Valley's heroin comes from Mexico, South America and Southwest Asia

By Joe Gorman


In the drug trade, it’s all about trends.

In the 1960s and ’70s, it was marijuana and LSD.

In the 1980s, it was cocaine — first powder, then crack cocaine.

The ’90s and the opening of the 21st century spawned the methamphetamine craze.

In the past few years, however, police and social workers say the hip drug is heroin, which has been the narcotic of choice for years but has become especially popular in the past six or seven years in the Mahoning Valley.

Bob Bolzano, agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration office that investigates drug cases in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, says heroin that makes it to our area comes from three main locations: Mexico, South America and Southwest Asia.

In the mid-1980s, Southeast Asia was also a large supplier of heroin, but that supply in the United States and locally has almost dried up completely because of competition from Mexican and South American suppliers.

Heroin from Southwest Asia, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, while not as prevalent, can still be found locally, Bolzano said.

Bolzano has been in the DEA since 1991 and came here after a 14-year stint in Miami. He said he is as busy here as he was in Miami, but he termed it a different kind of busy.

In Miami, he said most of his time was spent on cases that focused on the city’s hub as a major drug- distribution center and trying to intercept drug shipments from South America. Here, he said, the problem switches to one that is the destination of drugs that come into the country.

“This area has more an end-user problem than a supply problem,” Bolzano said.

Youngstown Police Chief Rod Foley said the rise in heroin use has changed the way his department investigates drug crimes and has also changed operations for officers on the street.

Foley said investigators needed to find new informants who were familiar with heroin and where and how to get it. He also said heroin users, as a rule, tend to start their day in the throes of withdrawal from the last time they took the drug before they went to sleep, which means they are out and about looking for ways to get the drug and use it from the time they get out of bed.

“The people, when they wake up, they tend to start having symptoms of withdrawal and they have to get their fix right away,” Foley said.

Foley said that also changes the dynamics in neighborhoods with drug houses. Primarily once only used at night by cocaine addicts, the houses now often are used around the clock by people getting their morning or first heroin fix of the day.

“It’s basically turned into a 24/7 operation for us,” Foley said.

Foley also said the majority of users come from Youngstown suburbs to buy the drug from dealers in the city.

Lt. Gerald Slattery, head of the police vice squad that handles drug investigations, said lately he’s seen an increase of people from Pennsylvania who come here to buy the drug. He said he could not explain why.

Most of the heroin that reaches the Valley comes from New York City, and from there it is shipped, most often by car, to Michigan and Ohio to be distributed, Bolzano said.

A lot of times it is then shipped to Columbus as a final stop before coming here, Bolzano said, although Lt. Jeff Orr of the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, head of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, which undertakes drug investigations in Trumbull County, said most of the county’s heroin comes from Detroit.

Bolzano said in a large-scale operation this spring in Warren, where almost 100 people were arrested, evidence led to Columbus and allowed police and other agencies there to seize large quantities of the drug and arrest more people.

Bolzano said the availability locally of heroin has also risen, mostly because drug-trafficking organizations are more streamlined and often have a stranglehold on a particular area. Authorities lately have been seizing heroin that is around 90 percent pure, Bolzano said.

Better manufacturing techniques are leading to the purer heroin and more of it, Bolzano said.

To make a dent in the local drug trade, Bolzano said a police operation has to take out not only the dealers at the bottom, but the people at the top, which is what they aimed for in the Warren investigation.

Youngstown Police Patrolman Chad Zubal has been on the force for 12 years. He said he has seen an increase in heroin on the street in recent years.

Zubal said he worked a short stint on the vice squad in 2005 and heroin use was not a big problem. When he returned to the squad in 2008, it was a major problem.

Zubal said there is a difference in dealing with a heroin addict versus one addicted to a different drug.

“They’re very desperate,” Zubal said.

A majority of the heroin addicts he deals with are from the suburbs, Zubal added. Last week, Zubal had two arrests in which people struggled with police officers and said they were opiate addicts.

Zubal said one man “was so scared of going through heroin withdrawals in the jail he was running away in handcuffs.”

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.