2013-04-18 / Front Page

Drugs, a profession

County drug dealers are generally users trying to pay for their habit.
By Alan Campbell of the Enterprise staff


MATTHEW O’NON is Leelanau County's most renowned drug dealer. He is serving mandatory life in prison following conviction for double murder in 2004. (file photo) MATTHEW O’NON is Leelanau County's most renowned drug dealer. He is serving mandatory life in prison following conviction for double murder in 2004. (file photo) Things are not as they seem out there.

Strangers start showing up at a neighbor’s house at all hours. After a couple days, quiet returns.

Two cars park near each other in a parking lot. People talk. They move on.

An employee drags into work, takes a bathroom break, and emerges with new-found energy.

Or a student drinks down a Red Bull, ending the drink with widened pupils and a drastically changed demeanor.

Those are minute, outward signs of drug abuse in Leelanau County. They help explain the life of users, and their relationships with drug dealers. Some manage, at least for awhile, to maintain a job and lifestyle.

The incidents represent as close as most Leelanau County residents get to drugs. People generally don’t have a clue what’s going on right before their eyes, according to a retired undercover narcotics officer who started his law enforcement career in Leelanau County in 1977.

“I don’t know if the readers of Leelanau County even want to know about it. But I was happy to get out of that, and wash my hands of it. You feel sorry for these drug users,” said Jim O’Rourke, a former county Deputy who three times stepped away from his uniform to bust drug dealers and users undercover. He resides in Leelanau County.

O’Rourke has observed and learned of things that defy the parameters of a civilized society.

“There was the time a person from the old folks home would meet someone in a restaurant, and swap their pills for hamburgs,” said O’Rourke.

A lady from Kalkaska County worked the welfare system. “She would get a pound of marijuana, and she would give people a fourth of a pound of dope for their Bridge card. She would buy food with their Bridge cards, and fill out other people’s grocery lists and pocket the money. Then they would take the quarter pound of dope, and make money. So the state of Michigan was subsidizing the drug racket, and she had a pretty good racket going on.”

High-level dealers from cities in southern Michigan send hookers up north to drum up interest and recruit more local “mules” along with a new shipment of drugs.

Drug users start early, bringing Leelanau County schools into the process. On average, students of Leelanau County who use marijuana smoke their first joint at the age of 14. Some 28 percent of county students have, indeed, given it a try. Some 10 percent of county students were offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property. All statistics came from a 2012 survey.

“I asked one informant, why do you bring your drugs up here? He said because most kids have $20 in their wallet,” O’Rourke said.

“I remember the one kid in Glen Lake was selling Ritalin for cigarettes. For kids, it slows them down, but for adults it’s like speed,” he said.

But drug abuse spans all ages, which explains why a plain-clothed O’Rourke, then well past 50, could slip into the world of drug dealing to pick up evidence leading to busts.

THE ECONOMICS OF A BROKEN PYRAMID

“The thing about selling drugs is there is no age limits,” O’Rourke said. A few years back he busted a dealer in Missaukee County nearly 30 years after he had busted the same man in 1982.

“People don’t get out of the trade unless they die,” he said.

Users who believe they can take drugs for recreation often end up with the need for a fix controlling their lives. It doesn’t take long before the only way to subsidize their expensive drug habit is to join the business.

Bennie Lopez, 23, of Northport, is an example. He awaits sentencing in the Leelanau County Jail after pleading guilty to a variety of charges that stemmed from his drug addition.

Lopez had a $25,000 annual drug addiction bill to pay with a salary of $20,000. He stole and peddled drugs to make up the difference.

“And that’s why I’m here,” said Lopez from the county jail. He plans to stay off drugs and help raise his two young daughters after serving time.

“Half of the drug dealers just sell to get by. And the other half don’t work, they are just selling drugs every day. They’re making a killing of it. I know that for a fact, because they were making a killing off me,” he said.

The picture painted by Lopez and O’Rourke is of a drug culture based on a pyramid scheme — with a catch. As new users are introduced, they fill the lower levels while more experienced users move up the pyramid. Most only advance so far before getting caught. Advancing to the top requires something drug users don’t have — sobriety.

The biggest bust O’Rourke helped facilitate during his long career was of a man named Melvin Stanley, who was sentenced in 2008 to serve 23 years in prison for a single count of “conspiracy to distribute cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana.” He was only 35 years old at the time.

The charge and sentence speak little of Stanley’s long career in the drug business. He was the kingpin for northern Michigan.

“This guy was big,” said O’Rourke. “He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He came to court with his Cadillac Escalade. He and his attorney were dressed to the hilt.”

Stanley cooperated with police, which led to a reduced charge. He had graduated off the streets to the serious business of narcotics, and fared well — until caught.

Stanley found plenty of underlings to handle his peddling. One young Suttons Bay man, who was eventually arrested, sold 2,000 hits of the drug ecstasy during two days of hawking to other young people at the National Cherry Festival, O’Rourke said. At $20 each, he pocketed $4,000.

