She was the hardest worker they knew.
Melissa Lockovitch toiled the 2-10 p.m. shift as a nurse's aide at UPMC South Side. Then, with the energy only a 20-year-old could muster, she darted into a restroom and changed uniforms for her overnight security guard duty at the University of Pittsburgh.
For the former straight-A Keystone Oaks student, the long hours, the scrimping and saving, had paid off. She'd just been accepted into nursing school. She ordered new scrubs. It was time to celebrate.
Her mother, Janet Kapsis, saw her last on Oct. 20, when the daughter she adored dropped off her dirty laundry.
"She looked so pretty. Curly hair. Pink top. So pretty," Kapsis said. "She told me, 'Just think, Mummy, in three weeks I'll be 21.' "
But Melissa never got the chance to blow out the candles. The night before Halloween, she died alone in her Whitehall apartment, a crumpled packet of heroin at her side, her lungs drowning in their own blood.
"Every time I look out the window, I see her car and think she's come back," said Kapsis.
"I cry a lot."
Heroin now reigns as the most lethal drug in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties, based on autopsy reports at area coroners' offices. Last year, heroin killed Lockovitch and 190 other people across the region. That's more than double the 2000 death count and it doesn't include several dozen Allegheny County cases pending lab results.
But it's not the unprecedented body count that's causing parents in picture-perfect communities to take notice. It's who's dying. Never before have area victims of drug abuse been so young or so white.
According to death records on file at the coroners' offices:
Heroin's victims are getting younger. Across the region in 1999, heroin killed four people under the age of 24. Last year, 27 died.
Four out of five heroin deaths are male, but more women are dying from the drug than ever before. Last year, 37 perished, double the 2000 count. The youngest was 19, and five were under 30.
Heroin is an equal-opportunity killer. Heroin claims 10 times as many whites as blacks, but it also remains the deadliest drugs for black abusers.
It's more than a city problem. Seven out of every 10 heroin deaths occur outside Pittsburgh, in predominately white rural and suburban enclaves spread across five counties.
"The perception is that it's an inner-city problem. That's why they moved to the suburbs in the first place, to escape stuff like drugs," said Bethel Park Police Chief John Mackey. "They don't understand that kids have the opportunity to travel, to spend money, like never before.
"I tell parents, 'People don't drive to Bethel Park to buy drugs. They drive to the North Side or Duquesne, and bring the drugs back. But that doesn't mean our kids aren't doing drugs, because they are."
If smack had its own calendar for 2001, May would feature a 25-year-old electrician found face-down in his South Park lawn; September, a Fox Chapel High School senior who died in his friend's garage; and for April, a 22-year-old Pitt man, set graduate that weekend.
"One would think that after awhile, the message would get out to people," said Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht. "Heroin use is a very dangerous endeavor to engage in. Anyone can die from heroin."
Wecht's prescription: A large-scale effort to educate people about the dangers of illegal opiate use, plus more coordination with police, health providers and schools to reach the youngest potential users and, especially, their parents. Wecht said the region's 438 heroin deaths since 2000 comprise a public health issue, one that's hidden behind the myth of race.
"The problem is that the great majority of people believe this problem affects largely African-American young adults," said Wecht. "I really believe that racial bias is a big factor explaining the lack of a public outrage, of people asking, 'What's going on here?'"
In 1985, when Melissa Lockovitch was three years old, black men had the highest drug death rate in Pennsylvania, six times higher than whites, according to the state Department of Health. Then, drugs killed about 29 out of every 100,000 black men; for whites, 1.4 in 100,000.
The typical victim was an aging black junkie in the slums of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh using heroin or crack cocaine, according to the state Department of Health.
Fast forward to 2000 and the trend is reversing. Black male drug death rates have plummeted 75 percent to 6 in 100,000. For white men, the rate is soaring Nearly six out of every 100,000 will die this year.
