Pill City by Kevin Deutsch is a gritty, hard-hitting story of gangland survival that will open the world's eyes to the plague of drug-related killings rocking America and reveal the deadly cost of the Baltimore riots (available January 31, 2017).
April 28, 2015, West Baltimore, Maryland: Ground Zero in America's Opiate Wars.
In this crime-plagued section of the city, the death of Freddie Gray has triggered the worst domestic rioting since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and created a terrifying new breed of criminal entrepreneur.
Here, as looters and arsonists lay waste to already blighted parts of Baltimore, two of the city's brightest students are helping to carry out a historic drug robbery spree—one that will flood the city with highly addictive pain pills and heroin.
The teens' plan: to use their gang connections and computer programming skills to set up a high tech drug delivery service and Dark Web marketplace. The result: the boys became America's youngest drug lords, in the process sparking bloody gang warfare and a nationwide wave of addiction and murder. Now mixing in deadly circles, Brick and Wax soon found their own lives were on the line…
In this groundbreaking work of investigative journalism, Newsday criminal justice reporter Kevin Deutsch chronicles the rise of these gangland upstarts as they help steal $100 million worth of high-powered opiates, and build a national narcotics empire from scratch.
“An Uber of Drug Dealing”
There’s enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it intoxicated for a year. That amount of drugs has thrown off the balance on the streets.
—BALTIMORE POLICE COMMISSIONER ANTHONY BATTS
April 28, 2015, West Baltimore
James “Brick” Feeney and Willie “Wax” Harris are standing on the corner of Mosher and North Mount Streets, pistols tucked into their waistbands, toothpicks dangling from their lips. To their right, Fred’s Discount Pharmacy is engulfed in orange-red flames, its marquee shrouded in a cloud of gray smoke. To their left, five members of the Black Guerrilla Family—Baltimore’s biggest, most powerful gang—are bashing in the head of a dealer who’d just encroached on Brick and Wax’s territory. It’s a seemingly minor offense but one that will get dozens of young men killed here in the coming weeks.
“Boy had it coming,” says Brick, loading a fresh clip into his Glock G26. “He knew the rules.”
“Too bad, though,” replies Wax, slipping a black ski mask over his face, then switching the safety off his own pistol, a P229 Sig Sauer. “Shit’s going to get hot with all these bodies dropping.”
Twenty-four hours ago, this pair of high school honor students, both 18, might have seemed the unlikeliest of drug kingpins—Brick, with his concave chest and pigeon-toed walk, and Wax, with his wire-frame glasses, Payless sneakers, and potbelly. Best friends since age 10, the precocious pair had rarely missed a day of school, much less masterminded a major narcotics conspiracy. But that was before Freddie Gray died on April 19 from spinal cord injuries suffered in the back of a police van; before the riots set off by his death turned Brick and Wax into bona fide underworld giants in control of a drug empire soon to be worth tens of millions of dollars—“an Uber of drug dealing,” as Brick calls it—that will transform the way illicit opiates are sold in wide swaths of urban America and help fuel a wave of addiction and homicide in some of the nation’s poorest enclaves.
“After today, with all the pills we got and all the homies we got soldiering for us, we ain’t got to worry about money ever again, no matter how hot shit gets,” Brick says as he and Wax enter Fred’s Discount. “All the mess we’ve been through … it’s over.”
When they come sprinting out of the burning store 10 minutes later, covered in ash, each is dragging a Hefty trash bag filled with bottles of prescription Percocet, OxyContin, Vicodin, Roxicodone, Opana, and Zohydro—powerful painkillers that sell for up to $100 each, or about $1 per milligram, on America’s drug corners. The heist is just the latest in a string of brazen thefts executed by the teens and their BGF cohorts over the past 25 hours, crimes that have targeted approximately 50 pharmacies and illicit drug stashes throughout Baltimore while police were busy responding to arson and looting elsewhere in the city. In total, the newly minted drug lords and their associates have pilfered approximately $100 million worth of prescription opiates and heroin in a little over a day—a feat unprecedented in the annals of American crime.
“Kind of pretty, ain’t they?” says Wax, opening one of the trash bags to reveal a rainbow-like assortment of pink, blue, white, orange, and yellow prescription pills: oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone of every formulation and dosage, each tablet worth roughly its weight in gold.
