Living the opioid epidemic through the eyes of a Wilmington vice detective

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heroin
Heroin is one of the most commonly used drugs on the illegal market. The substance flows through the Wilmington community daily. (Photo by Christina Haley.)

The untrained eye may not see all the signs of the opioid epidemic that has plagued the region, but overdoses, drug deals and a constant influx of the substance occurs daily among average people in Wilmington.

It begets violence, property crime, and challenges local resources, including the efforts of investigators working to put those responsible for the supply behind bars.

While many local authorities have said that they cannot arrest the issue away, there still has to be some accountability for drug-related crimes committed in the city.

Detective Kelly Jennings, a 12-year veteran of law enforcement and member of the Wilmington Police Department’s Special Investigations Divisions Narcotics Enforcement Unit, works daily to develop cases against dealers and traffickers, in an attempt to limit the supply of heroin from reaching the exchange of hands on city streets.

Read the series: Opioids in the Cape Fear: ‘One of the most frightening issues of our time’

He spoke with Port City Daily about life as an investigator and what he sees on a daily basis working opioid-related investigations in Wilmington.

A day on the streets

A vice investigation is not scripted or based on any set schedule, Jennings said. Caseloads are worked constantly in a fine balance that ranges from taking action on hot leads that need attention from much of the force, to detectives working their own cases, sometimes setting individual cases aside for days or a week.

Detectives start working cases as early as 3 a.m. and sometimes work through the night; days aren’t always planned, he said. That’s because the drug market is so fluid, and they’re not turning down any of the work.

The heroin market in Wilmington is ever evolving, ever changing, and the drug flows through the area faster, perhaps, than one may think.

“It’s like the stock market; it’s different every hour. It’s not like there is one big amount of it that’s here. It’s not a savings account,” Jennings said. “It’s fluid. It travels through. It comes here. It gets broken down. It gets used. It gets resupplied. And here will be periods, of course, where there will be shortages or overages.”

According to Jennings, detectives are constantly reacting to the challenge of tracking the flow of heroin in the city and don’t always develop large cases based on seizures of large amounts of heroin.

There have been several successes over the years in taking out one person, an organization, or group of people off the street, Jennings said. But there are many within the city, some from outside states, and they’re often replaced with new people and new methods of distribution.

“It’s evolutionary with trends. People develop new methods of bringing in, bringing out, and selling, storing and keeping … they change all the time and we change all the time,” Jennings said. “It’s never the same two days in a row. And that’s why we don’t have a schedule. It’s constantly evolving. Whatever it was today, it will be different tomorrow.”

The market for opioids

Looking inside one dosage unit of heroin. (Photo by Christina Haley.)
Looking inside one dosage unit of heroin. (Photo by Christina Haley)

The sale of heroin has developed into a blend of the dealer and user, and those in between; where some of the users are selling for their own addiction. Detectives are not only working now to develop cases against, mid-to high-level dealers, but also users.

“You’ve got this large grey area. The gap has widened, with how people are going to use and pay for their own drugs. And we see that a lot,” Jennings said.

Jennings said he’s also seen some methods of sale, distribution and keeping, that have involved teenagers, and even small children.

“I’ve seen where a young child is the one who has sold it,” Jennings said. “We’ve stopped cars here locally, and known 100 percent, there is no question … there is heroin in this car. And it’s been in the child seat underneath the baby.”

“We’ve stopped cars here locally, and known 100 percent, there is no question … there is heroin in this car. And it’s been in the child seat underneath the baby.” — Det. Kelly Jennings.

Opioid-related deaths

Vice detectives also play a role in responding to fatal overdose calls, to assist in criminal investigations, Jennings said. Overdose calls happen all over the city, and have grown in number over the years.

Last year, there were a total of 51 overdose calls involving police at the Wilmington Police Department, 18 of which were fatal overdoses, according to the number of police-related overdose calls. That number is up from six overdose deaths police responded to in 2015 and three in 2014. The police department’s numbers, however, don’t accurately show the total overdose-related calls in Wilmington, because they do not include EMS calls or calls involving other law enforcement.

How much opioids are really out there?

So how much heroin is in the Wilmington area? Though Jennings could not recite the numbers, citing the integrity of the many ongoing investigations at the Wilmington Police Department, he did note that there are quite possibly “kilos of heroin” running through city streets.

