, it's as cheap as $5 a bag. In Boston, $3.

Lt. David Pratt of the Holyoke Police Department said the majority of 
heroin dealing in his area is controlled by Latin gangs. The drug is 
made from poppy flowers grown in Colombia and Mexico, smuggled across 
the border, and transported north along the highways to New York 
City, Hartford, Holyoke, and eventually here.

'It's So Cheap'

"We have people coming here (Holyoke) from around the region to get 
the drug, including quite a few from the Berkshires, just because 
it's so cheap," Pratt said. "It comes down to a business decision -- 
pay more in Pittsfield, or drive here and get more bang for your buck."

Holyoke and Springfield are so saturated with heroin that police are 
being aided by federal agents.

On June 15, 2005, 32 members of the Western Massachusetts branch of 
the Almighty Latin King Nation were charged with federal and state 
drug charges stemming from a yearlong investigation by the FBI. In 
late November, federal agents arrested 78 people involved in a drug 
trafficking ring in coordinated raids across South America, 
Massachusetts, New York City, Chicago and Orlando, Fla.

Pratt said his department often is forced to focus on the large-scale 
dealers and the violence associated with the drug trade, rather than 
the small-scale peddlers, the ones locals flock to.

"We don't kid ourselves that we'll rid the city (Holyoke) of drugs, 
but we're doing our best to deal with the quality-of-life issues, the 
shootings and the violence," he said.

It isn't an easy task.

Police surveillance has revealed that Berkshire County addicts who 
travel to Holyoke to get treatments of methadone -- a federally 
funded opioid that quells heroin cravings -- frequently stop at drug 
dens to get heroin afterward. Police say local addicts are given 
state health care funds to travel to the Holyoke clinics (the closest 
available) and use leftover money to pay for heroin.

Another common practice is for addicts to collect money from their 
drug-using friends, pick up the drugs, and return to Berkshire County 
with large amounts of heroin. The addicts risk getting caught, but 
fund their habit by charging their friends more.

Some turn into full-scale drug dealers, knowing the profitability in 
the market. Decker was the lead detective in the largest heroin bust 
in Berkshire County history, when a South Street man was arrested in 
November 2001 with 666 bags, a street value of more than $16,000.

On Nov. 1, 2005, Lee Police and the Drug Task Force found 201 bags of 
heroin belonging to a 19-year-old who was selling the drug out of his 
parents' home.

The Pittsfield Police are in the midst of "Operation New Year," which 
targets heroin sales in the city. Since January, Eric Wickenheisser, 
left, is pictured with his siblings at his sister's wedding in the 
late 1990s, before his death last July at age 46. Courtesy photo

30 arrests have been made, netting 548 bags of heroin, 12 OxyContin 
pills of 80 milligrams, and $5,661 in cash.

Police worked in conjunction with officers in Springfield, where 
arrests for distribution also were made.

"We're doing our jobs," Decker said. "We've gotten all the big-time 
dealers. Now you see us going after the little guys."

More Potent Now

A first-time user can get high off a bag of heroin for eight hours. 
An experienced one, 15 minutes.

When heroin hit the scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the drug 
was less potent and more expensive, with purity levels of 20 to 30 
percent and bags costing $40 to $50. Today, police regularly come 
across bags testing as high as 80 to 90 percent pure and costing $20 or less.

"I lived in New York City during the 1970s, when heroin was very 
popular," said Pittsfield drug counselor Francesca Speicher-Cote, 
"and I just can't believe that I have to see it all over again in 
Pittsfield. It's a disease."

The purity of the drug presents two disturbing problems: Users can 
kill themselves with just one dose -- essentially stopping their 
breathing mechanisms and then their heart -- and new generations are 
less scared of trying the drug because they no longer have to inject 
it to get high. Increased purity levels allow users to snort the 
powder because the chemicals are easier to absorb.

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless said that although the 
county hasn't seen the dramatic increases of overdoses that other 
cities in the state have endured, "We are taking this very seriously."

Capeless is more concerned about the opioid pill epidemic. He said a 
record 10 million opioid pills were prescribed in Berkshire County in 
2004. That's an average of 75 pills for every resident in the county.

