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Uprooting deadly heroin trio in East County

Arrests of three Troutdale men bring end to investigation
by: Jim Clark Gresham Police Detective Bob Peterson helped investigate two fatal heroin overdoses, including one in Rockwood, that lead to the arrests of three Troutdale men. “The word needs to get out that we're going to chase these guys down on all of these overdose deaths. If they sell heroin to someone and it results in their death, we're going to hold them accountable.”

Part 1 of 2

• Heroin deals are going down as you shop for new clothes at Gresham Station, while you pick up your child from grade school, while you load groceries into your car. And those deals are killing people.

• The Outlook investigated last month's bust involving a large-scale heroin operation operating in East County. The result is a two-part series:

• Part 1: Officials are joining forces to hold three alleged heroin dealers from Troutdale accountable for two drug overdoses, one in Gresham.

• Part 2: Police and prosecutors explain why heroin is so hot in the Portland-metro area, why it's so dangerous and what needs to be done about it.

It's an ugly way to die - facedown in a toilet in the Rockwood McDonald's men's room. But that was the fate of Portland resident Jeremiah Alden, 32, who overdosed on heroin Feb. 26.

Now, detectives and prosecutors are going after the three Troutdale men they say supplied Alden's fatal dose, as well as that of another Portland resident.

Police on March 25 arrested Arturo Bugarin-Cruz, 25, and on April 14 arrested Miguel 'Alex' Celis-Real, 18, and Heriberto Varas-Medina, 25, on drug charges and allegations that they supplied heroin to Alden. Investigators also say they supplied the fatal dose that killed Jason Greer, 33, in Portland on Jan. 9.

Varas-Medina, who police say is the source or supplier, also is being held on a no-bail United States Immigration hold at the Multnomah County Inverness Jail.

And while none of them face homicide charges, their case is one of a growing number in which the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, with help from the U.S. Attorney's Office, are prosecuting drug dealers to hold them accountable for their customers' deaths, said Gresham Police Detective Bob Peterson.

Police and prosecutors successfully used this approach in 2009, putting three Troutdale men in prison for supplying a fatal dose of oxycodone to a Barlow High School student in December 2008. The drugs supplied in that sale resulted in the death of Rachel Daggett, 18, of Damascus.

In that case, the dealers were sentenced to between one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Prosecutors can indict drug dealers of fatal drug overdoses under the Len Bias law, said Ryan Lufkin, a deputy district attorney who is prosecuting the three Troutdale men.

Named for the University of Maryland basketball star who died in 1986 of a cocaine overdose, the Len Bias law creates tougher penalties for distributing drugs that cause a death - a minimum of 20 years in prison with a maximum of life imprisonment.

'We have got to follow up on these overdoses and hold these dealers accountable in some manner,' said Peterson, who investigated Daggett's death, as well as Alden's overdose in Gresham. 'The word needs to get out that we're going to chase these guys down on all of these overdose deaths. If they sell heroin to someone, and it results in their death, we're gonna hold them accountable.'

Overdose sparks case

The March and April arrests of the three alleged heroin dealers in East Multnomah County began on Jan. 9 when Portland police began to investigate Greer's death.

Officers noted fresh needle marks on his left arm and a syringe with heroin residue under his body. They also found a baggie of heroin and a spoon with heroin residue nearby.

On Greer's cellular phone, detectives found text messages showing Greer had bought heroin and OxyContin from a person linked to a particular phone number since November 2010.

Detectives traced the number to a man who told officers that Greer had called him wanting to buy heroin. The man then contacted Jeremiah Alden and arranged to meet him in a parking lot next to a grocery store near Southeast 257th Avenue and Stark Street.

They met Alden and then the heroin connection showed up.

After buying the heroin, they returned to Greer, who paid for his portion. Then they split up the heroin between the three of them.

Based on that police interview, investigators contacted and arrested Alden. He corroborated the account of the drug deal, with the exception of one detail. Alden said the other man handed Greer the drugs, while the other man maintained it was Alden who physically gave the drugs to Greer.

Alden also told police he got his heroin from a Hispanic dealer known as 'Alex' who often sent a delivery boy, or a runner, to deliver the drugs.

'They ran the operation like a pizza delivery service,' said Lufkin, the prosecutor. Orders are taken by a dispatcher. A runner delivers the drugs. And the boss gets the money at the end of the day.