Bethel Park, an upper-middle class South Hills suburb, is 97 percent white. Officials there suspect that, based on calls to treatment centers and the number of arrests, up to 10 percent of the borough's high school uses heroin. That's more than five times the national average, according to a survey by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services.
Authorities thought they had no option but to place a full-time cop in the school.
"These are kids with enough money, who are mobile, who have cell phones. They can get heroin easily, and they do," said Bethel Park policeman James Modrak, who now walks a beat on the high school campus.
"It's just as bad in the parochial schools or Upper St. Clair or anywhere else. All the kids in the South Hills can make the trip to St. Clair Village or the North Side and score heroin. But do parents check the miles on the car? They know how far it is to the North Side. They go to Steelers or Pirates games.
"Listen, if you can go to a game, your kids can go get heroin."
Last year, Bethel Park cops busted a 14-year-old heroin snorter. They caught a 15-year-old girl who shot up. Then they nabbed an Eagle Scout as he swallowed a balloon filled with heroin when they moved in for the arrest.
Supply and demand
The heroin that ended up in the belly of a Boy Scout began its journey in Colombia.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, 70 percent of all heroin sold east of the Mississippi — and nearly all of Pittsburgh's smack — comes from Colombia, which is also the world's biggest cocaine mill.
In the mid-1990s, Colombian farmers began switching from cocoa plant cultivation to poppy flowers, the root of heroin. They swapped coke for heroin for the simplest reason: They made more money.
Colombian suppliers then won the eastern U.S. market in a price war that shoved out more expensive Southeast Asian, Mexican and Afghani heroin, and cleared the way for kilos of bargain basement "Colombian White."
Once boiled down and dried into a powder, poppy sap can easily be converted into opium, heroin or any of the other opiate building blocks that get kids high, including prescription pain-killers like Percocet and Oxycontin. These opiates kill by depressing breathing, suffocating victims.
Michelle Mullen, 18, of Bethel Park started with "oxies" at 15. By her senior year, Pittsburgh police had arrested her scoring heroin on the North Side. Her odyssey from innocent freshman to hardened drug user is one repeated every day by teen junkies in Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair, Plum and Cranberry.
Mullen tried rehab twice. The final straw came when she was busted by police on Bethel Park's campus. That brought an end to a $700 weekly heroin habit.
"I started snorting oxies and got hooked," she said. "Then I started selling them, because I needed to snort. My tolerance went up, so I started shooting heroin. After a couple of months of shooting, I was up to, well, 12, 15 packets (a day). It depended, you know?"
As the South Hills drug epidemic surged this year, heroin prices in the city plummeted, making it easier than ever before to get high or hooked on "H."
Two years ago, a teen had to pay $25 for a tiny bag of heroin along East Ohio or Federal streets on the North Side, two of the city's largest open air drug markets, according to kids and cops interviewed by the Trib.
Thanks to Colombian exports, a seller now is lucky to get $7 to $10.
Steppin' on the street
For nearly two years, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has talked to drug dealers, the police who chase them, and the customers frequenting their services. All tell the same story about how drugs arrive in town, and how the dope is distributed. Their testimonies are backed up by DEA field reports, which report much of the same findings.
Every week, couriers motoring in from Philadelphia, New York and other northeastern cities drop off dope. Much of it flows into Pittsburgh along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
In March, for example, state troopers on the Turnpike stopped Pamela Watson, 57, a North Side grandmother with no criminal record. Under her minivan's floorboard, officers found 6 pounds of high-grade heroin — enough dope to fill more than 77,000 packets on the street.
The benchmark weight for heroin leaving South America is a kilo of 90 percent pure "Colombian White." U.S. middlemen cut it with corn starch, talcum or baking soda, then sift it into small sachets for retail street sales. As the drug moves through the Pittsburgh's chain of local wholesalers to curbside dealers, it's "stepped on," with more filler added, making it slightly less pure but more expensive.
It's the underworld's version of shipping and handling.