"I think a lot of these pills are going to people who may not really 
need them," Capeless said. "I'm trying to work with Berkshire Health 
Systems to eradicate a large part of the problem. I think our doctors 
need to be more disciplined when writing prescriptions."

Police stake out pharmacies, where they've witnessed patients pick up 
an OxyContin prescription, walk into the parking lot, and exchange it 
for cash with someone waiting in a car.

Pill addicts begin popping one or two a day. After months of use, the 
body builds a tolerance, and two pills become four, and then eight. 
For a quick high, users scrape the time-release coating off the 
pills, crush them and snort them.

On the black market, opioid pills -- dubbed "Hillbilly Heroin" -- go 
for as much as $1 per milligram, so an 80-milligram pill of OxyContin 
can cost $80.

"Then it comes down to an economic decision," Capeless said. "Eighty 
dollars for an OxyContin, or $10 for a bag of heroin?"

A Powerful Force

This all comes as health officials work with small budgets and 
minimal resources, all to fight what they believe is the most 
powerful drug known to man.

John Lawson, coordinator of substance abuse at the Berkshire County 
Jail and House of Correction in Pittsfield, and Dr. David Smith, a 
psychiatrist at the facility, see firsthand how the wasting effects 
of the drug debilitate users.

Once addicted, an opioid addict will choose the substance over sex, 
food and companionship. The drug has rewired the addict's brain, 
altering its pleasure and reward centers.

"When you talk about heroin addicts, you're talking about the most 
desperate addicts out there," Lawson said.

In a period last year from January to October, 18 percent of new 
prisoners who were admitted to the jail (78 of 437) self-reported a 
heroin addiction.

"We as a society cannot ignore that this takes place, or that it just 
happens to the undesirables," Smith said. "I see it every day. I'm in 
full-scale hostage negotiations with these addicts. And most of the 
time, heroin wins."

It even defeats the tough guys, like Eric Wickenheisser.

He grew up in an upper-middle-class family in northern New Jersey, 
the son of Paul Wickenheisser and Dorothy O'Neill, he a union 
carpenter and she a successful real estate broker. His mother said 
Eric had a rocky relationship with his father.

"Eric was extremely smart but never serious about what he wanted to 
do in life," she said. "And that caused problems with his father, who 
could be very cold at times."

Eric joined the Army, met a woman he'd later marry, and the couple 
moved to Pittsfield in 1989. He was working for a moving company, 
transporting pianos, when he injured his back. He was prescribed 
opioid pills to relieve the pain, but quit them the day his 
brother-in-law, Danny Donnelly, introduced him to heroin.

Early Signs Of Trouble

Eric's mother said she saw addictive tendencies at an early age, when 
her son started drinking and smoking pot in high school.

"I saw the siren song, the one where you won't feel this pain if you 
drink enough or smoke enough," Dorothy said.

Eric's friend Charlie, of Hinsdale, called him a "tough German and a 
smooth talker." The two met in a Pittsfield heroin circle of friends. 
Charlie, who now is in a methadone program and asked that his full 
name not be used, explained Eric's quest like this: "He was on a 
mission to numb himself. I guess he never lived up to his father's 
image. He got divorced and he missed his kids. His back hurt, and ... 
I don't know. He enjoyed life, always had a smile, but he had pain inside."

House of Correction Superintendent John Quinn said he'll never forget 
the time he met Eric.

It was 2 a.m. on a steamy summer night in the early 1990s. There was 
a party raging next door to Quinn's house. He decided he'd had enough 
of the noise and stormed out, yelling to the crowd to cut the volume.

Eric, who was sitting on the front porch, picked up a bat and asked 
Quinn, "What the (expletive) are you gonna do about it?"

Eric's friend recommended he drop the bat. "That guy works at the jail, Eric."

Eric obliged, made small talk, and the two defused.

"We practically became friends after that," said Quinn, who later got 
to know Eric well from his various stops in jail for drug possession 
and petty stealing to support his habit. "He was desperate. He had a 
good heart, but he just couldn't shake the demons."

Quinn was driving home on the Massachusetts Turnpike last June when 
he spotted Eric on the side of the road holding a sign that read "Pittsfield."

