Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Pubdate: Thu, 23 Jul 1998
Author: C. Bryson Hull - AP


PLANO -- Federal authorities on Wednesday charged 29 people who they say
helped deliver or sell the drugs that led to five overdoses, four of them
fatal, in this well-to-do Dallas suburb.

A spate of heroin overdoses in the city of 188,000 spurred federal and
local authorities to take the unusual step of targeting the people who sold
the killer drugs, said U.S. Attorney Mike Bradford of the Eastern District
of Texas.

"Despite their knowledge that young people were dying, the indictment
alleges that these people continued to sell their drugs," Bradford said at
a press conference announcing the indictments.

Taking its name from the street slang for a type of heroin, the 15-month
multi-agency investigation dubbed "Operation Chiva" aimed to stiffen the
penalties against those suspected of the sale.

Authorities arrested 12 suspects Wednesday. Fifteen were already jailed on
other charges. One suspect is still at large and another will be arrested
upon his release from a rehabilitation facility, police said.

The indictment, released Wednesday, alleges that drug traffickers smuggled
black tar heroin and cocaine from Mexico -- often hidden in secret
compartments in their shoes -- and sought to sell the drugs specifically in

The city has drawn national attention in the wake of 17 fatal and three
near-fatal overdoses over the past four years.

Julio Mercado, special agent-in-charge of the Dallas office of the Drug
Enforcement Administration, said that dangerously high levels of heroin
purity in Plano contributed to the overdoses and convinced officials to
start the investigation.

Heroin levels on the street normally have a purity level of up to 7
percent, whereas the heroin found in Plano ranged from 37 percent to 70
percent pure, Mercado said.

Operating out of a residence known as the "Blue House," the dealers sold
the drugs to young adults and juveniles, the indictment alleges. In a
five-month span starting on June 8, 1997, four of those sales were lethal.

In that span, 19-year-olds Rob Hill and Wesley Scott, 16-year-old Erin
Baker and 20-year-old Milan Melina died from heroin overdoses.

Most of the suspects are men, ranging in age from 18 to 38. Most are in
their early 20s and 17 of them have attended Plano schools in the past four
years, Bradford said.

Plano became a haven for heroin pushers because the main players saw an
untapped market and sought to exploit it, authorities said.

"They're looking for new locations to push their product all the time,"
Mercado said.

Because of a special sentencing enhancement, prosecutors can push for
sentences ranging from 20 years to life in prison for 24 suspects. Until
the new charges were announced, none of them faced more than 20 years in
prison, Bradford said.

Authorities said their approach to this drug investigation differed from
others. Whereas overdose victims often are regarded as victims of their own
decisions, Operation Chiva sought to punish the dealers who contributed to
the deaths.

"This is definitely a new twist from dealing with an overdose death as `too
bad, so sad, you shouldn't have been doing drugs' to treating it as almost
a homicide and running a full-blown homicide investigation," DEA spokesman
Paul Villaescusa said.

Bradford echoed the sentiment, sounding almost like a lawyer at a murder trial.

"We're hopeful that this investigation will bring some justice to the
families," he said.

The mother of one victim said it will, when the people who sold her son the
drugs that killed him are sentenced.

"We're just in the beginning steps," said Andrea Hill, the mother of Rob
Hill. "We'll be happiest when there are convictions."

Her husband, Lowell, said the investigation was a mark of progress in the
city's very public fight against drugs.

"It's been 11 months since my son died," Lowell Hill said, holding back
tears. "What they've accomplished in those 11 months, they've come a long

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Checked-by: (Joel W. Johnson)