By Caitlin Gibson
Tuesday, November 3, 2009; C01
The tall young man with the square jaw and the mop of dark brown hair held the phone pressed against his ear. He didn't know what to do.
His girlfriend had just shot heroin from a tiny plastic bag he'd given her earlier that night, in her car, in the rain. She'd taken it back home to her parents' house in Centreville. She'd gone alone to her room and closed the door. She'd laid out the powder, dissolved it in water, as he'd taught her to do, drawn it into a syringe through a cotton ball, as he'd taught her to do, and injected it into a vein in her arm.
That much Skylar Schnippel knew, because his girlfriend, Alicia Lannes, had talked to him on the phone as she used. That was four minutes ago. But now she wasn't answering. So he called her again. He called her twice in two minutes. Then twice in the next two minutes. It was 1:45 in the morning, and she wasn't answering, and he knew. She must have overdosed, as she'd done two times before in front of him: her head lolling, her face pale, her lips blue.
Alicia was only a neighborhood away, in another suburban Virginia house across a few dozen nicely manicured lawns. What was he going to do? A call to the police would bring nothing but trouble for him. Likewise, a call to Alicia's parents -- they wanted him away from their daughter. He couldn't leave to check on her himself; his parents were suspicious.
Whatever fractured logic was at work in Skylar Schnippel's brain, it led him to this: For nearly an hour and a half, as Alicia Lannes lay dying in her bedroom, Skylar did nothing but dial and re-dial her number. At 3:10 a.m., Skylar finally called two friends and asked them to check on Alicia. They drove to her house, crept up to her window and peered inside. Through the wet glass they saw her lying on the floor, motionless. They drove off to find a pay phone, so they could call 911 anonymously; by then, it was way too late.
Alicia's death at 19 on March 5, 2008, would throw light on the existence of a highly organized heroin ring operating among more than 50 teens and young adults in Centreville. Many were current or former students at Westfield High School; they were soccer players, basketball players, cheerleaders, AP students. By the time the ring was broken, there had been several overdoses and four deaths.
Sixteen young people would be convicted, and all but one -- Skylar -- would plead guilty to felony charges. Sentences handed down ranged from 30 days to 26 years in prison. Skylar was the last to be sentenced-- he got 20 years in July.
Centreville parents were stunned. How did children with so many advantages come to behave as self-destructively as this?
Among the ring's many members, there were differences in background, family history, personality. All had found their own reasons to try heroin. Alicia's may have been the most powerful of all.A bright future
Skylar and Alicia both graduated from Westfield High in May 2007. They'd been dating since the summer before their senior year, and made a striking couple -- a lovely young woman and a handsome, personable young man.
"He seemed fine, at first," says Alicia's mother.
Almost a year after their daughter's death, Greg and Donna Lannes sit side by side at their dining room table. Less than two years before, after their daughter had first been rushed to the hospital with a heroin overdose, Skylar sat across from them at this same table and begged for forgiveness. He had helped her get the drugs, but he said it was a one-time mistake and swore he was getting help in an outpatient program. He cried. He promised to protect their daughter.
There'll be hell to pay if you don't, warned Greg Lannes, director of operations for a wireless consultant company and an assistant football coach at Westfield.
Donna Lannes, a registered nurse, runs her fingers across a coffee mug that reads, "A mother holds her child's hand for a little while, her child's heart for a lifetime." A gold cross rises and falls on her chest. She is trying not to cry.
Her daughter -- the younger child of two -- is in the picture frames on the cabinet, at her graduation, on vacation with her family. She's in a larger frame hanging by the front door, a photo taken before her senior prom. This is the one that was in the newspapers. Big blue-green eyes and a delicate smile, her light brown hair swept up off her freckled shoulders.
At first, Donna tries to describe Alicia with a stream of adjectives: funny, kind, smart. Sweet, silly. Alicia was fiercely determined, earning a place on Westfield's varsity cheerleading squad and later the golf team. And she was a perfectionist: She graduated with a high GPA and 19 college credits from AP classes.
"She thought she wanted to be a brain surgeon," Greg says. "There was no limit to what she thought she could do."
But in her early teens, she started having episodes of powerful anxiety that her parents never quite understood. She became inexplicably agitated when her parents pulled into certain gas stations, the kind with a convenience store. Family plans to go out could trigger anxiety. At a Fourth of July celebration in Baltimore, Alicia was so panicked by the crowd that her father had to carry her out on his shoulders.
The first true sign that a deeper issue was surfacing occurred one day in late January 2006. Alicia abruptly decided that her bedroom walls -- blue skies and ivy that her mother had painted as a surprise just three years before -- had to be repainted immediately. Her urgency was out of character, but in retrospect, it was a sign, easily missed. There was no missing the second sign, a few hours later.
Father and daughter tackled the bedroom. It took all day, but finally the cheerful tableau was erased. Satisfied, Alicia left for a party around 9. At 10:30, Greg answered a call from another parent. Alicia had passed out, the parent said. She'd apparently drunk too much. An ambulance had been called.