"I'm coming off Exit 4 (in West Springfield), and there he is. He's 
yelling, 'Jack. Jack. I need a ride. Can you give me a ride?' He was 
as high as a kite. I knew he was in trouble. He was talking about his 
daughter and son and his mother and the life he could have had. I 
tried getting him some help, but he was gone."

The Final Days

Eric lived for a time at Barton's Crossing, a homeless shelter in 
Pittsfield, where he'd cut hair for spare change. Dave Christopolis, 
the shelter's director at the time, remembered Eric's last days there.

"I was sitting with him a few days before he left, a few days before 
he died. I said to him, 'Man, you don't look good.' He said it was 
his medications, then he left the shelter. I saw him on the Fourth of 
July at Friends Grille. He was having a few beers with two other 
buddies. He said he was doing well, but I could tell he was high."

Dorothy Wickenheisser, Eric's oldest daughter, used to have 
nightmares of her father dying when she was young. She's 21 now.

"It's like he had a death wish," Dorothy said. "He'd come out of jail 
and want to be clean, but then he'd reward himself with a little 
heroin. Then it would snowball out of control. It would make me so 
mad, but you couldn't say anything to him.

"My best memories are of the times I visited him in jail. We'd talk, 
and I knew it was the real him. He wasn't high."

Dorothy keeps a box of her father's belongings in a corner of her 
bedroom in Lee. The box is filled with mementos, like Eric's James 
Taylor CDs, his childhood photos of her and her siblings, and his 
wallet and clothes, the ones Dorothy gave him for Father's Day -- the 
ones he wore the day he died in the Dunkin' Donuts bathroom.

"I guess," she said, "I'm lucky I had him for 20 years."



1874: Heroin (diacetylmorphine) is first synthesized by C.R. Alder 
Wright, a British chemist working at St. Mary's Hospital Medical 
School in London.

1897: Chemist Felix Hoffmann, working for Bayer, re-creates heroin 11 
days after inventing aspirin.

1898: Bayer registers the trademark "Heroin," a form of the German 
word heroisch, which means heroic, and markets it as cough medicine 
for children, a pain reliever and a cure for morphine addiction.

1906: The American Medical Association approves heroin for medical 
use but warns that a habit can be "readily formed."

1914: The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act makes heroin a controlled 
substance, requiring doctors who prescribe the drug and pharmacists 
who sell it to register and pay a tax.

1924: The Heroin Act makes heroin and the possession of it illegal.

1930s: Organized crime groups in the United States begin to import 
the drug from the Middle East and Asia.

1940s: Heroin trade routes are stifled with the onset of World War II.

1948: Corsican Mafia and organized crime groups in the U.S. increase 
shipments of heroin to the U.S.

1960s: Asian heroin transportation routes to the U.S. flourish with 
the start of the Vietnam War. The drug culture of the '60s increases 
heroin's popularity.

1970: The Controlled Substances Act is passed, dividing drugs into 
categories and setting regulations and penalties for narcotics. 
Heroin is designated a Schedule I drug, meaning it is in the class of 
the most addictive of all substances.

1971: The first high-tech heroin labs open in Southeast Asia, 
introducing a more potent form of the drug to U.S. servicemen in 
Vietnam. As many as 15 percent of U.S. soldiers there become 
addicted. The number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reaches an 
estimated 750,000.

1973: President Nixon creates the DEA (Drug Enforcement 
Administration) under the Justice Department to consolidate federal 
powers of drug enforcement in a single agency.

1980s: Colombian and Mexican crime groups increase the growing of the 
opium poppy flower for production of heroin.

1993: Heroin addictions increase in the U.S. with new shipments of 
Latin American heroin.

1996: OxyContin, a Schedule II drug, hits the market and ushers in a 
popular practice of treating pain with high-strength opioids.

1997: The term "heroin chic" becomes popular, with movies, rock stars 
and models glamorizing the look of emaciated, strung-out addicts. 
President Clinton condemns the look as heroin addictions increase.

2004: The number of heroin addicts in the U.S. reaches an estimated 3 million.

2005: Berkshire County suffers its worst year of opioid-overdose deaths: 13.

- -- Compiled by Benning W. De La Mater
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman