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Heroin

Fairfax Heroin Ring Was Not Deterred By a Friend's Death
Teens' Drug Use Allegedly Had Roots in Middle School

By Josh White and Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 23, 2008; A01

The fourth time 19-year-old Alicia Lannes overdosed on heroin, she was text messaging her boyfriend from inside her family's Centreville home. When the boyfriend, Skylar Schnippel, realized Lannes was in trouble, he didn't call her parents or 911. He dialed some buddies and asked them to check on her, said her father, Greg Lannes.

Schnippel's friends crept to the family's windows about 4 a.m. March 5 and saw that Alicia was unconscious. They went to a pay phone and made an anonymous call to 911. At 5 a.m., Greg Lannes said, he was awakened by paramedics pounding on the door.

"We found my daughter lying next to her bed," Lannes said. "She had passed away. She had gone through a lot in her little life."

"We found my daughter lying next to her bed," Lannes said. "She had passed away. She had gone through a lot in her little life."

Alicia Lannes's death was one of 18 related to heroin in Fairfax County this year, many involving people between 18 and 24 years old, and it prompted a joint police and FBI investigation into how the hard-core drug has permeated the wealthy suburb and killed young users. Last week, federal authorities charged 10 men and women -- most either 19 or 20 -- with distributing heroin in the Centreville area. Schnippel was charged with providing the dose that killed Lannes.

"Regardless of why kids do it," Greg Lannes said, "it's prevalent around the area, and it needs to be closed down."

The investigation has revealed a web of heroin sales and use among a tightknit group of former and current students of Westfield High School in western Fairfax -- a symptom of a larger heroin problem that had gone undetected, law enforcement officials say. Officials said the growing availability of heroin, long considered a serious drug linked to addiction and death, has fueled its popularity and made it the drug of choice for many Washington area youths.

Numerous current and former Westfield students, including friends of those who were arrested last week, said in interviews that the high school is not a haven for drug users and that heroin use was limited to a small circle of friends. But, they said, the drug slowly gripped an expanding network of people after it was introduced sometime in 2005.

They said many of those charged began using and selling marijuana while skateboarding in middle school, then escalated to ecstasy, prescription painkillers, psychedelic mushrooms and heroin.

"Watching my friends go through all of this was eerily similar to watching one of those anti-drug videos in health class," said one Westfield graduate who was close to several of those in the drug ring and who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid trouble at college. "I literally cried when my dad e-mailed me the news. . . . It's heartbreaking to see people you grew up with ruin their own lives and, sadly, take another's life."

It was a series of overdoses, and particularly Lannes's death, that caught the attention of federal law enforcement officials. They wanted to direct public attention to a killer that seemed to be hiding in plain sight, officials said.

The 10 charged include a 33-year-old District dealer who allegedly was supplying the ring and nine young adults from Fairfax who are charged with regularly buying, selling and using large amounts of heroin.

"Heroin attracted our attention because young people were dying," said a law enforcement official familiar with the case. "These were bright, articulate people who had promising futures and went down this road."

After graduating from Westfield, many members of the ring enrolled in colleges and community colleges across Virginia, worked local day jobs, and often lived with their parents. Some made thousands of dollars in the drug trade, funding both their own lifestyles and their personal drug supplies, authorities said.

According to papers filed in federal court in Alexandria, the young men and women became entangled in a regular stream of drugs from Washington and Baltimore, with several making frequent trips to buy thousands of dollars' worth of heroin to sell to friends and acquaintances at a hefty profit.

Joshua "J.R." Quick, 19, and David Schreider, 20, who are charged, introduced heroin to friends, who in turn introduced others, the court papers say. When Quick would spend brief stints in jail, others would step in and go directly to his supplier, according to the papers. Described by law enforcement officials as extremely effective marketers, those selling the drug would often give away the first dose for free, creating a market for their sales.

One Westfield graduate said some in the ring would carry wads of cash in their socks and encouraged friends to get involved. Schnippel told authorities about more than 30 people whom Quick was supplying by mid-2007, according to court papers.

Alicia Lannes did not run with a party crowd, her father said, and had psychological problems unrelated to drugs. But when she started dating Schnippel last year, she fell in love and confided her problems to him, Lannes said.

"Skylar got into heroin," Lannes said, "and introduced it to Alicia." She overdosed the first time she used the drug in August 2007, and Schnippel took her to the hospital, where she was revived. "When I heard that Alicia had used heroin, you might as well have told me that she'd become president of Pakistan."