When Greg arrived at Fair Oaks Hospital, an EMT approached. "Your daughter doesn't want to live anymore," she said. "She tried to commit suicide by drinking a whole bottle of vodka."
Greg's mind raced. It flashed to his niece Nicole, Alicia's best friend, who was bipolar and had committed suicide a year earlier at 16. Surely it was the grief, he thought.
He stood beside his daughter's bed as she regained consciousness. He asked Alicia if what the EMT told him was true. Tears pooled in her eyes.
"I want to be with Nicole," Alicia said. "She's the only one who knows my secret."
Alicia wouldn't say.The ring is formed
The ring had its beginnings in 2005, when 17-year-old Kevin Zuiker made a connection on a drug forum Web site to a young red-haired guy in Alexandria who dealt heroin. Then Zuiker and his friends started going to his source in D.C., a dealer named Antonio Harper, known on the streets as "T." A few of the students quickly climbed to the top of the ring's hierarchy: David Schreider and Joshua Quick became primary distributors in Centreville. Both applied a business savvy to their dealing, establishing competitive pricing and recruiting new customers.
Police took notice of a few scattered arrests in 2006, when routine stops of local youths turned up small amounts of heroin. But it wasn't until summer 2007, after a concerned resident reported drug activity at Schreider's home, that the larger problem came into focus. The police set up surveillance and caught teens dealing heroin. Suspects were interrogated and urged to sign informant agreements in return for lesser or dropped charges. The teens continued to use and sell even as they were revealing each other's names to the police, who were trying to trace the drugs to their source.
"We really weren't after the users, we were trying to stop the flow coming into the area," said Fairfax Police Detective Steve Carroll.
The first fatal overdose occurred in December 2007. The victim's name was never released. Alicia was next, three months later. Two more would follow in September, within a week of each other : Duncan Parker and Carmen Somers.
It was Alicia's death in March that sparked a critical escalation in the investigation. The FBI and federal prosecutors entered the case and named it Operation Smackdown. What soon became clear was that the teens had graduated to heroin from a stunning menu of drugs: ecstasy, mushrooms, LSD, methamphetamines, cocaine, barbiturates, prescription pills.
One of the young adults pressed into an informant's role was Skylar Schnippel. Police in a surveillance van had spotted Skylar buying heroin from Schreider in July 2007; when a squad car pulled him over, Skylar admitted to having heroin hidden in his sock. By then, Skylar had been buying heroin for himself and Alicia for months.
The kids called it "partying," but it wasn't really; they'd use, then mostly just sit around watching TV, listening to music, smoking cigarettes. In a basement, or a bedroom, or a car. They were together but alone, adrift in their own oblivion. Even after police interrogations and arrests, they felt little anxiety about being caught.
In January 2008, Harper -- the inner-city-D.C. dealer -- cut off contact with his Centreville customers after his name was leaked to police and one of the residences he used to deal from was raided. It might have been the end of the teenagers' access to heroin, but instead the ring just shifted to the open-air drug markets of Baltimore. The person who found the new source was Anna Richter.Anna's descent
The Richter home is just minutes from where the Lanneses live, on a cul-de-sac neighboring the same country-club golf course. Like the Lanneses' house, it is large, sunny, colorfully decorated. Photographs of the Richter kids, Anna and her younger sister, are propped on shelves and end tables. They are both lovely girls: Alex, a smiling brunette; Anna, in her graduation photo, a blue-eyed strawberry blonde. Anna graduated from Westfield the same year as Skylar and Alicia. She has known Skylar since she was a child, and met Alicia a few times through him.
Lucy Richter points to another photo of Anna, taken a year or so after her graduation. Anna's hair is dyed black, her smile is tense. Her eyelids are swept with dark makeup.
"That," Lucy says, "was when things were not good."
Lucy and her husband, Greg, settle into their living room to talk about Anna's history with drugs.
Anna was a good student, they say, and a talented athlete on Westfield's basketball team. Pretty, headstrong and tough: Lucy says with a short laugh, "Greg used to call her 'my son Anna.' "
Like Alicia, Anna had a high school boyfriend -- another of the ring's early members -- whom her parents weren't crazy about. They knew their daughter had used pot and ecstasy with him, and they thought they had addressed the problem with counseling. The pair broke up after graduation, and her parents hoped college would be a fresh start.
But the summer before she went off to West Virginia University, Anna's behavior changed. "She got a real edge," Lucy says. "Defiance, lying." They didn't know she had started dabbling in heroin.
On the isolated mountain campus, without a heroin source, Anna started drinking heavily. Greg and Lucy saw their daughter slide into depression, intensified by a series of losses: One friend died of an overdose, another in a car crash. Two were murdered in the April 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech.
Anna went to funeral after funeral.
"We saw her drifting away," Lucy says. "Retreating into herself."
