(Editor’s Note: The following represents the latest installment in an ongoing series diving into the issues associated with drug addiction across the lower shore.)
BERLIN — The eastbound lane of Route 50 is buzzing with beachgoers as it is on most Friday afternoons in the summertime near Ocean City. Yet, on this day, a small team of undercover officers sit in strategic spots along the busy traffic artery poised and patiently waiting for one vehicle they expect to be passing within the next few minutes. The team believes this vehicle isn’t packed with Boogie boards or beach towels. Rather, it’s transporting heroin. You can feel the adrenaline start to bubble as the encrypted radio line crackles with word that the vehicle is closing in.
“I just crossed over the line,” says the voice. “She’s about a half a mile behind me in the right hand lane approaching fast.”
Two other voices chime in almost inaudible audio bursts on the line. The officers trade off coded language that indicates that all signs seem to point to the assumption that drugs are in the vehicle.
Listening to all of this is the man calling the shots and ultimately will pull the verbal trigger to pursue the vehicle and enact the arrest. He listens intently while his eyes are still locked on the hundreds of cars whizzing by us on Route 50.
“We’re going to keep it as low-key as we can because we only have one shot at this,” says Sgt. Nate Passwaters of the Worcester County Sheriff Department’s Criminal Enforcement Team. “We’ve been watching this person’s spouse for a few weeks, and we are pretty sure that they just made a trip up to Baltimore this morning to get some scramble. It looks like she’s the drug mule today”
“Scramble,” also known as Baltimore Scramble, is the preferred form of heroin coming out of Charm City. The heroin is place inside red and white capsules making the drug almost look like cold medicine.
Passwaters say some junkies prefer “scramble” to other brands or forms because it is often cut with Benita Quinine, which is a powdered cutting agent that is often used by dealers because it allows them to cut the pure heroin in order to increase profits and prolong the supply with an agent that tastes just as bitter as pure heroin does when sampled orally.
“Benita Quinine actually puts a shelf life on the heroin,” says Passwaters, “it eats the active agent in the heroin after a few days, but most of the time, these people are using as soon as they get it. The point is you just never have any way of knowing what’s in those capsules or in those doses from one day to the next, even if you are buying from the same dealer.”
Overdose cases have risen substantially over the past year in the region, with Passwaters admitting that responding to scenes of an overdose are becoming almost as commonplace as conducting sting investigations like this one.
“This is definitely low level stuff we are doing today,” he says, “but the key is to take them down at this level, and hopefully it will lead us to the next level. We are just trying to get to the head of the snake.”
But the rub in this search for the proverbial head of the snake is that it’s almost impossible to find or even get close to.
Heroin users have in many cases, become small-time dealers to help feed their habit, so Passwaters says the snake may have one massive head, but it also has a countless number of tails, with new ones seemingly sprouting up daily. While officers try to take down and cut off each new tail, the head of the snake they seek seems further and further away.
“With cocaine, crack, and even marijuana you would see high level guys coming down here,” says Passwaters, “but with heroin, it’s very rare that you find someone who is hauling 5,000 bags of heroin in and out of the area each day. This is a group of users cobbling together some money and getting as much as they can, which based on what they can afford, isn’t much, but it still needs to be dealt with.”
As he finishes his sentence, a familiar voice crackles on the radio alerting everyone listening on the encrypted line that the drug mule is getting closer. Seconds later, a large truck passes driven by a middle aged female singing at the top of her lungs. As she passes, her head turns and there is a moment where her eyes seem to lock with Passwaters.
“She looked right at us guys,” says Passwaters. “Wait a few seconds before we take her.”
As the vehicle goes out of sight, Passwaters drops the gear shift into drive and guns it. The chase is on.
However, it’s not much of a chase, as within minutes, another officer will pull over the vehicle and the supporting vehicles, including Passwaters, will pull up alongside with lights flashing.
As we approach, the female has already been escorted to the back of the vehicle where she is visibly shaking and rambling uncontrollably. Her alibis and excuses are pouring out onto the hot pavement like gushing water.
“With heroin, probably nine out of 10 times if they have anything in the car, they are going to cooperate and tell us because if they don’t, it’s so much worse for them,” says Passwaters as cars whiz on their way to the beach.
Within minutes, she cooperates and tells investigators where the heroin is. She claims it is intended for someone else, although it’s clear when looking into her eyes, she has probably used some of the drugs herself during her trip.
“It’s very likely that she went to Baltimore, took some of the heroin, and drove back two and a half hours high,” says Passwaters.
Female officers are on the scene to give a full search of the woman as it is not uncommon for drugs to be hidden on their person or even inside a body cavity. Masked officers appear to search the vehicle, rifling through belongings, and different hidden compartments before coming across a small tied-off plastic bag filled with a few dozen capsules of Baltimore Scramble.
Later, Passwaters’ team will find out that the pills were purchased for about $9 each wholesale and would likely have been sold for about $25 per pill here on the coast. Simply put, this bust probably took a mere $500-$600 worth of heroin off the street.
Passwaters says even though it’s a baby step towards the head of the snake he mentioned earlier, it’s still forward progress.
“Look, this could be the moment that gets this lady to realize that she needs help, or the stop that prohibits this Scramble from causing someone to overdose,” says Passwaters. “With heroin, every arrest or sting operation is multi-pronged.”
As the woman returns from her search, she has calmed a bit, but the shaking has been replaced with an unbelievable amount of sweat. She directs her attention to the nearest officer.
“How long were you following me?” the woman asks. “I was singing so loudly when you pulled me over.”
“Mam, we aren’t pulling you over for singing,” quips another officer. “You know what’s happening here.”
“I know, I know what I did was wrong, but I just couldn’t see them in pain anymore,” she says referring to the people she claims the heroin was purchased to help.
“There are much better and much more legal ways to fight pain mam,” the officer responds.
The female drug mule was taken into custody and questioned in Snow Hill by authorities. She was charged with felony possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
Interestingly enough, as she was put into the police cruiser in handcuffs, she seemed more interested in what was going to happen to the vehicle.
“Please don’t tow it,” she hollered as her head was lowered into the police cruiser. “It belongs to my dad.”
Passwaters says this is an interesting point in trying to track down and catch other drug mules like this one.
“They use different cars sometimes, other times they get rides, and other times, they have people drive them to the place where they get their drugs,” he says.
Officers didn’t just take the Baltimore Scramble from the vehicle, however. They also pulled the cell phone belonging to the woman, and with the help of technology, will be sifting through it, and other evidence found at the scene to get to the next level of the proverbial snake.
“The phone data is just as vital for future investigations as getting the drugs off the street,” he says. “That, and the help of the LPR’s (License Plate Readers) we can track where these people are going to get drugs and catch them on the way back home.”
Passwaters gives his team a look as if to say, “let’s go, our work here is done” and they pile into their respective undercover vehicles, and head to the next “op”.
Thirty minutes later, as news of yet another overdose in the region comes over the radio, Passwaters exhales deeply before setting the receiver of the walkie-talkie back on its holding rack.
“I’m going to have to call my wife and tell her it’s going to be another late night,” he admits to this reporter looking at his wristwatch. “But, this is what we deal with every day. It never stops, so neither can we.”