“It’s a lot. It’s more than you can probably imagine; that we’ve seen, that we’ve interdicted, that we have gained through informant testimony of what they themselves have brought in – of what they’ve purchased from their resources – it’s a lot,” Jennings said.

On the market, one kilo of raw heroin — after being mixed or cut, just once — could make about 3 kilos of heroin and separated into about 150,000 dosage units (an average of .02 grams a unit). Sold at an average price of $10 a dosage unit, just one kilo of raw heroin at the end of this process equates to roughly $1.5 million, sold on the street. From that factor, that’s possibly millions of dollars’ worth of the substance in the city at any given time.

The heroin market is big, Jennings said, different from when he was working vice in Virginia years ago, at a time when crack cocaine was more prominent in the streets. Heroin, he said, was just starting to show its face on the market at that time. But now, he’s noted that it’s the most widely-used drug here in Wilmington.

“It’s big here … It’s by far the biggest drug, without question. It’s the heaviest, most purchased – the most used drug,” he said.

And it’s everywhere. Signs of the epidemic — the overdoses, the drug deals and paraphernalia – are in parks, parking lots, and neighborhoods. People in the Wilmington community are surrounded by it every day, and may not know it.

“Once you see it, you know what to see. But an everyday person going to the grocery store, may not see it,” Jennings said. “I see it everywhere. Even when I’m not at work. If I’m going to run into a business, I can almost at every lot I go to I can say, ‘there’s a guy waiting right over here, or this is definitely a drug deal going on over here.’ I mean, you can pretty much go to any lot, if you know what you’re looking for, and see it.”

Who is using opioids?

Addiction transcends all ages and socioeconomic classes. Some of the area’s most “functioning” users have high-paying jobs; businessmen, nurses, real-estate agents, people in financial world, and even attorneys. 

“I’ve seen it all … I’ve seen six figure people, going into the lowest income neighborhood to buy and then pull off in the same neighborhood to use. It’s all about who you know and where you can get it. If that’s your only option, you will go there,” Jennings said. “Most people would be surprised. It’s an expensive drug. Opiates, typically, are the more expensive drugs to use. And you think about these great neighborhoods, and people that come from money; it’s filled with it there, because it costs money.”

There is no stereotype for the “average” user, he said, though the vast majority of people Jennings has spoken to has had the same story; they had an injury — in a wreck or while playing sports — and got hooked on opiate pain medications. Eventually, they realized heroin was much cheaper than pills. (In comparison to $10 for a single dose of heroin, opiate-based prescription pills on the illegal drug market are much more expensive, costing about $80 per pill.)

“Typically … the majority of people who use heroin, start out with pills,” Jennings said. “Very rarely have I asked someone and they say, ‘You know I just wanted to give it a try.’ It’s almost never that … that’s almost every story you hear. And it’s consistent.”

“Every once in a while, you’re going to have an injury. Just be very, very careful if you get prescribed opiates. Be careful on it, on how you take them. Kind of monitor yourself and keep yourself in check,” Jennings said.

As part of his investigations, Jennings said he also asks questions of those he arrests to find out just how much heroin they use on a daily basis. He’s found that the number of dosage units a person uses daily can vary anywhere from two to 20 bags a day.

“The scariest part is the two-bags-a-day people, because when we’ve stopped them, they look just like you, and they talk like you, and they still have a job,” Jennings said. “They still have their daily activities and you could have no idea.”

How to spot heroin use

How, then, can someone spot the signs of opioid addiction? The biggest sign, Jennings said, is theft.

“The biggest one is stealing. All your stuff will start disappearing after a while,” he said. “If you’re going to use heroin, you might spend $100 a day, you might spend $200 a day, it requires money. And it’s going to come from breaking into places, stealing, or just having money yourself or having access to money. Or, you have to find other ways to pay for it.”

Other signs would include evidence of paraphernalia; rubber bands, leftover heroin bags, needles, random spoons lying around or an almost-full water bottle (used to mix with heroin). If they are a more frequent user, the another sign is lack of hygiene and not showering.

These are some of the same signs detectives use, to distinguish the difference between their cases between possession or distribution.

Learn more about heroin through evidence in this video with Detective Kelly Jennings: 

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