Her parents arranged to have her see a therapist twice a week, but things didn't get better: While Anna was home the following summer, she connected with three other ring members and started using heroin almost every day.
The Richters suspected drug abuse and searched her room, but found nothing. They gave Anna drug tests; she passed. Meanwhile, her anger spiraled out of control. She fought viciously with her parents and avoided being home.
When she went back to WVU in the fall, she wound up on academic probation. She'd met a townie who connected her to a heroin source in Baltimore.
The Richters told Anna to come home and get herself together, to try community college. Anna moved back and got a part-time job at a family friend's car dealership.
One morning in January 2008, when Lucy dropped Anna off at work, Anna left her cellphone in the car. Lucy flipped it open and found a text that read: "Bring the needles."
When Anna got home, Lucy and Anna's sister, Alex, issued an ultimatum: Get help or get out.
Anna enrolled in an outpatient program at Fairfax Hospital and stayed clean through February. The Friday after Alicia's death in March, she relapsed at a party. While there, another girl overdosed, but paramedics resuscitated her.
The next day, the day of Alicia's funeral, hundreds of mourners drove through cordoned-off streets of Centreville. They listened to a brother's eulogy and released white balloons into an overcast sky. Anna spent the afternoon with Skylar's family, who were not welcome to attend.
Skylar was distraught, and Anna tried to offer comfort, recalling her own friends lost to drugs. When she left the house late in the afternoon, she cashed her paycheck, then headed to Baltimore.
For the first time, she went alone. She turned into a rundown neighborhood lined with chain-link fences and dilapidated brick rowhouses off Gwynns Falls Parkway. She found her usual source. The transaction was quick.
Behind the wheel, parked in a seedy neighborhood, Anna shot up, then started home. She made it two blocks, to a red light, before the rush overcame her. She slumped forward.
Forty-five minutes passed in the middle of an intersection in an open-air drug market, with Anna's foot mercifully resting against the brake pedal. Her car was rifled through, her purse dumped out and the money in her wallet stolen. All four car doors hung wide open when police found her, unconscious, face down on the steering wheel, the engine running.Parents seeking answers
Centreville parents were plagued: Why would their kids -- children of supportive parents -- get involved with heroin?
The answer is simple, according to Edythe London, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist at UCLA who is at the forefront of addiction study: "Heroin is an equal-opportunity substance."
The factors that make a person susceptible to drugs cross ethnic and economic lines in ways many people don't fully realize, London says. "It's something that the nice folks with the successful kids in nice schools are not paying attention to."
Teens are particularly at risk; the prefrontal cortex of a teenager's brain, responsible for evaluating surroundings and making appropriate decisions, is still developing. Pair an immature frontal lobe with other variables -- availability of a drug, peer pressure, poor self-image -- and it's a dangerous formula. "Availability and one weak moment," London declares: That's all it takes to turn a kid toward addiction. Teens with mood disorders are especially vulnerable.
And drug use spreads rapidly through social circles.
Westfield High's principal, Tim Thomas, says the school has long devoted resources to combat drugs. "We have an active community coalition, an active partnership with Alcohol and Drug Services, we have periodic lockdowns to do drug searches with dogs," he says.
Patrick McConnell, director of Alcohol and Drug Services in Fairfax County, says many families are reluctant to believe their children have a problem. "These parents, a lot of times, will believe their kid before they believe us," he says. "We can say whatever we want to say, but if no one's going to listen, there are some fairly severe consequences that can result from that."
In the case of the heroin ring, McConnell continues, "the fact that it went as far as it did, that's out of the norm -- but the potential is not an anomaly."
There's no precise science to show "why" someone chooses to use drugs, says London, but users typically fall into two categories:
"One of them is what we call positive reinforcement -- in other words, they take the drug because it makes them feel good," she says.
Others are motivated by negative reinforcement. "It makes bad feelings go away," London says.
She pauses. "It's not the same thing. The first person is chasing the high, the second person is trying to drive away the monsters."The secret
After her alcohol poisoning in January 2006, Alicia was held at the hospital on suicide watch, then transferred to the psychiatric ward at Children's National Medical Center in the District. By the time she left two days later, her parents had found her a psychiatrist: Steven Pankopf, former medical director of the child inpatient psychiatric service at Children's. Starting in February, Alicia met with him twice a week.
Soon after the first session, Pankopf told Greg and Donna Lannes that Alicia had something to tell them, but they would have to wait until she was ready.
After seeing Alicia for almost a month, Pankopf told Greg and Donna that Alicia might be ready to talk. They waited while Pankopf spoke with their daughter. Then he stepped outside his office and said: "Let's try the next visit."
It happened again the following week. It's taking time to get to a place where she feels safe and comfortable, Pankopf explained.
Then, on March 21, Pankopf emerged and gestured for Alicia's parents to follow him inside.
Alicia was ready.
Alicia's revelation and Skylar's trial.