BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - WECT is continuing to shine a spotlight on heroin use in our community and now talking directly to the source: dealers.
During the live forum for "In Vein," both Brunswick and New Hanover County Sheriff's Offices agreed addicts were not being helped with jail time but that dealers should expect to spend serious time inside a prison cell.
Still, new dealers are created every day as the demand for dope floods throughout our area.
Casey Roman was recently invited along on one of Brunswick County's major dealer operations. She also spoke one-on-one with a young mother who started selling to support her own habit.
The dealer, who we will call Krystal in this report, first got hooked on pain pills, a common story among most heroin addicts. Initially, she was selling crack to pay the bills but says the money there quickly dried up once heroin came to town.
Just a few years ago, 15 bags off a dealer would have been something to talk about at Brunswick County Sheriff's Office. Today, it would take 5,000 to 10,000 bags to be labeled a "big seizure."
Roman recently met with undercover drug agents from BCSO at 5 a.m. for an operation briefing. It takes weeks, if not months of surveillance on a suspected dealer to get to this point. On that morning, agents had a long list of targets, each having been observed dealing narcotics.
Before dawn, SWAT was knocking on doors with K9's searching inside homes.
Children were calmly and safely removed from inside while drug agents searched for bags of heroin, scales and cutting agents – proof that the suspect was selling or had possession of heroin with the intent to manufacture, sell and distribute (PWIMSD).
If convicted, sellers can go to prison on the first offense.
The Brunswick County court system imposes sentences that range from 3 to 31 months depending on what the person pleads to, the facts of the case and their prior criminal record.
What's the difference between possessing and trafficking a drug? It's determined by weight.
Generally, trafficking is committed by transporting a drug, manufacturing it, possessing it or selling it. The bottom threshold for heroin is 4 grams or more.
- 4 grams or more = mandatory minimum of 70 months and a $50,000 fine
- 14 grams or more = mandatory minimum of 90 months and a $100,000 fine
- 28 grams or more = mandatory minimum of 225 months and a $500,000 fine
Brunswick County Chief Assistant District Attorney Chris Thomas said his approach to heroin dealers is simple: if you're caught selling, if there's evidence and if you're convicted – you're going to jail.
If a seller is a habitual felon, regardless of the quantity of heroin involved, Thomas says he will push for prison.
Krystal has already served eight months in state prison on heroin charges.
"I was selling before I went to prison to keep up my habit. I was both a user and a seller," she said. "It's easy. It's easy to get into."
She estimates that now at least 300 to 500 heroin dealers are working in New Hanover and Brunswick counties to keep up with skyrocketing demand.
"You arrest one and three or four more pop up," she explained. "They're even getting younger. Down to teenagers. 18,19 year old little boys out there selling dope."
Sellers are hard to generalize. Krystal is a young mother and knows other women who are also dealing. Gender, race and socioeconomic background do not discriminate when it comes to heroin.
Her average customer buys about seven bags every day, usually at $15 per bag. If a shortage is going around, the per bag price climbs to $20.
"If you know the right person you can go get 50 bags, which is a clip, for $300. Turn around and sell it for $15 a bag. So you're sometimes doubling your money off of it," Krystal pointed out. "Sometimes it can be a rush. Knowing you are doing something and getting away with it. Making the type of money you are. You make your own schedule, you do what you want. You're not expected to be at work a certain time and be there the whole 8 to 10 hours for $7.25 an hour."
On a "bad" day Krystal makes about $500 to $600. Over the course of a week she can pull in close to $10,000.
"I don't sell out of my house. People don't come to my house. I don't tell people where I live," she cautioned. "'Cause you don't come here thinking you're gonna be knocking on my door at any time of the night and disrupt my family that I've got going on."
When asked where the "hot spots" were for dealers, Krystal quickly offered up any Walmart parking lot. They're big and crowded, the perfect environment to disappear in.
Deals can be made walking through the aisles. Quickly bump into one another and while having a mundane conversation, the swap can be made without notice.
"Right out in the parking lot it's the easiest, because you can just throw it down in the seat, pass off and be done with it," she said.
Krystal has sold heroin to every type of person: young and old, rich or poor, regardless of how pristine the neighborhood's reputation is.
"Everyone's all like 'Southport is such a wonderful area!' and it is, it's a beautiful area," she said. "But there's a lot of things people don't know that come to here on vacation that don't really realize what's going on here. They don't see that you got a bunch of regular junkies running around."
One of the most at-risk populations for heroin addiction is the medical community: doctors, emergency room nurses and anesthesiologists.
"Nurses, you'd pass them on the street and you'd never guess in a million years," Krystal said of one of her regulars. "She liked to get her fix before she went to work and when she came home she liked to grab a little something else and that's how she went about here day. You know I've seen her in her smocks so she'd be on her way to work."
Krystal's most complicated customer is the one trying to hide it. She says it's usually a frantic rush to get the dope and get on their way, before anyone spots them.
When narcotics agents make a major bust, panic among users quickly spreads as supply dries up. Dope prices catapult upward and dealer's phones start ringing off the hook.
In some cases, agents will go far past county borders to cut off those supply lines.
The last time Krystal was caught selling, agents found her with 50 bags. She even knew some of the deputies, having grown up with them in school.
"I said, 'I didn't even talk to you this much in school,'" she laughed.
In many cases, during an arrest, a dealer will try to quickly hide or dispose of the dope. They throw it out the window, stuff it deep into a crevice in the car, swallow it or in some cases attempt to hide the drugs inside themselves.
"Officers are now getting warrants to take the females to the emergency room and get x-rays to see if there is anything up in there because an officer can't physically go up inside you and pull it out," Krystal explained.
After being caught a second time, Krystal is now waiting to hear both her and her children's fate.
"I come from a long line of drug addicts," she explained. "I'm really trying to break the cycle for my kids. Selling I guess ain't the best way to do it."
For her, it's a daily production to try to keep one of her children from seeing what pays the bills. Krystal only works when her daughter is in school. For now, her daughter thinks her mother cleans houses.
Krystal wants what every parent wants for their children – a better future and one that doesn't involve drugs. It's a hope she's communicated more than once to her kids.
"You don't want to live like me - no license, constantly getting pulled over, in and out of prison," she cautioned. "If you don't want to live this lifestyle then only you can make that choice not to do that and make better decisions then what I've done and my family."
In trying to turn her life around, Krystal faces an almost universal problem among addicts. As a felon, she has to check that criminal history box on every application, making it almost impossible for her and many others in the same boat to find legitimate work.
The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is working on new legislation called "Ban the Box." If passed, applications will omit that qualifier until later in the job hiring process, giving former addicts and dealers a chance to let their skills speak before their history.