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The fire inside: Manatee County finds itself at the epicenter of a heroin epidemic

BRADENTON — He hadn't heard from her in hours, which was unusual. Even if she was upset, even if she was high, Angel never ignored a text message.

His last one to her lingered.

Baby, I know you're probably busy, John Blodgett wrote. But I was just letting you know I was thinking about you.

He had tried calling. No answer. He had sent her a Facebook message. No response. He had phoned the Taco Bell where she worked. She had been a no-show that day.

Blodgett knew about his girlfriend's addiction to heroin. He knew about the needles the skinny blond 22-year-old hid in her purse and the secret phone calls to shady friends. But as his mind inched toward what he feared most, he tried to discount the other possibilities.

He had called the jail. She hadn't been arrested. He had called Manatee Memorial Hospital. She wasn't listed as a patient.

He rode to her house, his heart racing. It was hot that early morning, with a black sky and sticky air. He pounded on the front door. Silence.

He moved to the back yard. Her bedroom window was open. The blinds were up. He peered in.

She was sitting on the bed, bent forward, clad in a pink bra, her legs tucked beneath her.

A melted red popsicle coated her right hand. A baby's blanket was draped on the back of her neck.

In the dim light, she stared ahead with wide, empty eyes.

It was Thursday July 16, 2015, halfway through the deadliest month, halfway through the deadliest year, and in the middle of the deadliest place for people like her.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

John Blodgett, who was dating Angelina Sadorf at the time of her death, becomes emotional while speaking about her in his backyard in Bradenton on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016.

 

•  •  •

 

They died at home under bedsheets. They died in front of their kids. They died down the hall from their parents. They died in the living rooms of friends. They died on the grass in back yards. They died in roadside ditches. They died behind the locked stalls in public restrooms.

They were as old as 60 and as young as 16. Some had tried to get help. Some had come close to death mere days before heroin claimed their life.

The place wasn't some inner-city slum or even a place of extreme heroin use. It was Manatee County, a citrus-scented stretch of coastal Florida at the southern end of the mouth of Tampa Bay. It is a place where urban institutions quickly fade to strip malls and well-manicured shopping centers, planned communities and startup churches. It is a place where many people come to retire, and where many more take a rest on the way to somewhere else. It is bisected north to south by Interstate 75 and from east to west by the swelling Manatee River, which runs along the north side of Bradenton, its largest city, stretching like a wide blue carpet toward the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2015, Manatee County had more heroin overdoses than any other county in the Sunshine State.

Deaths surged in the summer. Newspapers ran almost daily stories about the latest overdoses and the struggle of law enforcement, paramedics and treatment specialists to stem the scourge.

Officials in the county of more than 340,000, began to use words like "crisis" and "epidemic." An Internet meme dubbed "A Painfully Honest Map of Florida" circulated via Facebook, labeling the Bradenton area as "Old People and Heroin."

Why here? Why Manatee County?

The answer would bedevil the local cops, who set out long before the crisis reached its peak to find out about a batch of drugs that addicts were calling "the fire."

It would haunt the people who called 911 when their friends overdosed, who tried to pay for treatment when someone they knew needed help, who were left with shame and overwhelming guilt after they died.

It would hound users like Angelina Sadorf — a daughter, a friend, an addict.

 

•  •  •

 

Her family called her "Bean" or "Beanie" because she was always thin, like a beanpole. Sometimes they called her "Lina," or "Sweet Pea." To friends, she was Angel.

She liked rainbows, the way they looked and what they represented — love, freedom.

She smoked Marlboro cigarettes. She listened to headphones that streamed rap, hardcore alternative, country. She liked animated films like Despicable Me. She craved sweets and binged on Little Debbie pastries. She dyed her hair wild colors — red, blue, pink.

She flashed peace signs and broad smiles, as if to say "look at me."

She sang her own songs, wrote her own poetry. She went to a private school, Manatee School for the Arts. She was a dancer, twirling through lessons in ballet and hip-hop.

If you asked Angel where she saw herself years from now, she probably wouldn't have known what to say. One thing, though, she told everyone: She wanted a family. She wanted kids. She wanted a loving spouse.

She grew up in Bradenton with her mom, Antje Dechert, and spent summers in Wisconsin with her father and stepsiblings. Her father was a military man who met her mom while stationed in Germany. They divorced early.