After cooperating with authorities and testifying before a grand jury about the identity of his drug dealer, Alden was released from jail on Feb. 24.

Two days later, on Feb. 26, he was found dead in the McDonald's bathroom.

And while the scene looked like a drug overdose - police noticed heroin paraphernalia around Alden's body - it took additional investigating to determine whether the death was an accident or an intentional overdose committed by another person, Peterson said.

That's because while Alden was in jail, he met another one of 'Alex's' customers. Police listened to the customer's jail phone calls and heard him frantically trying to get his mother to call 'Alex' to warn him that Alden was in jail on an overdose death investigation.

The customer also told his mother to order Alex to 'drop his phones.' Within two days, Alex changed his cell phone number, Peterson said.

Police looked into this jailhouse-informant factor as part of the investigation into Alden's overdose.

The conclusion: 'We've been unable to indicate there was any foul play,' Peterson said.

Surveillance

Police staked out Alex, later identified at Celis-Real, and monitored him. During surveillance, officers reportedly watched him contact several heroin buyers across East Multnomah County - at the Troutdale Outlet Mall, Gresham Station shopping center, the Gresham City Hall MAX platform and the Home Depot parking lot, to name a few meeting locations.

The buyers later confirmed they were buying heroin from Alex through runners. The deals took place everywhere from seedy parts of Rockwood to pastoral areas near East Orient Grade School, Peterson said.

Following one such deal on March 25, police arrested the runner, identified as Bugarin-Cruz. He was in possession of 15 balloons of heroin - each costing between $20 to $40 and including a few doses.

The man lived in an apartment in the 500 block of Southwest 257th Avenue in Troutdale. He told police he had a wife and a 5-year-old son who live in Mexico, where he was born and where he completed the 12th grade.

On April 14, police arrested Alex, who was living with Bugarin-Cruz in the Troutdale apartment. Alex told police he was a former heroin user who stopped using two years ago. He also said he was born in Los Angeles and has an 11th grade education.

At the time of his arrest, Alex was reportedly in possession of 10 grams of heroin, or roughly 50 to 100 doses. He also had $6,000 and was driving a black Cadillac Escalade.

He allegedly admitted to selling heroin and reportedly told police his supplier was Heriberto Varas-Medina, who was living with Alex and the drug runner in the Troutdale apartment. He also confirmed that Bugarin-Cruz also worked for Varas-Medina selling heroin.

Alex further stated that he provided heroin to Alden in January - heroin that was then split with Greer, who overdosed. But 'Alex' also specified that he supplied Alden on behalf of his supplier, Heriberto Varas-Medina.

Seven hours after Alex's arrest, police arrested Varas-Medina.

The next day, police served a search warrant on Varas-Medina's stash house near Southeast 165th Avenue and Powell Boulevard.

There, investigators seized approximately 3 ounces of heroin.

That's equal to as many as 950 doses.


Overall drug-related deaths decrease in Oregon

Drug-related deaths in Oregon dropped 6 percent last year, with methamphetamine topping heroin as the leading street-drug killer, according to recent statistics from the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office.

Multnomah County saw a similar decrease of 8 percent. However, heroin remained the most lethal drug in Multnomah County, causing nearly 60 percent of drug-related deaths.

With 200 drug-related deaths statewide, it was the lowest number of drug-related deaths since 2005, when there were 197. The high was 229 deaths in 2008.

The numbers also reflect 106 methamphetamine-related deaths, a 22 percent increase in methamphetamine deaths since 2009 when there were 87. Last year's total also matches 2008 for the highest number of deaths in this category and is more than double the 50 such deaths recorded in 2001.

However, other categories saw huge drops - 48 percent for combination, which fell from 35 in 2009 to 18 last year; 38 percent for cocaine, which fell from 32 in 2009 to 20 in 2010; and heroin, which fell 29 percent from 127 in 2009 to 90 in 2010.

In 2010, Multnomah County saw a total of 87 drug-related overdoses. Of those, 52 were from heroin, which is down from the 63 heroin-related deaths in 2009 and the 71 heroin deaths in 2008; 28 were from methamphetamine, which is slightly higher than the 22 such deaths in 2009; and 15 were from cocaine, a drop from 2009, which saw 25 such deaths.