“The money we get for them going to be even prettier,” Brick says.
The friends had fantasized about a moment like this since the day they met, reading Iceberg Slim’s autobiography Pimp on the stoop of a local heroin den while their mothers got high inside. Later, in middle and high school, they’d bonded over a mutual love of technology and literature, devouring crime fiction and westerns—paperbacks like The Godfather and Lonesome Dove—by the stack. The books inspired them to contemplate their own capers—not the harebrained drug deals that got so many of their peers killed or imprisoned, but something high tech and sophisticated: a data-driven, criminal enterprise unlike anything Baltimore had ever seen.
And finally, tonight’s riots had given them the chance.
“We going to do this right,” Wax says. “Like we always talked about.”
The duo’s approach to opiate dealing will be ruthless and innovative—a blend, Wax says, of “Wall Street–style profit maximization, and Silicon Valley–style disruption.” With Brick’s programming, hacking, and financial expertise—he’s been studying the stock listings in the Wall Street Journal and Baltimore Sun since he was 11 years old and making mock online trades since he was 12—coupled with Wax’s genius for software development, coding, and all things digital, the computer virtuosos figure they can achieve something no drug-dealing duo has in the long, sordid history of Baltimore’s drug markets: staying power.
“Soon we’ll be running this whole damned city, steady putting out product like those Mexican cartels do,” Brick says, loading the bags of stolen pills into his 1998 Honda Civic, a rusted, sad-looking heap of steel he’d purchased six months earlier with money from his after-school math tutoring job. Before they get into the car, Brick fingers the Glock in his waistband, his lips curled in a mischievous grin.
“Yo, you want to?” he says.
Wax thinks on it for a moment, scanning the street for cops. But there are none in sight, just the teens and their BGF accomplices, still whaling on the trespassing dealer outside Fred’s Discount. Senior among these gangsters is Brick’s second cousin, Desmond “Damage” Vickers, 24, who’d helped forge the partnership between BGF and the enterprising teens.
“Come on, yo,” Brick prods his friend. “Now or never.”
“Fuck it, why not?” says Wax, pulling out his Sig.
On the count of three they aim their guns at the sky—just like the bandits in those westerns they’d grown up reading—and empty their clips toward the stars. The staccato rhythm of gunfire sounds almost festive to them, an ear-splitting, celebratory coda to their daylong binge of drug looting.
“Let’s go!” Brick says, jumping into his Civic after the last shot’s been fired. He tries the key in the ignition five or six times before the cranberry-colored four-door finally starts, its engine sputtering as exhaust fumes flood the street behind them.
“With all this money we about to get, maybe you can get a new whip,” Wax says. “’Cause honestly, this Honda’s whack as hell.”
“Yeah, yeah, and you can replace them goofy-ass glasses,” Brick says, relishing the back-and-forth with his old friend.
“Man, my glasses are fly!”
The teens laugh as they drive off, knowing there will be plenty of cash at their disposal after tonight: money to buy cars, computers, clothes, sex, and anything else they can dream up. They’ve even given a name to their bourgeoning syndicate: Pill City.
“Whatever happens,” says Wax, bumping fists with Brick, “we do this thing together.”
“Most def,” Brick says, hitting the accelerator. “Like always.”
* * *
The crimes committed by Brick, Wax, and their underworld accomplices tonight are just the beginning—a precursor to the plague of addiction and overdose that will ravage America’s poorest, most racially isolated inner-city neighborhoods in the months to come. It’s a plague fueled not just by the profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies and pill-peddling doctors we hear so much about, but by hundreds of thousands of opiates stolen in Baltimore while no one was watching.
“You’ve got to blame the doctors and the drug makers, no doubt, but on a street level, it’s the dealers who are driving a lot of this mess right now,” says Jamal Grayson, a Baltimore narcotics detective who is part of a team of local, state, and federal law enforcement officials tasked with capturing Baltimore’s drugstore looters. “When they got their hands on those pills [during the riots], it was like stealing the nuclear codes. In Baltimore and a lot of places like it, those drugs are blowing up whole neighborhoods.”
