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South NeighborhoodsPolice, parents sound alarm on heroin use in South suburbs

Wednesday, February 20, 2002

By Mary Niederberger

A single sheet of paper speaks volumes about the level of drug activity in the southern suburbs and police efforts to fight it.

The paper holds a flow chart created by Mt. Lebanon police to illustrate how a drug bust there a year ago of two people charged with possession and intent to deliver marijuana sparked an eight-month investigation that netted 29 suspects and more than $50,000 in seized drugs and paraphernalia.

The investigation led Mt. Lebanon police to Mount Oliver, South Side, Beltzhoover, Dormont, Scott, Collier, Mount Washington, Beechview, Brookline and Oakland before returning to Mt. Lebanon.

Throughout the investigation and ensuing busts, Mt. Lebanon police worked with officers from those communities and the county and with state funding channeled through the Allegheny County district attorney's office.

Besides marijuana, drugs found during the arrests included LSD, OxyContin, Ecstasy, hashish, cocaine and heroin.

The chart was started last year when Chief Tom Ogden was questioned about the amount of time his officers spent on drug investigations. It represents just one path of investigation Mt. Lebanon narcotics officers have taken in the past year.

Like other local public safety officials, Ogden sometimes has a hard time convincing people there's a drug problem in suburbia, a problem that has grown worse with the increase of heroin traffic.

Ogden said that in recent months his officers have been coming across the narcotic with frequency in their undercover buys. He expects his force to seize more heroin in the first quarter of this year than in all of last year.

Last week, Mt. Lebanon police officers met with school district officials to alert them to the problem. Another meeting is set for this week for police to educate counselors, administrators, nurses and student assistance team members on the warning signs of heroin use.

Ogden's revelations about heroin come on the heels of an announcement last week by Bethel Park Police Chief John Mackey that his town has a problem with heroin overdoses.

Mackey said not a week has gone by since fall without his officers being called to an overdose. Two have been fatal.

Stephen Kurty, 23, was found dead in his apartment on Logan Road Feb. 11 -- the day Mackey made his announcement -- of a suspected heroin overdose. Toxicology tests are not yet complete on Kurty. David Carey, 22, overdosed in his Kings School Road home Jan. 17 and died Jan. 30. The coroner's office has confirmed that overdose death.

There were three overdose deaths involving heroin in Carnegie late last year, about which Coroner Cyril Wecht spoke at a Jan. 8 press conference. He warned that overdose deaths are rising in the county and called heroin use "pharmacological Russian roulette."

In all of last year, Bethel Park had two fatal drug overdoses, his office said.

Mackey, like Ogden, said his officers are "following the trail" of the drug by investigating each arrest. Bethel Park police had what they considered a large bust in September when they arrested a Bethel Park teen they said was transporting 44 packets of heroin in his shoe. That arrest led to others in Mount Oliver, Mackey said.

Besides Ogden and Mackey, Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office, confirmed that heroin, once a drug of the inner city, is now commonly found in the suburbs.

Manko said 85 municipal police departments work with the District Attorney's Narcotics Enforcement Team, formerly known as the Allegheny County Drug Task Force, including nearly every department in the South Hills.

Through DANET, municipal police, sometimes along with county police, use funds from the state Attorney General's office for drug investigations and undercover buys.

Further evidence of drug activities in the South suburbs is increased interest in a support group for parents of teens addicted to drugs and alcohol that meets weekly in Bethel Park.

Some parents who have attended sessions agreed to talk about the issue so long as their anonymity and that of the group was maintained. The group as a whole makes a pledge not to release any information about its members.

If their children have narcotics arrest records, the details are kept confidential by juvenile court.

One father said that the "drug of choice" in Bethel Park last year was the painkiller OxyContin and now is heroin. His son has used both. He said heroin is widely available and used by teens in the town.

"It's an epidemic, and it ain't going to go away. We're not talking about a drug that you can just walk away from," the father said, adding that he has contacted every member of council and the school board and has talked about the problem with members of the police department and local state senators and representatives.

His comments were supported by a mother, also from Bethel Park, whose son has gone through both outpatient and residential rehabilitation programs for heroin addiction.

"It's unbelievable how many kids are using heroin," she said.

The parents said drug pushers lure teens to use the narcotic by selling them a synthetic version that comes in pill form. The pill is crushed and inhaled through the nose.

"They lure them into it by saying you won't have to shoot up," the father said. Police confirmed that dealers lure users that way. But eventually, either the membranes of the nose wear down or the users' dependencies get too great and they have to inject the drug into their veins.

Because many teens fear injecting themselves with a needle, their friends do it for them, the mother said.

"I'm afraid there are going to be dozens and dozens of kids dying from this. We've got to do something," she said.

She urges other parents to search their children's backpacks and rooms and to listen in on their telephone conversations.

Parents should also pay attention to whether valuable items are missed from their homes, she said, noting that small electronics, jewelry, even cameras and vacuum cleaners have been traded for drugs.

Teen-age users also have stolen and cashed checks from family members' check books.

"You don't have children and think that your sweet little baby is going to grow up to be a heroin addict," she said. "But it can happen."

Mary Niederberger is a free-lance writer.

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