At the shopping mall, burger joint, maybe even next-door -- street-level heroin dealers are openly covert operators

Heroin dealing in East Multnomah County is undergoing a radical change that’s resulting in huge livability issues for the community.

Cartels that control the drug industry are getting out of street-level dealing, creating a void in the supply chain that addicts are increasingly filling, said Sgt. Lee Graham, who heads up the Gresham Police Department’s Neighborhood Crimes Unit.

So what does that mean to you?

Well, you know the stereotype of drug deals going down in darkened alleys or in nearly vacant parking lots — they’re now happening at your local fast-food restaurant, shopping mall, even the Goodwill OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Heroin dealers were staying at the Howard Johnson Hotel on Northeast Burnside Road in Gresham. A man who overdosed in the McDonalds restroom across the street helped lead police to them. In fact, one of the alleged dealers fled to the fast food restaurant before police caught him.

That’s right, while you’re shopping for a pair of flats or picking up a value meal for your little one, dopers are buying, and in some cases even using, right then and there.

“It’s horrible,” Graham said.

Two weeks ago, police busted a father-mother-son operation that was dealing drugs just blocks from an elementary school. “It was virtually an open-air market for heroin,” Graham said of the operation, which was based out of the family’s apartment in the 16800 block of Southeast Stark Street.

Goodwill bust

Another bust took place at the Gresham Goodwill after a dealer removed cash from a ceramic vase and left behind heroin for her lurking customer.

Barbra Mae Gibbs, 45, of Gresham now faces charges of heroin delivery and possession, as well as delivering heroin within 1,000 feet of a school: Gresham High School is right across the street from the COURTESY: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Barbra Gibbs

Her neighbors complained to police about constant traffic coming to and from Gibbs’ rental house in the 700 block of Northwest Angeline Avenue. The police department’s Neighborhood Crimes Unit investigated and arrested the woman on Feb. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - One heroin dealer sold the drug out of this house in a middle-class Gresham neighborhood brimming with young families. A new renter is living in the house now, and neighbors are delighted.

Neighbors are relieved to know Gibbs likely will be behind bars for quite some time. In addition to the drug charges, she is being held on a U.S. Marshals Service hold because she is on federal probation for counterfeiting, and police searching her home reportedly found drug records indicating she used counterfeit money to buy the heroin she sold.

And in yet another Gresham bust, a non-fatal overdose in a McDonald’s restroom led police across the street to a nearby hotel room, where the dealers were holed up.

But before the arrests, police watched one of the dealers sell heroin to a 24-year-old man at a Carl’s Junior just south of the motel.

The customer had a 3-year-old child with him.

Police arrested the client — Michael Riopel of outer Southeast Portland — for first-degree child neglect. by: COURTESY: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Michael Riopal They also cited his alleged dealer, Thomas Jay Hoffmeister, 25, a transient, on allegations of delivery and possession of COURTESY: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Thomas Jay Hoffmeister

Over at the hotel where the dealers were based, a pretty girl answered the door. Police recognized her as the same young woman they arrested in November for robbery, theft and drug possession.

This time, they cited Cami Lorraine Copeland, 21, of Gresham for heroin possession, and arrested her on a Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office warrant for third-degree drug COURTESY: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Cami Copeland

A man she was in the room with took off running. Police cited Samuel Edward Adam Morse, 24, a transient, on an allegation of heroin delivery across the street at McDonald’ COURTESY: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE - Samuel Morse

And to think this all took place on a Thursday afternoon around 1:30 p.m.

Game changers

Police say a variety of factors are to blame for this very bold, and very public, brand of drug dealing.

“The game has changed,” Graham said.

Just a few years ago, Mexican drug cartels controlled every aspect of heroin dealing, including the street-level, smaller-scale deals.

Drugs also were delivered through calls to “dispatch centers,” which sent “runners” to meet with street-level buyers, usually in cars or other out-of-sight locations.

But now they’ve abandoned small-quantity street sales and instead deal only in larger amounts of an ounce or more, Graham said.

As a result, heroin addicts are buying those larger quantities, dividing them into grams or half grams and selling them to support their own addictions.

Most of these new street-level dealers are what Graham calls “the twenty somethings” — young adults in their 20s who got hooked on oxycodone in their teens, when they crushed, snorted and smoked the pills.

Eventually, their habits got too expensive to support, so they switched from smoking oxycodone to smoking heroin.

“It used to be the heroin stigma was enough to keep anyone away,” Graham said, adding that the idea of injecting a drug made some potential users squeamish. “Not any more.”

Heroin is cheaper, easier to find and delivers a more powerful high than oxycodone, making oxycondone the perfect gateway drug to heroin.

But heroin is so addictive; those who start out smoking it usually end up turning to the needle eventually, Graham said.

And those heroin users who traded their oxycodone addiction for a heroin habit are the same ones who are now East Multnomah County’s street-level heroin dealers.

“I think what I find scary … is at the street level, there is a younger crowd with no oversight,” Graham said. “It’s kind of a free-for-all. There’s no structure to it. It’s very random. … Even a criminal cartel has structure and controls. There’s none of that organization at the street level now.”

'Openly covert'

This new, younger generation of street-level dealers operate differently.

Instead of the pagers of yesteryear, today’s dealers communicate via cell phones and texts.

“We’ll find people actively walking to the car before it parks because it’s all been set up ahead of time and everyone is more mobile,” Graham said.

They also prefer places that are easy to blend into, allowing the dealer and customers to be “openly covert,” Graham said.

“They go to a crowded area where they can blend in and where it’s normal for people to be in a vehicle for a short amount of time,” he said.

Remember that dealer who got busted at the Goodwill? Police say that in addition to operating out of her home in a quiet family-friendly Northwest neighborhood in Gresham, she worked a circuit.

From her home in the 700 block of Northwest Angeline Avenue, she’d go to Gresham Station Shopping Center, Gresham Town Faire Shopping Center and the Safeway in Hood Center. Sometimes she’d swing by the Goodwill before returning home.

With so many people coming and going at shopping centers, running into a store for quick drug deal or getting into and out of a car after just a few minutes doesn’t attract a lot of attention, Graham said.

The changing demographics of heroin addicts also enable both buyer and seller to blend in, he added.

Forget the image of a skinny strung-out junkie shooting up in a flophouse: Today’s heroin users maintain the appearance of a normal life. They drive nice cars and buy a bindle every day after work. Otherwise, they’ll get sick.

“I am seeing more people in their young 20s addicted to heroin than I’ve ever seen on my 25 years in law enforcement,” he said.

He recognizes some from outreach efforts made at local high schools after the 2009 overdose death of 18-year-old Rachel Daggett, who was a senior at Sam Barlow High School.

“… It’s hitting the working-class folks and these young, just-getting-out-of-high-school kids,” Graham said. “They don’t look the part of an addict.”

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