Whereas America’s “first wave” of postmillennium opiate abuse helped kill nearly half a million drug users between 2000 and 2014—whites, blacks, Hispanics, and members of every other minority group—this postriot “second wave” is disproportionately affecting African Americans, according to public records and interviews with dozens of addicts, doctors, dealers, treatment experts, and law enforcement officials. Even before the Baltimore drug lootings, opiate abuse among blacks was on the rise. The rate of heroin overdose deaths soared 213 percent among African Americans between 2000 and 2014, the largest increase ever in that category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015 and 2016, amid the epidemic’s second wave, things have gotten worse: While blacks represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they now account for approximately half of all overdoses caused by illegally purchased opiates, records suggest. In blighted urban areas, it’s nearly impossible to find a block untouched by the epidemic.
“Things are looking grimmer out here every day, to tell you the truth,” says Brayonna Oakley, 43, of East Baltimore, whose 19-year-old old son, Adonde, fatally overdosed on looted oxycodone he brought from a BGF dealer in June 2015. “So many African Americans are dying from this stuff, but no one wants to address the impact of it [the opiate epidemic] in black neighborhoods. Until we do, people like my son will keep dying.”
The deeper one digs into the data, the worse things look.
Painkillers and heroin killed nearly 30,000 Americans in 2014, about 19,000 from pills and 10,600 from heroin. Nationally, nearly 130 Americans die each day from drug overdoses, more than a quarter of whom identify as African American. Hundreds of disenfranchised blacks narrowly survive opiate overdose each week, revived by the life-saving, opiate overdose antidote naloxone. Many others die without ever receiving the drug, a result of naloxone shortages in their communities.
But in spite of a mounting death toll in neighborhoods of color, the black and brown aspect of the opiate epidemic receives scant attention from the press, politicians, and law enforcement, experts say, flying under the radar even as the national media breathlessly covers the same scourge in white suburbs.
“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said of the epidemic’s impact on suburban and rural families. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
But for those living in poorer, blacker neighborhoods ravaged by opiate abuse, the opposite scenario is playing out. In these disadvantaged communities, few residents can get the attention of lawmakers, health department officials, or journalists. Most receive substandard addiction treatment, experts say, or none at all. And while the communities described by Botticelli continue to be politically “empowered” amid America’s opiate epidemic, scores of lower-income blacks are suffering in silence, deprived of much-needed government resources and media attention.
“We’ve got black people dying of heroin and pills on a large scale but … nobody’s really talking about it, because the epidemic in white communities is getting all of the notice,” says Dr. Morris Copeland, an addiction treatment specialist in Newark, New Jersey, whose patients are predominantly black. “It’s like there’s only enough air in the room for us as a society to focus one aspect of the epidemic, the white aspect. But in communities of color, people are hurting just as badly.”
Indeed, 53 of the 100 census tracts with the highest opiate overdose rates in 2014 had majority-black populations, records show. In the nation’s five most populous cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia—the rate of African Americans who die with heroin or opiate painkillers in their system is higher, per capita, than that of whites or Hispanics. Yet there’s little public discourse about the toll opiates are taking in these struggling communities. Proof of this disparity lies in the amount of press coverage on the topic: Since 2013, more than 22,000 news stories published in American media outlets have made mention of “white,” “suburban,” or “rural” addicts battling opiate addiction. Meanwhile, fewer than 20 such stories have focused on black opiate addicts living—and dying—in poverty-stricken cities during that same period.
“Now all of a sudden heroin has made its way out into the white suburbs, and the attention that is being given to it I applaud, but it is attention that quite frankly should have been given to this epidemic a long, long time ago,” Baltimore’s current police commissioner, Kevin Davis, said of the epidemic’s racial dynamic.
Scores of men and women fighting to curb opiate abuse in America’s inner cities—cops, doctors, and addiction counselors alike—say looted drugs are helping to drive up overdose rates, harming black families in some cities on a scale not seen since the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
“It’s as devastating a scourge as we’ve seen in terms of drugs being abused in impoverished African American communities, and it traces back, in many cases, to the pharmacy lootings,” says Grayson. “We’re talking about the equivalent, in terms of an organized drug score, of the Brinks Truck Robbery or the Lufthansa Heist, really notorious crimes. The difference is, the goods stolen this time were very addictive, very powerful drugs … that are killing people in places already dealing with high rates of poverty and violence.”
