After months of undercover investigations, Prince William county policy officers execute 'Operation Blue Dragon' targeting suspected prescription pill and heroin dealers. The Fold's Gabe Silverman takes you behind the scenes as officers arrest dozens of suspects. (The Washington Post)

On a gloomy Friday night in the Prince William County jail, a 36-year-old woman took a deep breath and pondered how she ended up in a windowless cinder-block room. She had been an elite middle school math teacher in the Virginia county, married, with two children and a house in Stafford County.

But her gradual progression from occasional cocaine use to prescription pain pill abuse to full-blown heroin addiction destroyed her life, she said. “It took away everything and everybody I ever loved or cared about. My career, my home, my children — you name it, it’s gone.” She faces serious legal troubles and a lifetime of addiction treatment.

When Prince William police decided this summer to target dealers of prescription pills, the stereotypical suburban drug, they saw something even more troubling: Many residents had switched to heroin because it was cheaper and easier to get. So officers expanded the investigation’s scope to heroin, and on Tuesday they rounded up 31 alleged dealers of pills or heroin and filed charges against 10 more in a day-long sweep.

The sweep included search warrants, including one for the Bristow home of a 21-year-old alleged heroin dealer whose child, 2 years old, was inside. Marijuana smoke billowed out, and heroin paraphernalia was in plain view. Officers also searched the Manassas home of a 68-year-old alleged pill merchant, who police said had been dealing thousands of dollars’ worth of pills every week for 10 years.

Prince William police believe that three recent fatal overdoses were from heroin, although toxicology tests aren’t complete. “It’s everywhere, not just here,” said Dave Ehrhardt, a veteran Prince William street crimes detective. “Everyone who’s into doping has a different story of how they became addicted. But the ending is always the same.”

Law enforcement agencies across the country are finding the same pills-to-heroin trend. In June, Joseph Rannazzisi, deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, testified before Congress that prescription drug abuse was rapidly rising, behind only marijuana in illicit use, and that “some users of prescription opiates turn to heroin, a much-cheaper opiate that provides a similar ‘high.’ ”

“This cycle has been confirmed by police agencies throughout the country, who are now reporting an increase in heroin use by teens and young adults who began their cycle of abuse with prescription opiates,” Rannazzisi said.

The human toll

Police in Baltimore, Chicago, Michigan, Washington state and the suburbs of Philadelphia have all reached the same conclusion. Measures to reduce prescription drug abuse — by adjusting the chemistry of such pills as oxycodone to make them less desirable or through increased penalties — have pushed addicts to heroin.

“Sadly, prescription pills have become the staging area and connection between alcohol or marijuana and heroin and other drugs,” said Joe Peters, senior executive deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania.

One 32-year-old woman from Manassas reflects the human toll. She started taking oxycodone, which cost $80 for an 80-milligram dose, because, she said, “I had a doctor prescribing anything I wanted.” The doctor was later arrested, but by then the woman had switched from “oxy” to “roxy,” or roxicodone, a similar opiate that was more readily available on the street.

She spent her days working just enough to make the money to get drugs.

She said she moved from pain pills, which she crushed and snorted, to smoking crack for a time. Then she went back to roxicodone. But “you can’t afford $80 for a pill,” she said. “That’s why the dope [heroin] came in. Plus, you couldn’t get the oxys anymore” because of police crackdowns, “so people just started to go to dope.”

The cost still was prohibitive. “I wiped out my family business,” she said. She is now taking suboxone, a drug similar to methadone, to try to ease off heroin and helping police find dealers in Prince William.

On a recent night, finding dealers of pills or heroin was no problem for the county’s narcotics squad. Inside a detective’s car in a busy parking lot, a hidden transmitter recorded a dealer offering far more weight and variety of drugs than the undercover detective could afford — and he had brought plenty of money. Elsewhere on the same night, a heroin dealer was filmed walking up to an informant’s car and selling numerous small bags of the powder.

The police dubbed the investigation “Operation Blue Dragon” — the blue for the color of many pain pills, the dragon indicating heroin. “Pills and heroin go hand in hand,” said Detective Caillen Smith, who helped oversee the operation. “It’s the same type of addiction — an opiate addiction.”

He said illicit dealers of pain pills typically charge $1 per milligram, or $30 for a 30-milligram pill, of which several are required by addicts over the course of a day. Heroin costs $20 to $25 for one-tenth of a gram, which lasts longer.

Stigma disappears

In the past, the stigma of using heroin stopped some from making the leap, Sgt. Matt McCauley said. But an opiate addiction makes it “a real easy transition to get over that stigma, that hurdle, to get into heroin. These are not what people think of as heroin junkies. But the reality is it’s all around us.”

The Prince William middle school teacher who lived in Stafford met all the stereotypes of a happy suburban homemaker, although she also had the hidden stresses of family health crises and marital problems. Overall, though, most of the 2000s were “the best years of my life. I was an elite math teacher, very highly respected.”

She said things changed after her marriage collapsed and she began dating a cocaine dealer. She said he switched his product to prescription pills, such as Xanax and roxicodone, because they were more profitable. That’s where she got her start.

In 2010, after she’d broken up with him, she found a doctor in Fairfax County who would prescribe pain pills covered by her insurance. But the doctor required her to pay cash for her office visits. Ehrhardt said this was a way for doctors to fly under the investigators’ radar.

She popped the expensive pills, then later crushed and injected them three or four times a day. Later, when that process of office visits and insurance became too difficult, she switched to heroin. At her school, she was suspected of using drugs and was closely monitored, but she said she lied and kept working until finally her boyfriend’s arrest dragged her down, too.

A web of similar stories radiated from each house swarmed by tactical officers and detectives on Tuesday. An alleged dealer in Bristow is suspected of providing the heroin used in a recent nonfatal overdose. Neighbors at some of the busts said they’d been complaining about the obvious drug-dealing for years; police said they had more complaints than they could handle. As a SWAT team approached the Bristow house, they came across a parked car with two men smoking marijuana inside. Two more arrests.

From a house at the busy intersection of Manassas and Lomond drives, Ehrhardt said, 68-year-old Wayne L. Houston had been selling 300 to 400 prescription pills a week for years, at $35 to $45 per pill, and an informant told police that he had been active for 10 years. Houston watched from a squad car as detectives removed his safe, cracked it open and found numerous bottles of prescription drugs. He was charged with four felony counts of distribution of a controlled substance.