HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — On a Monday in September 2007, Teddy Johnson went to his son's apartment.
Adam Johnson, 22, was in his first year at Marshall University in Huntington. A history major, he played guitar, drums and bass, loved glam bands like the New York Dolls and hosted The Oscillating Zoo, an eclectic rock show on the university radio station.
Teddy hadn't heard from his son in three days. Letting himself into the apartment, he found Adam lying lifeless on his bed, in the same shirt he'd seen him wearing three days earlier.
The cause of death: a heroin overdose.
"I had no clue," said the elder Johnson, a plumbing contractor in Huntington. "We're a small town. We weren't prepared."
The death was part of a rash of overdoses, 12 of them fatal, that shook Huntington that fall and winter. All were caused by black-tar heroin, a potent, inexpensive, semi-processed form of the drug that has spread across the United States, driven by the entrepreneurial energy and marketing savvy of immigrants from a tiny farming county in Mexico.
Immigrants from Xalisco, in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit, Mexico, have brought the heroin north during the past decade, and with it a highly effective business model featuring deep discounts and convenient delivery by car. Their success is a major reason why Mexican black tar has seized a growing share of the U.S. heroin market, according to government estimates.
Xalisco networks are decentralized, with no all-powerful boss, and they largely avoid guns and violence. Staying clear of the nation's largest cities, where established organizations control the heroin trade, Xalisco dealers have cultivated markets in the mountain states and parts of the Midwest and Appalachia, often creating demand for heroin in cities and towns where there had been little or none before. In many of those places, authorities report a sharp rise in heroin overdoses and deaths.
Before the string of fatal overdoses in 2007, "we didn't even consider heroin an issue," said Huntington police Chief Skip Holbrook.
Xalisco dealers have been particularly successful in areas where addiction to prescription painkillers like OxyContin was widespread. Many of those addicts, mainly young middle- and working-class whites, switched to black tar, which is cheaper and more powerful.
In York County, S.C., pain-pill addicts became hooked on black tar purchased in Charlotte, N.C., half an hour away. "We used to get maybe one overdose death a year" caused by opiates, said Marvin Brown, commander of the county's drug unit. "We had six in the first six months" of 2009.
In the suburbs south of Salt Lake City, heroin was unheard of until dealers from Xalisco arrived, said Lt. Phil Murphy of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force. Now, he said, young people looking for an alternative to pain pills drive to Salt Lake to score black-tar heroin.
University towns have been especially fertile markets for Xalisco heroin. Authorities in Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo. — home to the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, respectively — report increased overdoses caused by black-tar heroin purchased from dealers in Denver.
Ohio also has become a center of Xalisco networks, and it was through a junkie in Columbus that black tar made its way to Huntington.
Huntington has long had a flourishing trade in crack cocaine and other drugs. But there was never much heroin until dealers from Xalisco arrived in Columbus, 160 miles north.
They were innovative and tireless. Rather than sell from houses, where they would be sitting ducks for narcotics agents, or on street corners in seedy neighborhoods, they operated like a pizza delivery service. Users called a phone number. A dispatcher relayed the order to a driver, who took the heroin to the customer.
The drivers circulated around the city with doses of heroin in small uninflated balloons, each the size of a pencil eraser, which they kept hidden in their mouths. No sale was too small.
"There's nobody who'll drive across ... Columbus to bring you one $20 balloon, but they would," said Wendy Keller, who became addicted to their heroin. Keller is now in federal prison in Lexington, serving a five-year term for conspiracy to distribute heroin.
Competition among Xalisco networks kept prices low. OxyContin pills cost $80 apiece, and addicts needed five or six a day. Black-tar heroin was stronger and cost less than $50 for a day's fix.
By 2007, black-tar addiction had spread across Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland and other Ohio cities. At Maryhaven, Ohio's largest drug-treatment center, opiate addicts made up 20 percent of the center's patients in 1997, and many were addicted to prescription painkillers. Today, 70 percent are black-tar heroin addicts, said Paul Coleman, Maryhaven's president.
Waiting in the parking lot
Rick Jordan was an addict living in Columbus and, like many West Virginians, he kept close ties to his hometown, Huntington.
Family members say he and his wife, Kandace, met Xalisco dealers in Columbus in 1998. The couple was trying to kick an addiction to prescription opiates and had sought help at a drug treatment center.
"The Mexicans would sit out in the parking lot, getting guys who were trying to kick," said Jordan's daughter, Tesina Ventola.
Soon the Jordans were hooked again, on cheap black tar. Rick began calling the Mexicans every day.
Word spread through Huntington. By mid-2007, addicts were making pilgrimages to Jordan's wood-frame house west of downtown Columbus, sometimes carrying thousands of dollars in cash.
One of them was Michelle Byars, who had gotten hooked on pain pills after a back injury and switched to black-tar heroin.
"I'd show up and other people from Huntington would already be there," Byars, 34, said in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Connecticut.
One of the alleged Xalisco dealers in Columbus was a young man whom junkies called Carlos and whom police later identified as Juan Hernandez-Salazar (one of many aliases he has used).
His heroin was 70 percent pure, said Bobby Melrose, who described himself as a longtime drug user.
"I'd use two or three bags of dope to just get well, and not even reach the same high as one bag of Carlos'," Melrose said in an interview at a federal prison in Kentucky.
Through Jordan, this potent heroin got to Huntington, where addicts had little tolerance for it. Users began overdosing, and some died.
A drug task force traced the heroin to Jordan, Carlos and his network in Columbus. In the spring and summer of 2008, authorities arrested 19 Huntington addicts — Jordan's best customers.
Byars pleaded guilty to supplying her husband with the heroin that killed him. She is scheduled to be released from prison in 2014.
Melrose is serving a five-year term for heroin distribution. Doctors amputated his right leg because of gangrene and abscesses caused by shooting black tar into the leg.
Jordan died in a Huntington jail in July 2008.
Carlos spent a year on the run, then was arrested in Columbus last June after running a stop sign. He is awaiting trial, charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin that resulted in the deaths of others. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life in prison.
Not long after Carlos' network was busted, a new group of Xalisco dealers went into business in Columbus. Federal officials say the trade in Xalisco heroin remains robust.