Authorities fear the drug that killed scores of people in Central Florida in the ’90s is making a comeback.
A dozen heroin-trafficking arrests last month in Osceola County and eight more in Orange County, coupled with a recent rise in heroin-related deaths, have police recalling the region’s heroin epidemic in the mid- and late 1990s.
The death toll nearly 20 years ago drew international attention, though attention faded as the body count dwindled and people turned to different drugs.
“It was big back then, and then there was a lull, but it’s coming back,” cautioned Larry Zweig, director of the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation in Orange and Osceola counties. “After we put so much pressure on the pill mills … we’re seeing a resurgence in heroin.”
Deaths peaked in 2001 at 271, up from 114 in 1996, the first year the state’s medical examiners began tracking heroin. The number dropped to a low of 48 in 2010, but heroin overdoses jumped to 108 by 2012, the most recent year that data are available.
Greater Orlando continues to lead Florida, with more than 1.7 deaths per 100,000 residents. In 2012, the medical examiner for Miami-Dade County reported 33 heroin deaths, while the medical examiner for Orange and Osceola counties found 26, according to the most recent state data.
“We are definitely seeing an increase in the percentage of individuals presenting for treatment in which heroin is the primary factor of their drug use,” said Todd Dixon, spokesman for the Center for Drug-Free Living in Orlando. “That is a significant change from a few years ago [when] about 70 percent coming into detox were for prescription drugs. … Now, 60 to 65 percent are for heroin.”
The center has 40 beds in its detox area where addicts spend five to seven days. During the past 10 years, as soon as someone leaves, there’s another client to take the person’s place, Dixon said.
Last month’s heroin-trafficking arrests included an Orlando mother and son caught in an investigation announced this week by the state Attorney General’s Office and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s HIDTA task force.
Altogether, 10 defendants in Puerto Rico, Florida and New York were picked up on charges of smuggling large quantities of heroin and cocaine from South America into Orlando for distribution along the East Coast.
Rosa Velazquez-Leandry, 65, and her son Erickson “Ricky Martin” Leandry, 35, are charged with receiving heroin and cocaine sealed inside 29-ounce cans of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail in packages shipped from Puerto Rico. An informant paid Velazquez-Leandry $3,500 for 42 grams of heroin, according to court records.
She remains held at the Orange County Jail on charges of selling more than 1 ounce of heroin. He remains held on charges of trafficking in heroin and cocaine, records state.
Last month’s 12 arrests in Osceola County included heroin seizures ranging from quarter-ounce quantities to a 3-ounce package shipped from Puerto Rico along with 2.2 pounds of cocaine, court records show.
That’s not much compared with heroin arrests in the 1990s. But Lt. Fred McCrimon of the Osceola County Investigative Bureau said that the drug is becoming so common that larger busts are likely.
“The month of December was the first month where it [heroin] was the only drug” that undercover agents were finding on the streets, McCrimon said.
The package shipped from Puerto Rico was addressed to “Mario Cora” at the Westgate Towers, a Kissimmee hotel on West U.S. Highway 192. No one had registered under Cora’s name, but a member of the housekeeping staff, Hector Alvarez-Rodriguez, called the front desk asking whether a package had arrived from Puerto Rico, according to court records.
Alvarez-Rodriguez, 32, was arrested with two other men after he ran from the hotel to a waiting car. He told the agents he was expecting a pair of shoes but grabbed the wrong package filled with heroin and cocaine, the report stated.
The three men were charged with cocaine and heroin trafficking and remain at the Osceola County Jail, according to court records.
One of the reasons investigators haven’t made bigger busts is lack of money, McCrimon said. That limits undercover agents’ ability to buy larger quantities needed to make the sort of major cases to cut local supply, McCrimon said.
Heroin now sells wholesale for $120 a gram, more than twice the price of cocaine.
More than 10 years ago, much larger confiscations of heroin were common in cases by the DEA and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In 2000, the largest heroin bust at the time in Florida history happened when a Learjet landed at Orlando Executive Airport with 30 pounds of the drug on board after a flight from Venezuela. In 2003, a Kissimmee woman in Buenaventura Lakes was charged with supplying 11 pounds of heroin — more than 100,000 doses — to a courier traveling by bus to New York City.
Though heroin abuse here is growing, it’s worse in other parts of the U.S., especially New England. In January, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address to heroin.
“The crisis I am talking about is the rising tide of drug addiction and drug-related crime spreading across Vermont,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech. “What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug-addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis.”
The recent death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has increased public attention on the growing use of heroin.