By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A01
Nearly 40 people have been arrested across Northern Virginia this week on charges of dealing heroin and prescription narcotics as part of a large-scale investigation to battle what officials said is a dramatic increase in drug use among young people in the Washington suburbs.
The sting targeted dealers ranging from 18 to 54 years old, many of whom sold large amounts of heroin and pills to high school students and young adults in Prince William and western Fairfax counties. Police said it was "alarmingly easy" to find and buy the drugs in recent suburban stings in homes, retail store bathrooms, gyms, grocery stores and pharmacies.
The operation has resulted in 38 arrests, police said. It comes after a large federal investigation in Northern Virginia that targeted a group of young heroin users and dealers in Fairfax County and a series of overdose deaths in the Manassas area. Police across the region said use of heroin and powerful prescription pills among young adults has risen significantly in the past year.
The recent overdose deaths in Prince William of Matthew Mittong and Mindy Weakley, both 26, played a large role in prompting police to infiltrate a group of dealers who primarily sell heroin bought in Baltimore and the District, as well as prescription drugs containing the strong painkillers oxycodone and methadone.
"It was much more prevalent than even we thought it would be," said Prince William 1st Sgt. Dan Hess, who is leading the investigation. "We understood there was a problem with prescription drugs. But what we didn't understand was how young these kids were getting involved and transitioning to heroin."
Hess said police have found large numbers of local high school students, some as young as 15, who were regularly buying and using opiate pills before switching to heroin because it is cheaper and more accessible.
Police are concerned that teenagers are trying drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin at parties thinking that because a doctor prescribes them they must be safe. Soon, Hess said, those teenagers are increasing their doses and later moving to heroin. "That false sense that it is okay can lead to very bad things very quickly," Hess said. "Before long, they're on the corner buying heroin. It's a sad transition into the abyss."A spiral
Weakley's path to addiction closely followed that script. An excellent student who graduated from Brentsville High School at 16, Weakley went on to James Madison University, receiving her degree in 2006, and became a nurse. Weakley died three years later, in September, after overdosing in Manassas on a concoction of drugs with one of her dealers.
Weakley's death was one of several that caught the attention of authorities and came just six months after Mittong, her boyfriend, died similarly.
Her journey from dancer and aspiring health-care worker to junkie started like many do: In high school, she would pop a pill at a party or take one recreationally with her older brother, friends and family members said. After she rolled her red Chevrolet Cavalier at 17, crushing two of her fingers, a prescription painkiller became her vice. Heroin followed.
"She'd take a pill because it would increase the feeling of a couple of beers," said Lynette Mumaw, 26, a high school classmate and close friend of Weakley's. "Lots of people were doing it, and no one saw the harm in it. But after college, she changed. She said she could handle things, but it was clear she couldn't."
By late 2006, at 23, Weakley started "nodding off" in public, meaning she would fall into a stupor while high.
Weakley was buying drugs from several sources, friends and family members said, including pills from friends in the Manassas area and heroin from a woman in the District whom she would meet at a McDonald's near Gallaudet University. She kept her stash, needles and a bent spoon in a small purse in her room.
Weakley's mother, Judy Fryett, noticed her daughter slipping into a deep problem in late 2006, when she returned from college and was living at home. But it was the death of Weakley's brother in a motorcycle crash in April 2007 that sent her into a tailspin.
During the next year, Weakley was in and out of work, sometimes making as much as $25 an hour as a nurse and blowing it all -- at a clip of $1,000 a week -- on drugs. She also pawned her laptop and jewelry for a few doses.
At one point, Fryett met with one of her daughter's dealers in a Prince William parking lot to pay off a $300 debt. "The really sad thing is that they may not hit bottom before they die," Fryett said. Weakley overdosed at that dealer's house Sept. 2 and died that day at Prince William Hospital, 26 years after she was born there.
"My sister was not dumb. . . . She was pretty, she was sweet, she was headed down the right path, and she still ended up dead," said Shelli Lopes, 32, Weakley's stepsister. "She proved it can happen to anyone."
Weakley's death came just months after her boyfriend, Mittong, overdosed and died in front of her in April.
Craig Mittong, 28, his brother, said the problem is far more serious than most people realize. He said many addicts start in high schools in good neighborhoods because their parents have money and they can easily hide their use of pills.
"I was always the type that would never shoot anything up," said Mittong, who has been clean since 2006. "It's a prescription drug. It's got to be safe. It was from a doctor. But at $80 for a pill, it got expensive. In Lincoln Heights or on Georgia Avenue, $80 would get you 10 bags of heroin. It escalates. It just keeps building and building. I definitely didn't think it would go where it did.
"But you don't get bad off until you're well into it. And before people know it, you're in jail or you're dead."Cheaper option
Across Virginia, the use of prescription drugs and heroin has led to a significant increase in overdose deaths, according to newly released data for 2008 from the Virginia medical examiner's office. The office reported a 91 percent increase in such deaths, from 384 to 735, from 1999 to 2008. In 2008, heroin and prescription narcotics accounted for at least 71 percent of all overdose deaths in Virginia.
In Maryland, drug-related deaths increased more than 20 percent from 2005 to 2007, the last year for which medical examiner data are available. There were 839 drug deaths in Maryland in 2007, and narcotics including heroin, morphine and methadone accounted for nearly half of them. Over the same period, the District's drug overdose deaths fell more than 25 percent, dropping to 90 in 2007, according to medical examiner data.
Capt. Pete Eliadis, assistant commander of narcotics in the Prince George's County police department, said officers are seizing more heroin this year. The reason, he said, is economics: At $20 a pop, heroin is a less expensive alternative to OxyContin or Vicodin, which can run as high as $50 or more a pill.
Prince William police said they will continue to target the sources of such drugs and are working with federal authorities to unearth fraudulent prescription practices. Hess said one of the most striking elements of the investigation is that confidential informants were so easily able to lead them to more drugs that on some nights "there was no end in sight."
"This is one of the most alarming trends that we've seen in terms of drug abuse," Hess said. "We need people to realize that this could be going on with their children, in their homes. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a death or a near-death for there to be a wake-up call, and by then it's way too late."
Staff writers Dan Morse and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.