So Dechert raised her daughter mostly on her own, until she got remarried, to Gary Roberts. Though Angel hadn't grown up with him, theirs was a unique bond. In him, she had someone in whom she could confide, even the most personal of troubles and worries.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Gary Roberts, stepfather of Angelina Sadorf, holds a picture of Sadorf at the home he shares with her mother, Antje Dechert, in Palmetto on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.

Angel had many of those. People who knew her best said they started when she was in high school.

It was a time when a lot of kids drank or smoked pot. Angel was among them, said her friend Lauren Spencer. And those dalliances led to other things.

"Everybody, especially from the school that I went to, we were like the creative kids — people who had something about them that they didn't know how to cope with," Spencer said. "Unfortunately with all the pill mills going and whatnot, pharmaceuticals were really big here, and that's where it all started."

Angel's teen years were punctuated by arguments with her mother, loud fights, holes punched in walls. Like a lot of teens, she wanted more independence. Like a lot of teens, she was rebellious.

"I thought maybe she was bipolar or something," Dechert said. "She was always pretending to be happy. She had been to doctors, and she would convince them there was nothing wrong."

Once, Dechert got a call from her daughter's school. They told her she had been caught with prescription pills.

Dechert tried to punish her. But her lectures went unheeded.

"If I grounded her, she would just sneak out the window," Dechert said. "She was always moving. Could never sit still."

When she was 17, Angel was arrested for shoplifting from Walmart. The case was sent to teen court.

Her mother watched as she stood before a judge and said she regretted her mistake. She said she was sorry.

They walked out of the courtroom. In the hallway, Dechert said, Angel laughed it off.

 

•  •  •

 

The pill mills in Manatee County represented Florida's glide down from the peak of another crisis, prescription drugs. Florida had more pill mills than any other state. In 2011, newly elected Attorney General Pam Bondi helped lead the charge to establish a statewide prescription drug monitoring database. She also lobbied legislators for more tools to go after those who overprescribed certain narcotics.

Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that did all that. And it worked.

In 2012 the state reported a sharp decline in the number of deaths from drugs such as oxycodone. But there were signs a new problem was emerging.

In an October news conference that year, Gerald Bailey, then-commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said there was anecdotal evidence that addicts blocked from oxycodone were turning to other drugs.

In Medical Examiner District 12, which covers Manatee and Sarasota counties, there were just two deaths from heroin in 2011. In 2012, there were seven. In 2013, there were 19. In 2014, there were 55.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Michael Dingman holds a needle in one hand and a cigarette in the other while talking on the phone with a love interest shortly before injecting heroin at a Bradenton residence. He says he stopped helping other people inject themselves when heroin laced with fentanyl showed up in Manatee County. “I couldn’t be the one to shoot up someone and they die,” he says.

•  •  •

Winter

Kristen Robinson, 30, still had a needle stuck in the crook of her elbow Jan. 6, 2015, when her daughter came home from school.

Aaron Diveley, 27, checked into a hotel Jan. 16 near the banks of the Manatee River. Hotel security found him the next day in his room, kneeling unconscious beside the bed.

A maintenance worker found David Carmichael, 21, passed out inside a locked bathroom Feb. 4 at an apartment complex swimming pool. A syringe lay under him.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Michael Dingman, 28, holds a needle shortly before injecting himself with heroin. Dingman injects multiple times per day, becoming very ill without it. He says he would seek treatment if it was more easily accessible, but that he has been on waiting lists at multiple programs for more than a year.

 

•  •  •

 

That winter, Angel and John Blodgett began dating, though they had known each other for years. He was older, 25, a brawny guy, hard-working, who made his way in heavy labor jobs and at Taco Bell. Angel had worked at Taco Bell since high school. He was an assistant manager. She was a shift leader.

He liked the way she talked to people, as though everyone was her friend.

She liked him because he made her feel respected. And loved.

Blodgett didn't ignore her frequent trips to the bathroom while she was behind the counter. He knew she smoked K-2, a brand of synthetic marijuana. He wasn't naive about her drug use.

But she was good at what she did — so good, customers at the Taco Bell drive-through would give her tips. Once, someone gave her $50.

"She was a functional addict," he said.

And he wasn't blind to the strain it put on their relationship. He loved her despite it.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

John Blodgett, who was dating Angelina Sadorf at the time of her death, displays a photo of them together on his cell phone in his backyard in Bradenton.

 

•  •  •

 

Blodgett never knew who sold Angel her drugs. But he knew the names she saved in her phone.

Kid 1

Uncle Sam

Kid 2

A network of dealers were at her service any time she needed them. He picked up her phone and could see whom she had been calling. He deleted all the numbers.