After two more overdoses in fall 2007, Alicia's parents sent her to a private drug treatment center in Houston, where she spent Christmas. Officials there told the Lanneses that their daughter was not an addict and released her in January. Greg Lannes said the family considered moving from Centreville and tried to keep Alicia away from Schnippel. But Schnippel "cried and begged" to be allowed to see Alicia, Greg Lannes said, and swore he was off heroin.

On March 4, both teens sneaked out of their houses, Lannes said. Schnippel scored a bag of heroin, according to court records. Before they could use it, Lannes said, Schnippel was discovered by his parents and forced to return home. Alicia Lannes went back to her house and took her final shot of heroin alone.

Schnippel, who has been released on bail pending trial, did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Billy Armstrong, 20, of Centreville, a longtime friend of Schnippel's who played on the Westfield in-line hockey team with him, described those in the drug ring as good people "who stumbled upon a bad way of living." He said he knew that the group was into drugs and tried to get Schnippel to stop because he cared about him.

"I'm shocked that it went this far," Armstrong said, calling Schnippel a "solid guy" and dedicated athlete. "It's a small group of people who didn't realize what the ramifications of their actions were, and they let it get out of hand. It's a powerful drug, and it's the worst one."

According to court papers, Tayler Gibson, 19, first used heroin in June 2007, when Schreider gave her the drug. After her friend Lannes died, Gibson allegedly began buying and selling as much as eight grams of heroin -- worth as much as $3,200 on the street -- every four days.

Reached by phone, Gibson declined to comment: "Unfortunately, I'm not at a point where I can talk."

In January, according to court records, members of the Fairfax drug ring turned to a Baltimore source for its supply. Local arrests -- there were several -- and personal tragedies didn't stop them. Just two days after Lannes died, her friends Lokesh Rawat and Anna Richter, both charged last week, drove to Baltimore to buy about four grams, enough for 40 single-sale bags worth $1,600, according to court papers.

Almost all of the heroin smuggled into the United States originates in Colombia and Mexico, hidden in vehicles, toys, artwork and even animals, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. That heroin has fed the urban markets in Baltimore and the District for years, DEA officials said.

Baltimore had 206 heroin overdose deaths in 2006 and 210 in 2007, according to the Baltimore City Health Department. The DEA reported 117 federal arrests on heroin charges in Maryland this year, with 14 kilograms seized. By contrast, there have been 20 DEA arrests in Virginia and one kilogram seized.

"Heroin is rated as the primary drug of abuse in Baltimore, and local heroin traffickers are responsible for much of the drug-related violence in the city," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman. "Heroin can be purchased on numerous corners in 'open-air markets' of West and East Baltimore. . . . Heroin purity in Baltimore traditionally is fairly high."

Northern Virginia localities have reported 31 heroin overdose deaths this year, after 34 last year and 31 in 2006. Across Virginia, heroin overdose deaths soared almost 43 percent from 2006 to 2007, going from 162 to 231. There have been 144 such deaths in Virginia this year.

The drug ring's Baltimore purchases, well catalogued in court papers, fueled the ring's dealing in Northern Virginia. Even while investigators looked into the ring, members continued to face peril. Duncan Parker, 21, died of a suspected overdose in September even after authorities searched his house and seized heroin, according to court papers and law enforcement officials.

Peter Douskalis, 21, a senior at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., said he distanced himself from Parker in 2005 when it became apparent that he and others were using increasingly harder drugs. He said the drug crowd would hang out at the Starbucks on Stone Road, dark bags under their bloodshot eyes.

"I was upset when I heard that he died," Douskalis said. "I just thought, 'What else is going to happen when you use heroin?' Either you quit or you die."

Friends said the group liked to party. Some were avid "Rock Band" video game players, and their Facebook.com pages are littered with common teenage references to beer pong and beach vacations. But they are also tinged with talk of untimely death and what could have been. Online updates in recent days reflect a somber mood surrounding the arrests.

Westfield Principal Tim Thomas said the school would learn from the arrests. "We will take inventory of our pyramid of interventions and continue to investigate and implement new measures to prevent students from participating in destructive decision making, including the use, possession or distribution of drugs," he said. "Simply put, we can never do enough."

Two former Westfield students said they went to the police to draw attention to the drug ring in recent years and were never sure about the results. Fairfax police said that they investigate overdose deaths but that they often hit dead ends with people unwilling to identify suppliers. They do not, however, actively track heroin-related deaths, said Capt. Ron Lantz, commander of the narcotics unit.

"The amount of heroin in the county hasn't changed over the past several years," Lantz said. "In our office, we're not seeing an increase in heroin. It's maintained a steady level."

Staff writers Mark Berman, Michael Alison Chandler and Jerry Markon and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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