Perhaps Stanley was lucky to make it to prison. After months of building a case, O’Rourke managed to talk one drug dealer into implicating others in a massive drug ring.

“The guy agreed to testify on a Friday against his dealer, and he got murdered the next day in Detroit,” O’Rourke said.

The drug problem has escalated during O’Rourke’s career. Dan King, commander of the Traverse Narcotics Team, has noticed the uptick during his 15 years of trying to stop the sale of illegal drugs.

“I just know it’s an increasing problem in our communities that is affecting our families and our children,” King said. “Remember, drugs are the crime, but they lead to many other crimes.”

For that reason, TNT officers are often instrumental in solving crimes that involve robbery or theft. As often as not, the criminals are on drugs, trying to support their habits.

Drugs can be shot up, snorted or crushed and tossed into a high-energy drink. They are smoked through tire gauges. If unavailable today, they can be shipped overnight by Fed Ex to an unoccupied home near you — as happened a few years back on the Stony Point peninsula near Suttons Bay. The late Fred Oltersdorf, a retired policeman and father of former county Sheriff Mike Sheriff, reported observations from around his home, leading to a bust. Drugs were being sent to unoccupied summer homes. A local drug dealer or accomplice would pose as a maintenance person or cleaning lady to accept the packages.

The sender was never caught.

“The big guy is out of the way. He’s downstate. It’s a different world that you can’t see,” O’Rourke said.

SUPERMARKET OF DRUGS, NEW AND OLD

Today drugs come in all shapes and colors. With such a wide array available, people with a tendency to become dependent will eventually find one that matches their desires, King said.

“It’s all up to a particular person, and what they prefer. It’s like I prefer Mountain Dew, you prefer Pepsi and some people prefer Coke.”

 Methamphetamine labs have sprung up in Antrim and Grand Traverse counties, King said, which is dangerously close to Leelanau. The ingredients to create meth can be bought in a grocery store. “It’s highly addictive. It’s one of the harder drugs to rehab off of, and it can be produced in your own home so you don’t have to deal with a drug dealer,” he said.

One meth lab can permanently change a community’s drug habits, King added. “Once a methamphetamine cook comes to your community, there is a percentage of people that he or she will teach. When that happens you get more and more cooks, and then it spreads. It’s almost like a cancer.”

Said O’Rourke, “You can make it dang near anywhere. You get somebody on crystal meth, they go crazy. They’ll go three days without sleeping.”

 Cocaine is still popular, though not nearly as much as the during heyday of disco. Heroine, however, has risen to take its place, and is used regularly on the Leelanau Peninsula.

The son of one of King’s close friends died of a heroin overdose, though not in northwest Michigan. But dealers all over “cut” the stuff to reduce its potency, increasing their profits while putting addicts in danger.

“He stuck a needle in his arm, and he was dead in 30 seconds,” King said.

 Marijuana has taken on a whole new life after being legalized as a “medicine” in many states. Now drug dealers can be more like farmers, using genetics to create more potency and even growing the stuff hydroponically. The result is locally grown marijuana that is far different than found on the streets in decades past, and sells for $300 to $400 an ounce, O’Rourke said.

In February, a 55-year-old downstate man with a rural home in Maple City committed suicide. Deputies arriving at the scene found 15 pounds of processed marijuana, bagged and ready for dispersal. The marijuana was very high quality.

King scoffs at the notion that medical marijuana is not being abused. The average medical marijuana card holder in Michigan is in his or her lower 20’s.

“I don’t think it’s just medicine,” he said.

 But the biggest shift has been to prescription drugs, King said. The most popular drugs contain morphine, are readily available because of the growing number of prescriptions being written for pain relief, and fit with a general societal notion that there’s nothing wrong with taking a pill or two to feel better.

And besides, users know exactly what they’re consuming, able to obtain the type of drug and even dosage from the label on the plastic bottle.

“You know what you’re going to get every time. It’s clean where they make pharmaceutical drugs. In heroin, that’s not the case,” King said.

For some users, selling drugs seems like a business opportunity handed to them by the government, said O’Rourke. He recalls one man he busted.

“He was getting his pills because he was on assistance. He was paying $3 per month because he had a prescription and coverage. Then he would sell them for $20 apiece. So he made $1,997 a month, didn’t pay taxes, plus he was getting his house paid for. He had it made.”

During O’Rourke’s time in law enforcement, he handled cases in which seven people died from overdoses. And he still recalls with horror the only double murder conviction in the history of Leelanau County, when Matthew O’Non gunned down two Hispanic drug dealers in 2004 near remote Bass Lake in Leelanau township. O’Non was apparently seeking to avoid paying a drug debt.

Violence is a pusher’s partner in the culture of selling drugs.

“It’s a different world out there that you don’t know about, and I hope you and your family never get to see,” said O’Rourke.

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