But somehow, she always found a way.

In Manatee County, it's not hard. Talk to people and they can tell you where to go, whom to ask. It can be as easy as picking up a phone and dialing a number for a guy you know as C.J. He tells you to drive to a residential neighborhood west of 14th Street, in the heart of Bradenton. You park on a road with houses on one side and power lines and an apartment building on the other. You sit for an hour.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Fourteenth Street in Bradenton is notorious for heroin deals, embodying the seedy underbelly that plagues Bradenton.

A maroon Infiniti SUV pulls up next to you. Your phone buzzes. C.J. tells you to get in the SUV. You get out of your car and move into the Infiniti's back seat, behind the driver.

You ask the driver for "Sixty."

In the front console, lying in the cup holders, you see three sandwich bags. In them are dozens of smaller plastic bags, each no bigger than a quarter, filled with brown powder.

You hand C.J. $60. He hands you three small bags. You get out, back in your car and drive away.

It happened like that seven times — near churches, near schools, in the parking lot of a chiropractor's office — between October and December 2014.

The buyers were sheriff's deputies, working undercover.

C.J., the deputies said, was Cedric Houston.

Houston has been arrested more than 30 times. Three of those arrests, for selling cocaine, got him sent to prison.

Bradenton is his hometown. And it is where he returned after his last prison stint ended in 2011. In the years since, his Twitter page, under the moniker "Dahma Real," has been sprinkled with photos of piles of cash — $10s, $20s, $100s.

Houston also apparently has acquired more than one home. Law enforcement records list him as living at addresses in Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch, Ruskin and St. Petersburg.

In a recent interview, Houston professed his innocence. He admitted he has sold drugs in the past. Still, he said, cops have trumped up the case against him.

"I'm just a petty hustler," he said.

GRANT JEFFERIES | Bradenton Herald

Cedric Houston, the “No. 1 guy” responsible for the county’s heroin nightmare according to the Manatee County sheriff, waits for a January court appearance on a trafficking charge.


•  •  •

 

The cameras on the ceiling saw everything. Angel worked the drive-through, ringing up orders and then palming the customers' cash — $105.99 over three days. Her hands danced across a computer screen, marking each order as a free promotion. She slipped the money in her pocket.

Her manager, Jessica Duffany, confronted her. Duffany told Angel she was fired. Manatee County sheriff's deputies arrived and took Angel away in handcuffs.

"We believe this has been going on for quite some time," Duffany wrote in an affidavit.

Angel got out on bail, with orders to appear in court the following month.

Blodgett had sensed that Angel would find herself in trouble.

When she had come to work and hung up her purse, he had dug through it. Inside, he had found needles and empty plastic bags.

Once, he found a bag of brown powder. At home, he put it down in front of her.

"Yeah," she said. "I've been using. I've been relapsing."

"What are you doing?" he said. "Come on, you told me you would stop."

But he knew it wasn't that easy.

Blodgett knew she had withdrawals when she didn't use — aches, chills, queasiness. He knew the intense cravings for the drugs that made it all better.

In Angel, he saw the same things he had seen in his mom, and in himself. When he was 16, his mom had died from complications of prescription opioid abuse. The same year, his father had threatened to kick him out of the house if he didn't get his addiction under control.

Blodgett took Angel fishing. He took her to the movies. Anything to stop her from idling.

She changed. She hid her drug use better.

Later, he checked her purse again. He felt a tampon container. It didn't feel right. He opened it. Inside was a syringe.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Michael Dingman will inject the heroin in this spoon. Dingman injects himself multiple times per day, partly to avoid getting ill from withdrawal. 

 

•  •  •

 

Spring

Laura Hall's boyfriend found her at 3:30 a.m. March 5 lying on the floor beside a motel bed in Palmetto. It was the 21-year-old's third overdose in a week. Paramedics couldn't revive her.

Later that morning, a man found Kyrston Rodriguez, 31, lying in the back yard of his home, next door to her friend's house.

A man walking through the parking lot of an east Bradenton strip mall March 17 found Sandra Parsons, 25, in the driver's seat of a running Honda Civic. She had recently received treatment for addiction.

 

•  •  •

 

For every person who died from heroin in 2015, at least 10 others came close but lived. Paramedics measure the extent of Manatee County's heroin crisis in medicine. Specifically, a drug called naloxone.

Sold under the brand name Narcan, it lassoes overdose patients on the brink of death and wrenches them instantly from unconsciousness.

