Rural Ohio tries to stop heroin flow from city
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NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio -- In the early 1800s, settlers from Western Pennsylvania loaded up their worldly possessions and settled in the fertile valley of the Tuscarawas River.
Bill Wade, Post-Gazette photosDelton Bixler and his daughter, Anita Davis, visit her son Zachary's grave in Union Hill Cemetery in the countryside near the family business, Breitenbach Wine Cellars. Zach was 24 and died of a heroin overdose on Nov. 12.
Delton Bixler and Anita Davis hold a photo of her sons, from left, Jonathan, Zachary and Nick. Zachary died at 24 of a heroin overdose.
Two hundred years later, goods are still flowing from Western Pennsylvania to this picturesque eastern Ohio city. But the main item of commerce these days is illegal and potentially lethal -- heroin.
According to police, addiction counselors and court officials, a Pittsburgh-to-New-Philadelphia heroin pipeline has developed during the past few years, apparently originating on the city's North Side.
"I hate to bash Pittsburgh, but it just happens to be a large area where there is availability," New Philadelphia Patrolman Shawn Nelson said. "I think that what's happened is, they've found a [willing drug-buying] population and they're using it."
New Philadelphia, population 18,000, is about equidistant from Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh. But police say Pittsburgh is easier to get to because it's a straight shot of about two hours from New Philadelphia via U.S. Routes 22 and 250.
As far as New Philadelphia police can tell, the heroin use is almost exclusively among middle- to upper- middle class white males in their late teens and early 20s, with the occasional young female user thrown in.
The problem appears to be getting worse. New Philadelphia police last month confiscated more heroin than the entire total of the past two years. And there have been three suspected fatal heroin overdoses in the past three months -- the first ones in the city's history.
Anita Davis has felt the pain of heroin use. Her 24-year-old son, Zachary, a former student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, died in November from a suspected overdose after struggling for several years with drug addiction.
Zach Davis began using drugs as a teenager, but he did not lose control until he began using heroin about three years ago while recovering from injuries he received in a car crash in Westmoreland County, his mother said.
"With the heroin, it was just like it consumed him," Ms. Davis said. "It was like it was the only thing that he loved at that time. Nothing else mattered."
At the time of his death, Zach Davis was on probation in Allegheny County from an arrest in May 2004, when Pittsburgh police busted him with 39 bags of heroin at the corner of Brighton Road and North Avenue. A talented artist, he had also been arrested in 2004 in New Philadelphia for painting graffiti on public property.
New Philadelphia police got their first indication that heroin had arrived in December 2003. Officers found a syringe with heroin residue after they arrested a shoplifter in the city's commercial strip near Interstate 77, Patrolman Nelson said.
From then on, instances of heroin use and arrests picked up, he said. Now, police routinely find syringes and other drug paraphernalia during traffic stops.
"The problem we're having now is it's growing tentacles and we have to deal with it," Patrolman Nelson said.
Drugs are not new to New Philadelphia any more than they are to other cities, big or small. The city has had problems over the years with marijuana, prescription drugs and crack cocaine. But the quickness with which heroin came on the scene and spread surprised nearly everyone.
"It's different for us because we're not used to seeing it down here," said David C. Hipp, an assistant Tuscarawas County prosecutor who has been prosecuting drug cases for nearly 30 years. "We don't really like the big city problems bothering us like this."
Oddly, the increase in heroin use may be the result of the continuing crackdown on people who illegally use prescription drugs. With that supply drying up, drug users have turned to heroin, an alternative that is "cheap and readily available," Mr. Hipp said.
The rise in heroin use was partly responsible for the establishment last May of a drug court in Tuscarawas County. Low-level defendants with drug problems must enroll in a program, overseen by Common Pleas Judge Elizabeth Lehigh Thomakos, that provides intense counseling for a year.
Several of the nearly two dozen offenders enrolled now are heroin users with no prior criminal history, said Kory Halter Kochera, director of the county's community corrections program. They were arrested for offenses such as burglary and shoplifting, crimes that typically are committed to obtain money for drugs.
