38 arrested in N.Va. drug ring that dealt mainly to youths
Operation part of battle against rising drug use by young people in suburbs
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
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."
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.