In the first six months of 2015, Manatee County Emergency Medical Services administered 659 doses of Narcan. Compare that to the total for 2014, which was 700. And the total for 2013, which was 300.

There is a story Gary Masengale tells about a woman who had passed out inside a Bradenton house. Masengale, a paramedic with Manatee County EMS, and another paramedic showed up in an ambulance. The woman had overdosed on heroin, her husband said. They loaded her on a gurney and hauled her off to Manatee Memorial Hospital.

They had just finished the paperwork at the nurse's station when a second call crackled over the radio. Another overdose. At the same address.

They drove back to the house, where the husband lay on the floor unconscious, not breathing. A friend looked on as he, too, got hauled away.

Masengale gave the friend a warning: Don't take anything after we leave. Because now there's no one left to call for help.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Manatee County EMS paramedic Gary Masengale says: "There for a time we were running five or six or seven overdose calls a day, sometimes for the same person twice in one day."

"It boggles the mind," Masengale said. "These are people who have had friends die, who know exactly what the side effects of this drug are. … And yet that high still beckons."

There was Michael Dingman, who put so many needles in his arms that he had to have them stitched up. Days later, the stitches came undone, and the wounds became infected.

"I didn't use today," Dingman said, sitting shirtless on the steps outside his sister's apartment. Tiny black dots line the skin of his forearms and the backs of his hands like planted seeds. Swollen blue veins flow up and disappear beneath a tattoo of praying hands and a rosary.

"I know you used something," paramedic Ruth Ann Unruh said, "because your pupils are tiny and it's dark outside."

Dingman, 28, said he has tried to get clean a few times. It was easy, he said, like riding out the flu.

The hard part, he said, is staying clean.

"I'd be in the methadone clinic right now," he said. "But I don't have the $86 or $84 or whatever it is to pay every day."

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Dingman stares at a kit of paraphernalia in anticipation of his nightly heroin injection in Bradenton. On this night, Dingman grew increasingly sick while waiting for a late dealer to show up. 

 

•  •  •

 

Angel lay curled on a bed in a small room at Manatee Memorial. It was June 15.

Her stomach hurt. She couldn't eat. She had been tired for days. When she looked in the mirror, the white part of her eyes showed a pale yellow.

She was diagnosed with hepatitis C.

She called her stepfather and asked him to come see her.

"I didn't call anyone but you," she texted him later. "I'm a little afraid to say anything to anyone :\ this might be a really serious thing. i mean it is really serious already but it might be lifetime serious."

Gary Roberts drove to the hospital that afternoon.

"I'm really scared," Angel said. "This stuff really has a hold of me, and I can't get rid of it."

The next day, Roberts phoned three rehab facilities. All had wait lists for patients.

 

 

The problems that Angel and Michael encountered in seeking help are common. For many, the cost of treatment — an average of $4,700 per patient per year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says — outweighs the financial cost of buying drugs.

In Florida, even if addicts want to get treatment, their options are slim. In 2012, the state ranked 49th in the nation in funding for substance abuse and mental health programs, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation says.

Bondi has said she knew the state's efforts to crack down on pills mills would have unintended consequences. Some specific efforts were made to help people, such as pregnant moms, with addiction. But the Legislature made no widespread changes in state funding for drug treatment.

"There was no concerted effort by the leadership to ensure that comprehensive substance abuse treatment programs were put in place statewide," said Claude Shipley, who ran the state's Office of Drug Control before Gov. Scott shut it down in 2011.

 

•  •  •

 

Blodgett pulled strings at the Taco Bell restaurant where he worked to have Angel hired as a crew member. He knew he needed to keep her busy. Idleness would lead her to use again.

He took her to movies. He took her fishing at Wares Creek.

She signed up for counseling at Centerstone Hospital in Bradenton. She started taking suboxone to ease cravings. Friends drove her to Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Things got better.

Angel gained weight. Her once pale skin was flush with color. Where she once shunned her family, she now dropped by their house in Palmetto when she wasn't working. She spent the Fourth of July with them.

She ate dinner with Blodgett almost every night. He watched her down triple-bacon cheeseburgers and steak dinners. More than once, she caught him staring at her while she ate.

"What are you looking at?" she asked.

"I'm just admiring you."

 

•  •  •

 

Cops followed Cedric Houston, making notes. They monitored his posts on social media.

There were tweets about hanging out with his children; he has four. There were words of praise for the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. There were videos of him dining with his daughters in a restaurant.