A generation ago, junkies were lucky to score heroin that was about 3 to 6 percent pure, and to get high they had to inject it into their veins. Today, the Allegheny County drug lab finds most heroin peddled to suburban teens is about 70 percent pure.
That's up to 23 times more potent than heroin sold a decade ago, at a fraction of the price. New teen users typically don't start out shooting smack. They begin by inhaling a potent product and, only after their tolerance increases, do they turn to the most efficient means of getting opium to their brain: the syringe.
The customer's race determines the price. In the black neighborhoods of the Hill District and the St. Clair Village housing project, city junkies pay $3 for a balloon filled with heroin. The deluge of cheap heroin now makes the drug $2 cheaper than a baggie of crack cocaine sold in the same neighborhoods.
But "Special Delivery," a St. Clair Village batch reserved largely for white consumers, costs more than twice that much, and it's sold to a regional pool of addicts. Last year, coroner records show that "Special Delivery" killed two white men, one in Bethel Park, the other in Tarentum, showing just how far a sachet of St. Clair Village heroin can travel.
When selling to suburban teens, marketing matters. Dealers don't use drab balloons or plastic wraps, the packaging that's bundled for sales to inner city consumers. They instead craft brightly illustrated packages, often spangled with jingles or illustrations drawn from white teen pop culture.
For the yuletide season, enterprising North Side peddlers mixed up batches featuring holiday themes, including "Snowman," complete with a smiling Frosty on the bag, one of which was offered for sale to a Trib reporter.
Pittsburgh's teenage brands are famous throughout the region, wooing kids seeking their fix of "Scooby Doo," "Special Delivery," or "He Man" from as far away as New Castle, Johnston and Morgantown, W.Va.
In August, for example, Johnstown's John Anthony Bartoli, 23, locked himself in the toilet at a Squirrel Hill Starbucks with a syringe and a packet of "Scooby Doo" — and never came out alive.
The "buddy system"
White kids rarely do drugs in the city neighborhoods where they score. They, their friends or low-level dealers serving a select teen clientele make the run to pick up the packets. It's called the "buddy system," and dealers showed the Trib that it's busiest on late Friday afternoons, just after school but before the weekend parties.
The best-selling brands are those that kill people. Dope peddlers told the Trib that nothing is better for business than the word-of-mouth advertising following an overdose, which suggests to junkies a brand with higher heroin purity. "He Man," named after a childhood cartoon, sold well. And it killed two men last year, according to county death records.
One was Bethel Park's Stephen Patrick Kurty, 23, and investigators believe it was the "buddy system" that delivered the lethal dose. But most of the time, cops concede they usually can't catch up to this informal drug traffic before youngsters like Kurty die. Last year, heroin killed nine South Hills residents under the age of 25, including teens in Dormont, Whitehall and South Park.
But sometimes, police get lucky. On Dec. 12, they were able to rush Drew Monning, 23, to St. Clair Hospital. Bridgeville police found Monning and another Upper St. Clair man, Andrew Fedorchak, 18, asleep in an idling car along LaFayette Street with 108 stamped bags of heroin, 110 syringes, and a bag of pills.
That sounds like a lot of dope, but to Bethel Park's Michelle Mullen, the LaFayette Street cargo would have lasted barely a week. She's clean now because she doesn't want to die, a fate shared by 50 western Pennsylvania heroin abusers under the age of 30 last year.
For some South Hills teens, Mullen's fight to be drug-free has become an inspiration. But the daily reality of fighting heroin cravings is tougher than people think, she says. She's going to college, has landed a job, has her own apartment and has patched up relations with her mother, who Mullen now says saved her life by being tough when she needed it.
The road from heroin addiction to a clean live often involves years of going on and off smack. And more are going to treatment than ever before. According to the Pennsylvania Health Department, 4,714 residents of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties entered drug rehab programs last year — a 45 percent increase since 1999.
"I can't sit here and say, 'Hey, in two weeks I won't be on it.' Because I don't know that," Mullen said. "I can't say that. What I can say is that I'm trying hard, every day, to stay clean."
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