ST. LOUIS – Federal and local authorities launched a massive roundup Tuesday targeting heroin traffickers, arresting more than 50 people and hoping to more than double that as they try to put a big dent in the region's growing problem with the drug.
Most suspects were arrested at homes, but not all. One woman was arrested as she began her shift as a hairdresser at a barber shop. The suspects ranged in age from teenagers to 68.
By midday, 53 people were in custody. The arrests so far occurred without any problems, said Jim Shroba, assistant special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration office in St. Louis. The DEA's St. Louis agent in charge, Harry Sommers, told The Associated Press that all told, 104 traffickers were expected to be arrested, though it could be days or even weeks before all were custody.
The traffickers are not part of an organized group, Sommers said. He hoped the arrests would send a strong message to other traffickers as well as dealers and users.
"Today isn't the silver bullet, but this is the beginning of us making our statement and pushing back," Sommers said.
The arrests come amid growing concerns about heroin. An often deadly form of ultra-potent heroin is selling for as little as $10 a bag. The newer heroin is so potent that some users die before they can remove the syringe from their veins. That increased purity also makes heroin more attractive to suburban kids and middle-class users because it doesn't have to be injected. It can be smoked or snorted and still create a high.
"So they don't necessarily have to stick a needle in their arm," Sommers said. "To the youthful mind, you might call that a junkie. But they think someone snorting it is a recreational user."
St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said earlier this year that heroin deaths in the county were on pace to double from 2010. He was so concerned about the problem that he began scheduling regular meetings at high school auditoriums to alert the public about the dangers of the drug.
A decade ago, roughly 2,000 people a year died from heroin overdoses nationwide, according to records kept by the Centers for Disease Control. By 2008, the drug was blamed for at least 3,000 deaths in the 36 states that responded to records requests from the AP last year.
Deaths from 2009 and beyond have not yet been compiled, but Sommers said some St. Louis-area counties are seeing the number of deaths double or even triple every year. St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said the county had 55 heroin deaths through August – nearly matching the 60 from last year. Tom Gibbons, district attorney in Madison County, Ill., said his county has already equaled the 18 heroin deaths from 2010.
Law enforcement officials and drug-treatment experts believe the statistics woefully undercount the actual number of deaths because, in many cases, the cause of death is listed simply as a drug overdose without pinpointing heroin. Seizures of heroin along the U.S.-Mexico border quadrupled from 2008 to 2009, from about 44 pounds to more than 190 pounds.
Sommers said the DEA and police agencies decided to work together on a broad investigation that began in July. The approximately 150 officers involved in the arrests Tuesday were from the DEA, Illinois State Police and 32 local agencies in Lincoln, St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin and St. Louis counties in Missouri, St. Louis city, and Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois.
Officials said there was no way to know how much heroin would be taken off the street as a result of the arrests, but Stephen Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for southern Illinois, noted that one suspect alone admitted dealing enough heroin to supply 12,750 "buttons," or single-hit packs.
St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom said problems caused by heroin affect the entire community. In recent years, heroin addicts have increasingly been responsible for car break-ins, burglaries and other thefts as they seek money to feed their habit.
"The impact goes far beyond the individual and the family, into society," Isom said.
Sommers declined to speculate on what percentage of St. Louis-area traffickers were being arrested, but he believed it was enough to begin turning the tide.
"I think this is the day we'll look back and say that trajectory of deaths caused by heroin started to turn," Sommers said.