One tweet included an image of a bright yellow cross and the words "Without Christ, I am nothing."

"No lie!" he wrote.

In another, he posted an image of what must have been thousands of dollars in $20s, all rolled up and packed inside plastic bags.

"Blow money," he called it.

The cops asked a Hillsborough County judge for permission to tap two cellphones Houston carried.

One day they heard him talking to a man named Cody Lambert.

Lambert asked for 7 grams.

"The same thing as last time," he said, according to a police report. "Whatever, a stack."

It would cost $1,150, Houston said.

The cops watched the two convene in the parking lot of a chiropractor's office. When Lambert departed, they followed his white Ford Explorer. They stopped him on Interstate 75.

A police dog sniffed the outside of the car and gave a handler a signal that drugs were inside. Lambert admitted he had drugs in his underwear.

"Suspected heroin," the police report said.

In court, a judge heard details of undercover buys and issued a warrant. A week later, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies went to Houston's house in Ruskin. He was arrested.

After that, a funny thing happened. Drug Enforcement Administration agents shipped the drugs to a lab in Miami, where they underwent chemical testing. The results showed that what Lambert had in his underwear wasn't heroin at all.

It measured as 6.8 grams, a report stated, of acetylfentanyl.

That's a form of fentanyl, a common painkiller. Doctors give it to people in advanced stages of cancer whose pain is so severe that regular pain medications are ineffective. It is 50 times more potent than heroin. It is 100 times more potent than morphine.

It's common for drug traffickers to cut heroin with other substances. That increases the volume of the supply, thus increasing dealer profits.

Drug epidemiologists point to Mexican cartels, which started adding the painkiller to their drug shipments in response to increasing demand in the United States.

People addicted to prescription drugs had built up a tolerance to opiates. They needed something more to boost them above the point where heroin alone could push them.

Fentanyl was the answer.

Cops, paramedics and treatment specialists say they have heard of addicts who seek fentanyl-laced heroin specifically, wanting to experience the most extreme high they can find.

"The good stuff," they call it. "The fire."

 

 

Summer

An off-duty sheriff's deputy found Cody Burke, 20, lying on the side of a Palmetto road June 1. His pockets were inside out.

Ezra Hammond's roommate found the 32-year-old lying in bed June 5. Hammond didn't wake up.

Wesley Johnson, 35, had overdosed twice in June, once outside a gas station, again at a bus station. On June 30, his father found him on the floor beside his bed.

 

•  •  •

 

Word got around. People knew about fentanyl, even if they didn't know what it was.

Michael Dingman knew. He had heard from other users about a particular batch of heroin, one they said was cut with something else, one they said was killing people.

It was part of why he stopped helping people inject themselves, Dingman said.

"If something happened, I couldn't have that on my conscience," he said. "I couldn't be the one to shoot someone up and they die."

Some said you could tell by the high. Plain heroin induced a warm rush; the new stuff put you to sleep.

"It's garbage," Dingman said. "It's not something anybody wants."

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Dingman holds a needle in anticipation of his nightly heroin injection in Bradenton.

 

•  •  •

 

Blodgett noticed it at work. Angel would show up a half-hour early, sit in her car for an hour, then stroll inside a half-hour after the beginning of her shift.

He tried to plan an intervention. He phoned her friends. He didn't know when it might happen.

Outside work, the couple fought. He told her he was moving out, that distance would be best for both of them. But he demanded that she get clean.

He went to fish the river that Wednesday, July 15. Angel had to work the night shift. She wanted him to come see her.

She called him a few minutes before 5 p.m. He listened to her.

"I gotta go now," he said. "I'll see you tonight. Go to work. I gave you money this morning for a cab. I'll come stay the night with you tonight. I'll see you after work. I love you."

That was the night Blodgett couldn't reach her. He crawled in her window and saw that her skin was purple. He fumbled with his phone and dialed 911.

It was after 2 a.m. when Gary Roberts, Angel's stepfather, heard his phone buzz. He and Angel's mother, Antje Dechert, stirred awake in bed.

It was Matt Hartwig, Angel's roommate.

"We'll be right there," Roberts said when Hartwig told him the news.

He sat up, groggy and disoriented. He told Dechert that Angel had overdosed. They started to get up. Then Roberts paused.

He called back.

"Do you mean she OD'd and she's at the hospital?" he asked. "Or she OD'd and she's gone?"

She OD'd and she's gone.

