Drug deals persist a year after Xanax shooting
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
Merchants, police: Crackdown since killing hasn't helped
In the past decade, Robert Erick Heinz has watched all of his immediate family members die in separate incidents of drug overdoses or illnesses exacerbated by poverty and homelessness.
Heinz now might be facing his own death Ñ by lethal injection Ñ if he is convicted of murder for the death of a man in downtown Portland one year ago today.
Heinz, a former heroin addict who turns 35 today, is charged with two counts of aggravated murder, first-degree robbery with a firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm in the death of 42-year-old Richard Ballantine of Tillamook. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty in the case, according to court documents.
His trial was scheduled to begin this month but has been postponed indefinitely because of conflicts in the schedule of one of the defense attorneys.
Last year during the busy noon hour, dozens of witnesses were shocked to see a bandanna-clad gunman stand over his victim in the middle of Southwest Broadway and fire a .22-caliber gun multiple times.
'I know the shooter. It was over Xanax,' one witness said she heard the victim utter before dying. Xanax is a prescription antianxiety drug that some addicts use to enhance or accelerate the effects of methadone.
The highly public incident touched off a firestorm of issues that the downtown community has been struggling with for years: illegal street drug sales, guidelines for local methadone clinic patients and the dynamic among panhandlers, loiterers, police and downtown merchants.
In the year since, police have stepped up patrols and conducted sweeps; business owners are more wary of what happens outside their doors; and several parties joined in a 'good neighbor agreement,' vowing to make changes that would help prevent further incidents.
But downtown merchants, police and business people said they haven't really noticed much change other than the typical increased activity outside on dry, warmer days.
'From my perspective, it's about the same,' said police officer Jim West, a senior neighborhood officer downtown. The most frequent downtown drug arrests, he said, are for heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, with occasional arrests for pharmaceutical drugs.
It's rare to see a firearm on someone arrested for drug possession or distribution, he said.
Methadone treatment advocates said they fear that now, more than ever, incidents such as last year's shooting will be more common. That's because funding for much of the treatment for 1,850 methadone patients in Multnomah County through the Oregon Health Plan was discontinued March 1 because of state budget cuts.
'By no longer paying for methadone, we've put X number of people back on the streets who have to maintain their habits through illegal means,' said Dr. Jerry Larsen, a psychiatrist at Coda Clinic, 1027 E. Burnside St. 'Whether through drug dealing or other illegal activity, that's what's going to happen.'
Cops agree. 'We haven't seen a huge increase of problems' with methadone patients, West said. 'However, I'm sure it's coming just because of the loss of the health plan. People are becoming more desperate.'
Family members die of drugs
The events leading up to Heinz being charged in last year's shooting trace back to his childhood.
He was raised both in Albany and Northern California, where he and his family members struggled through various addictions and spent many years homeless and in halfway houses.
Heinz dropped out of school at a young age and spent much of his time in the drug culture of Eureka, Calif., where methamphetamine was burgeoning.
His sister, Kimberly, died of a heroin overdose in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1994. Three years later, his brother Richard Jr. died of a heroin overdose in Eureka. In 2001, his mother, Suzanne, died in a flophouse of pneumonia.
While he was in custody, his brother Jason was found dead of a heroin overdose in a homeless camp in Santa Rosa. And his father, Richard, who was with him the day of the shooting, died on a park bench in Santa Rosa of long-term alcohol and heroin abuse.
According to court documents and interviews, Heinz made his living in Portland by illegally obtaining prescriptions for drugs such as Xanax from various doctors and selling the pills in the Pioneer Courthouse Square area.
Last March 11, Heinz drove downtown with his girlfriend and his father after filling out paperwork at Allied Health Service, 808 S.W. Alder St.
Both Heinz and his girlfriend received treatment earlier that day at Hope Clinic, 9747 S.E. Powell Blvd., and then took Heinz's father to get his methadone dosage at Allied that morning. Both clinics treat a portion of the 3,000 people who seek methadone treatment for their heroin addiction in Multnomah County.
A man who was walking with Ballantine on Southwest Broadway at the time of the shooting told investigators that in the minutes before the shots were fired, Ballantine told him about being robbed earlier in the day at a Washington County transit center.
When the shots were fired, dozens gathered to see the spectacle. Police went in search of the shooter, who fled in a nearby car and eluded police. According to court records, Heinz was caught the next day in a wooded area of Northern California, threatening to shoot himself.
Heinz was found to be under the influence of methadone, Xanax and methamphetamines, said police, who matched his handgun to the bullets used in Ballantine's death.
'It's much more complicated than a downtown shooting if you start unraveling the issues,' said Laurie Bender, one of Heinz's defense attorneys. 'We're a lot more culpable as a community.'
Bender said Heinz does not deserve the death penalty because his act was not premeditated. Deputy District Attorney Don Rees said he could not comment on the case.
Drug deals continue
One year later, change on downtown streets has been slow to come.
'My feelings are mixed,' said Tim Greve of Carl Greve Jewelers, 731 S.W. Morrison Ave., one of 30 merchants who signed the good neighbor agreement. 'The clinic and its clients are better off, but as far as overall drug dealing and everything downtown, I don't think it's much better.'
Central Precinct Cmdr. Rosie Sizer said that since the incident, police have devoted extra resources Ñ added patrols and concentrated missions Ñ at hot spots such as Southwest Sixth Avenue and Alder Street.
'It hasn't eliminated it. But it's mitigated it to some degree,' Sizer said.
Dan Lenzen, co-chairman of the Downtown Retail Council, said he sees drug deals happen on the streets at least a few times a day and worries that the activity might scare some patrons away.
'You'll notice heads looking around, usually in twos or threes as they're walking around on the sidewalk,' Lenzen said 'Every day, I see people walking along Second (Avenue), taking something out of their mouth, putting it into somebody's hand. And then see some sort of transaction back. Literally, every day.'