By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009
As federal agents and Fairfax County police gathered in Alexandria last summer, they realized that they had to act quickly. Heroin use was surging in the Centreville area, and a 19-year-old woman recently had overdosed and died.
"We had a pandemic, a public health emergency of heroin use by young individuals," Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik R. Barnett told a judge Friday. "Young people were dying."
The meeting in the U.S. attorney's office triggered a sweeping investigation that culminated Friday with the sentencing of the final defendant in a Fairfax County heroin ring that led to the deaths of four young people.
Skylar Schnippel, 20, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for supplying the drugs that killed his girlfriend, 19-year-old Alicia Lannes, whose death brought in federal authorities. She overdosed on heroin in her parents' basement while talking to Schnippel by telephone and text message. He waited several hours to seek help, prosecutors said.
In all, 16 young people were charged with drug crimes in a ring that prosecutors said included dozens of heroin users, almost all of them onetime students at Westfield High School. All were convicted. Their sentences ranged from 30 days to 26 years in prison.
Schnippel was sentenced at a hearing in U.S. District Court that seemed more like a funeral, an occasion to mourn the deadly effects of drugs and the loss of two young lives, one to prison and the other to a grave.
Donna Lannes, Alicia's mother, called Schnippel "a coward, a liar, indifferent and thoughtless." Her voice shaking, she told the court that Schnippel "was not fit for society" and called for "the maximum punishment this court can impose."
Her husband, Greg Lannes, said his daughter had "an infectious personality" that Schnippel had quelled by giving her the drugs that ultimately led to her death. Turning to face the defendant, he said: "Skylar, take responsibility for your actions and start a new life today. . . . When you are released back into society, we hope you become a productive and caring person.
"May God watch over you and guide you."
Schnippel, wearing a green prison jumpsuit, stared straight ahead and did not look at the Lannes family. Almost 20 young people packed the courtroom, many of them family members and friends of Schnippel's. They looked down or cried softly.
In a brief statement, Schnippel apologized "for the pain I have caused" and said he was "deeply sorry for the Lannes's loss." Judge Leonie M. Brinkema then imposed the sentence, saying Schnippel's actions had been "unconscionable." Schnippel's family members declined to comment.
Schnippel, of Centreville, was convicted in May of conspiracy and possessing and distributing the heroin that led to Lannes's March 2008 death. He was the only defendant who went to trial; the rest pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors portrayed him as a key member of the drug ring, a characterization that defense attorneys did not dispute in their brief remarks today. In court papers, they said Schnippel was less culpable than some other members of the ring and was a heroin addict who did not intend any harm.
The papers referred to Lannes's death as "one unfortunate bi-product of this conspiracy" while adding that Schnippel and his lawyers "are profoundly saddened by her death."
Prosecutors also spoke Friday of their amazement as they realized the extent of hard drug use among Centreville area young people, part of what investigators say is a larger problem in the region that had gone undetected.
"This is far beyond adolescent experimentation," Barnett said. "These are individuals whose lives revolve around drug use. These drugs were available in the schools. They were available at parties in their neighborhoods, they were available from friends. . . . We were shocked."
One young woman told investigators she had used a hallucinogenic drug that lasted 24 hours. "We had never heard of such a thing," Barnett said. "And the reality is she was almost boastful about it."
Barnett denied allegations from critics, whom he did not name, that the government poured resources into the case because most of the defendants were white, suburban and middle-class. "It's very important to be clear that the U.S. attorney's office got involved because we had jurisdiction . . . regardless of their race, ethnicity, age or their background," he said.
The prosecutor closed his remarks with an unusual plea for schools, public health authorities and governments to "step up" and do a better job of combating drug abuse. "We cannot sit idly by," Barnett said, "as young people or anyone else dies."