The number of drugs looted in Baltimore, officials say, is staggering.
At least 314,920 prescription pills were reported stolen from 32 Baltimore businesses—31 retail pharmacies and one medical office inside a methadone clinic—during the riots, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s official tally. Of those pills, 133,798 (42 percent) were opiates. As of this writing, not a single pill has been recovered, the agency says.
Troubling as these numbers are, they tell only half of the story. Equally concerning to drug investigators are the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 doses of illicit opiates BGF members stole from rival dealers during the unrest, drugs that include black-market pain pills, methadone bottles, fentanyl, lab-manufactured opiates, and millions of dollars’ worth of heroin, according to multiple law enforcement officials at the federal, state, and local levels as well as drug dealers and gang members involved in the robberies. The drugstore lootings alone “represent the largest transfer of prescription drugs from private hands to the hands of drug dealers in this country—ever,” says DEA Special Agent Kirstin Marques, who, like Grayson, is tasked with capturing pharmacy looters. About a third of Baltimore’s pharmacies were looted during the riots. No criminal organization—not the mafia, the Bloods, the Crips, or any transnational drug cartel—has ever plundered so many prescription narcotics in so short a time span. Nor has any robbery spree triggered so much violence so quickly.
“There’s enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it intoxicated for a year,” Anthony Batts, Baltimore’s police commissioner during the riots, said of looted drugs on June 3, 2015. “That amount of drugs has thrown off the balance on the streets.”
Within weeks of Freddie Gray’s death, stolen opiates from Baltimore found their way to impoverished neighborhoods in Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Indianapolis, fueling a surge in gun violence. Later, pilfered narcotics arrived in some of the poorest sections of South Florida, St. Louis, Kansas City, Camden, Newark, Bridgeport, Memphis, Cleveland, and dozens of other impoverished, majority-black communities, all without fanfare.
Within these blighted areas, homicide totals quickly spiked, as did both fatal and nonfatal opiate overdoses. Today, legions of slurring, glassy-eyed addicts continue to overwhelm drug rehabilitation facilities in these areas, while hospitals struggle to handle an influx of overdosing and withdrawing patients. In Maryland alone, recorded overdose deaths from drugs and alcohol rose 21 percent in 2015, to 1,259, while fatal overdoses from fentanyl spiked 83 percent, to 340. “The numbers in relation to drugs stolen during Baltimore’s unrest are indeed troubling,” said Christopher Garrett, a spokesman for Maryland’s health department. As drug addicts pay a heavy price, so, too, do dealers. At least 1181 men, women, and children have been killed nationwide in homicides connected to drugs looted from Baltimore, plus an additional 227 injured. Overall, at least 416 people believed connected to the illicit opiate trade in America were killed in homicides during 2015 alone, with at least 448 others hurt in nonfatal shootings, stabbings, assaults, and other criminal acts, records show. The carnage continued in 2016, with more than 450 people killed in violence connected to the illicit opiate trade.
In many impoverished parts of the country, a new kind of underworld battle is being waged, conflicts so deadly and hard to suppress that they’ve been given their own monikers.
“We call them the Opiate Wars, or Pill Wars, because they’re really their own style of conflict,” says Jeffrey Madigan, a gang detective with the Newark Police Department in New Jersey, which has investigated at least four homicides linked to Pill City. “There’s a ferociousness in these market-share battles in these neighborhoods that we hadn’t necessarily seen in the cocaine wars or in disputes between marijuana or meth dealers. This conflict is bloodier, more organized, more driven by technology. And much of the violence we’re seeing is connected to those drugs stolen during the riots.”
Grayson says the scheme to steal and sell those looted opiates, both on the streets and through the Dark Web, is “probably the most heartless thing I’ve seen done, premeditated, by a drug gang.”
He adds: “For two 18-year-old kids to run a business like this, to help put together this plan … it’s genius, from a criminal’s perspective. But it’s also just about the most horrible thing you can do to places that are already suffering from poverty and violence.”
Copyright © 2017 Kevin Deutsch.
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Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning criminal justice writer for Newsday and previously worked on the staff of the New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, and The Palm Beach Post. He is the author of The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips. He is an adjunct professor of journalism at Queens College and Hofstra University. He lives in New York City.