Teenage Wasteland

It doesn’t matter what time it is. Do you know where your children are? If you live in Plano, one of Texas’ toniest suburbs, they may be strung out on heroin somewhere. Or on trial for distributing it. Or dead.

WHAT STRUCK HIM, HE WOULD later say, was that the boy didn’t look anything like a junkie. Plano Police sergeant Aubrey Paul had driven north along Texas Highway 289, where Plano’s gated communities and mirrored office parks abruptly give way to unruly stretches of buffalo grass, to check out a call he had received the day before from a detective in the neighboring town of Frisco. This was before he knew the full scope of the problem, before his heart would sink when calls like this came in, back when he knew more about heroin from watching The French Connection, he recalled with a half-hearted grin, than he did from his twelve years as a cop. What awaited him in the brick police station in Frisco that day was a jarring revelation: crime scene photographs of a seventeen-year-old who had died of a heroin overdose only a few months after moving there from Plano. Paul studied the photos—an otherwise healthy-looking kid, nude and sprawled across a bathroom floor—and felt a kind of dread. Maybe this was the beginning of something much larger. Maybe there would be more pictures, these gruesome still lifes, to come.

Back then, a little more than two years ago, Paul could not have imagined some of the things he would soon see: the kids shooting up in fast-food parking lots; the girl on the high school swim team who traded sex for heroin; the football player who threw away a college scholarship for his love of the drug, holing up in a $25-a-day hotel room to shoot it. He tells these stories as we drive along the orderly streets of Plano—a city that looks remarkably like anyplace else except that its sidewalks are a little cleaner, its cars newer, its lawns more carefully tended—accentuating what he already knows too well: This wasn’t supposed to happen here. Plano is one of Texas’ most affluent communities (median income: $58,000) and one of the safest cities in the nation (number ten, according to Money magazine’s 1997 rankings). With 206,000 residents, many of them recent transplants, it is also the fifth fastest-growing city in the nation. People don’t flock to Plano for complicated reasons; they do so because it is a boomtown, the sort of place that promises to be better than whatever was left behind. It has optimistically broad streets and oversized cantilevered homes with cathedral ceilings that soar skyward, and it is flanked on both sides by symbols of industry. At the farthest reaches of the east side of town lies Southfork Ranch, where J. R. Ewing once presided over his oil empire; on the west side, where the carefully manicured grounds of Fortune 500 companies line Legacy Drive, stands a bronze statue of department store magnate J. C. Penney, his outstretched hand gesturing toward the half-built subdivisions that dot the landscape.

Plano is the suburban ideal taken to its extreme, and its exaggerated scale often gives rise to exaggerated problems. This is the backdrop on which suburbia’s failings, particularly for teenagers, often first unfold. In the early eighties, when Plano’s population began to climb, there was a rash of teen suicides. Now heroin has hit the city hard: There have been fifteen fatal overdoses in the past two years, nine of them teenagers, all but one younger than 23. They came from good homes and had bright futures: a young Marine home for the holidays, a philosophy major at the University of Texas at Austin, a high school senior preparing for a summer trip to Europe, a football star from Plano East Senior High. The youngest to die was a seventh-grade soccer player whose body was found in a church parking lot. What is astonishing, however, is not how many lives heroin has claimed here but how few, since a staggering number of people—more than one hundred, by one emergency room doctor’s estimation—have been admitted to the city’s hospitals in the past two years while overdosing. And no death toll can convey the other devastations: the twenty-year-old doctor’s son who sits in the Dallas County jail because an elderly woman died of a heart attack while he was robbing her for drug money, or the eighteen-year-old son of a J. C. Penney Company executive who was revived after falling into a coma but suffered such severe brain damage that he can no longer speak or walk.

The residents of Plano are well-meaning and hard-working people with no patience for fatalism or even pessimism about their ability to win this battle. They are problem solvers—corporate executives and mid-level managers who believe that each problem must have its logical solution, that with some elbow grease and determination and a well-thought-out plan, they can rid their community of even this most unimaginable of scourges. “Our purpose here tonight,” a minister told a crowd of 1,800 at a standing-room-only town hall meeting about heroin use in November 1997, “is that our fear might be calmed and wisdom might prevail and that we might claim our city as a shining example of what people working together can do.”

They have waged an impressive fight, mostly in a series of elaborate stings—including a seven-month undercover operation by a 28-year-old police officer who posed as a high school senior—carried out by the narcotics department Sergeant Paul heads up and which coincided with a sweeping federal investigation. This month marks the culmination of their work: On January 5, sixteen defendants will stand trial in federal court on charges that they engaged in a “calculated and cold-blooded” conspiracy to distribute heroin in Plano. Mostly Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals—some with nicknames such as Beefy and Dreamer—they are believed to be the primary heroin distributors in Collin County. (Nearly a dozen others in their teens and early twenties were included in the original federal indictment, for dealing heroin to their friends, but they have plea-bargained and received relatively light sentences.) Prosecutors will attempt to trace the heroin that was found in the bodies of four deceased overdose victims back to

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