All of the heroin users in the program have pointed to Pittsburgh as the source of the drug, Ms. Kochera said.
"I haven't heard of it coming from anywhere else."
Though criminal justice officials say they've had no heroin cases yet involving juveniles, there are young teens in New Philadelphia using the drug. Two teens, ages 15 and 16, are currently in treatment through the Alcohol and Addiction Program of the Tuscarawas County Health Department, said Linda Holderbaum, the program's director.
The use of heroin has had a financial impact on the program's limited resources, Ms. Holderbaum said. The health department ran out of money to pay for detoxification a month before the end of the fiscal year, the first time that had occurred in Ms. Holderbaum's 15 years as director.
"This is a good place to raise your kids and it's just an average small town," Ms. Holderbaum said. "We have a wonderful area around here, and that's what's so disturbing about this. It's just insane. There's no other word for it. We just hope it stops."
The people who are using heroin fit the same demographic profile and apparently know each other, Ms. Holderbaum and Ms. Kochera agreed.
"We know that they're all part of the same clique and they all get it from Pittsburgh," Ms. Holderbaum said.
Zach Davis, from a prominent Tuscarawas County family, lived in Allegheny Center and a couple of other North Side locations while he attended the Art Institute. At the time, another occupant of Allegheny Center was Donald Lyles, one of the leaders of a heroin and cocaine ring that former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the largest drug enterprise in the history of Western Pennsylvania.
Mr. Davis's mother and grandparents, Dalton and Cynthia Bixler, helped move him to different neighborhoods in the city with the hope that he would stop using heroin. An apartment in Shadyside was the last stop. That didn't work and neither did the thousands of dollars Mr. Bixler spent to send him to drug rehabilitation centers, they said.
From mid-2002 until his death last year, Mr. Davis lived in the New Philadelphia area, but he continued to come back to Pittsburgh, including the time in May 2004 when he was arrested on the North Side for heroin possession. He was off heroin for about eight months in 2004 after his arrest, but he began using the drug again early last year, Mr. Bixler said.
A condition of Mr. Davis's probation in Allegheny County was that he complete a drug-rehabilitation program. He completed one last spring in Nashville, Tenn., but then failed to follow-up on the recommendation of his counselors to live at a halfway house, his grandfather said.
After that, Mr. Davis couldn't seem to stay off heroin any longer than a few weeks at a time. His girlfriend, Lyndsey Lewis, said she would take his cell phone and call dealers to tell them to stay away from him, but to no avail.
Last year, Ms. Davis said, she increasingly had feelings of dread concerning her son.
"I thought for months before he died that I just can't imagine that his body can take this much longer," she said.
The morning of Nov. 12, Mr. Davis received a call from a New Philadelphia man who had been arrested a couple of weeks earlier in the small Tuscarawas County town of Midvale with 52 packets of heroin. New Philadelphia police arrested the same man last month with 19 bags of heroin.
Mr. Hipp, the county prosecutor, indicated in court documents he suspects the New Philadelphia man as the person who supplied the fatal dose of heroin to Zach Davis. Mr. Davis's family suspects the same thing.
Ms. Lewis found Mr. Davis unresponsive about 11:30 p.m. Nov. 12 on the front porch of a cabin on the property of the family's Breitenbach Wine Cellars in nearby Sugarcreek.
Three days later, Pittsburgh police arrested six men and two women from New Philadelphia, ranging in age from 18 to 28, for heroin possession and other charges on Allegheny Avenue, about four blocks from Heinz Field. Two of them, Damien Anderson, 19, and Trevor Hawkins, 26, possessed a total of 57 bags of heroin between them.
"It seemed like all our lives we've been able to do things the right way so everything worked out," Mr. Bixler said. "But this is something that we just can't do anything about. People need to understand that these things happen no matter who you are or where you live."
First Published February 5, 2006 12:00 am