Cops say heroin driving crime in Berkeley County

July 06, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

Lt. K.C. Bohrer, a 25-year veteran of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Department, started to tell a story about a case one of his co-workers is handling that involves heroin. Before he could delve into the details the co-worker, Sgt. Gary Harmison, interrupted him.

"It all relates to heroin," Harmison said, stressing the word "all."

Bohrer, Harmison and Sgt. Russell Shackelford, members of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigation Division, said that lately at least half of their time is spent working on cases related to heroin, which they said is becoming the drug of choice in the county.

Many recent thefts and robberies, including those at banks and convenience stores, were committed by people addicted to heroin, the officers said.


Although heroin was present in the 1960s and '70s, and most likely in the decades between then and now, one event seemed to mark its return to prevalence.

In downtown Martinsburg, police happened upon a parked car that had a baby inside, Bohrer said. A man and woman were passed out and police found heroin and syringes hidden in the baby's bag and carrier.

That was a few years ago, Bohrer said.

"For me, that's when we realized heroin was back in the area," Bohrer said.

While crack cocaine in still present - a recent study showed Berkeley County ranked No. 1 in the state in crack cocaine arrests - heroin is filtering through the community.

"If we're running No. 1 with crack cocaine ... we gotta be higher than that with heroin," Bohrer said.

Stolen goods

Behind the Sheriff's Department are two large, metal storage lockers. A look inside one revealed tools, a new gas grill, a lawn mower, chain saws, a boxed set of dinnerware and numerous other items.

People steal the items and sell them to buy heroin, the officers said. Sometimes the goods are sold locally, but more often the thief will go to Baltimore, sell the goods, buy heroin there and come back.

A couple of months ago the officers closed a case involving a group of people who lived in Berkeley County but were stealing from the surrounding areas to support heroin addictions.

Police are often able to speak to the addicts.

One man "broke down and wept at the things he had done while on heroin," Bohrer said. One of the many crimes the addict admitted to was beating an elderly woman, Bohrer said.

In another case, the investigators executed a search warrant at a mobile home whose worth Bohrer estimated at perhaps a couple thousand dollars.

In an adjacent storage building, police found thousands of dollars worth of stolen merchandise, including four-wheelers and 31 chain saws. They also found a paper bag full of heroin vials, Harmison said.

"Here's a guy that literally didn't have (anything)," Bohrer said, but had thousands of dollars worth of stolen items he presumably planned to sell to obtain drugs.

While stolen property is abundant, the officers said they rarely seize heroin. During a recent raid on a Friday night, investigators were told 80 doses that had been at the house had been used the night before.

At all levels

In Baltimore, a dealer can buy a gram of heroin for $160. When he returns to Berkeley County, the dealer can cut that gram into tenths and sell each for $50, making it a lucrative business, Bohrer said.

What will stop it isn't known.

"Put a fence up around Baltimore. A wall," Harmison said, joking but sounding as if he wishes he weren't.

Bohrer said he's been in contact with the Drug Enforcement Agency, but mostly local officers are tackling the problem.

"I've been at a loss to try to think of a solution," Bohrer said. "Jail doesn't seem to help."

Those sent to jail or prison go in skinny from effects of the drug, "fatten up" while behind bars and then, a few months after they are released, are skinny again, Bohrer said. "Skels" - short for skeletons - is the street term applied to gaunt addicts, he said.

Some try to overcome their addiction, but that can present its own challenges.

People who were able to spend hundreds of dollars on a heroin habit cannot find the $11 needed for a treatment session when they try to get clean, said Shackelford, a 24-year veteran.

Some addicts who are living on the street without an address or phone number find it hard to receive help at all, he added.

The heroin problem seems especially prevalent in the north end of the county, but the investigators could only offer a guess as to why.

"Closer to Baltimore," Harmison said.

Heroin, which can be injected or snorted, seems to be favored almost entirely by white people of all professions, backgrounds and ages, the officers said.

As for the dealers, Bohrer said he would not be surprised to find there are at least 50 in the county.

Making arrests

Since January, the three officers have made 167 felony or misdemeanor arrests and executed 39 search warrants. Many of the cases were related to heroin, Bohrer said.

At least $40,000 worth of stolen property has been recovered.

"But that's not even the tip of the iceberg," Bohrer said.

Just conducting the searches takes a strong stomach.

"We're totally disgusted when we do search warrants," Bohrer said.

They find cockroaches and filth and see people sleeping or having sex on mattresses that should be burned. Bohrer said he showers afterward and then showers again before destroying his clothes.

He sometimes has nightmares about the people he sees and their living conditions.

Bohrer said he likes to think he and his co-workers are helping to ease the problem, but Harmison wonders.

"We're a Band-Aid on a large wound," Harmison said.

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