In their bedroom, Roberts and Dechert embraced. The tears came. Dechert screamed.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Angelina Sadorf's mother and stepfather, Antje Dechert and Gary Roberts, mourn their daughter's death. "Sometimes you just would like to go to bed, shut the door and just sleep as long as you can, hoping that it'd go away, but it's always there."

 

•  •  •

 

After

Less than a week later, Blodgett's friend Kevin Rodriguez, 25, died in bed with a spoon and a syringe nearby. The friends had planned to go fishing that day.

"He told me he wasn't using," Blodgett said. "I lost another one."

There were more. Two people strolling past a vacant lot found Vincent Carpenter, 60, sitting motionless against a fence post. A syringe lay near his legs.

A security officer found Danell New, 44, clad in pajamas in a hotel bed July 26. A puncture wound marked her arm.

More than 15 people died in July, the deadliest month.

Before summer ended, the overdose death toll would surpass 50.By year's end, it would close in on 100.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

John Blodgett sits in his backyard in Bradenton on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. Blodgett found Sadorf's body after she overdosed on July 16, 2015. "It's like I can almost hear her voice and see her face."

 

•  •  •

 

In August, they gathered, Blodgett, Dechert and Roberts, at the fishing pier at the base of the green bridge in Palmetto. There were others, scores of them, who gathered, too.

They donned blue shirts emblazoned with "No Longer Silent," the name of a local group whose aim is to publicize Manatee County's opioid crisis.

After Angel died, her parents tried not to talk about her. When someone mentioned her name, there would be silence. Tears were not far behind.

"I regret that I didn't do more," Roberts said. "If I could've brought her home and locked her in a room until she got clean, I would've done it."

They spent more time at work. Seven-day work weeks meant less time for their minds to wander. But their thoughts always returned to Angel.

"You drive down 14th Street and you see people wigging out," Dechert said. "And you don't know whether to hit them or hug them."

The sky darkened as storm clouds converged. Along the concrete barrier, the crowd placed candles in paper bags with messages scrawled in marker.

Hold Someone Responsible #IHateHeroin.

They marched onward, their numbers growing to hundreds, stretching over the river and doubling back again. They flashed poster board signs at passing drivers on the bridge.

Stop Heroin

Our Town Needs Help

 

•  •  •

 

Cedric Houston bailed out of jail July 8 after posting bonds totaling more than $120,000. He apparently laid low for a few months. But late in 2015, the cops were watching him again.

"The hustle don't stop, bra!" he tweeted Nov. 25.

In early January, he said he was "bout to build an empire!"

On Jan. 20, he stepped out of a Bradenton home carrying a camouflage backpack and got into the passenger side of a red Hyundai. His girlfriend drove. DEA agents and sheriff's deputies followed.

The car stopped, and Houston got out. He got into an Inifiniti SUV and drove through Bradenton.

When they tried to stop him, he ran. Deputies caught him after a short chase. They searched the backpack and his car. They came away with 44 grams of heroin.

 

•  •  •

 

A set of thin scabs marked the underside of Angel's left forearm. The autopsy called them cutting sites. They spelled out two words: "LIVE" and, in larger letters, "DIE."

Searching her room, police found 13 empty plastic bags, a copper scrubber, three prescription pill bottles in other people's names and several bags of synthetic marijuana.

Under her body were a spoon, a piece of cotton and a syringe.

The police and autopsy reports say nothing about where the drugs might have come from. There is no mention that hers was the 46th suspected heroin overdose in Manatee County that year.

But if you study them, there are things that stand out.

Namely: It wasn't heroin that killed Angelina Sadorf.

If pills nudged addicts to heroin, then heroin catapulted them to fentanyl. In Manatee County, fentanyl turned up regularly in toxicology tests of the blood and bodily tissues of those who died. In many cases, heroin was detected, too.

But some had no heroin in them at all. Angelina Sadorf was one of at least 10 people in Manatee County whose deaths in 2015 were suspected to be heroin overdoses but for whom the only drug detected in them was fentanyl.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

John Blodgett, who dated Sadorf before her death, displays a photo of her on his cell phone.

 

•  •  •

 

In February, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube called a news conference. Beside him stood his narcotics detectives, Bradenton police, DEA agents and Bondi.

They named 15 people, all accused of trafficking heroin or other drugs, and said those people were largely responsible for the county's heroin crisis.

"Our No. 1 guy was Cedric Houston," Steube said.

Houston sold to people, but he also tried to manipulate the merchandise, the sheriff said. They believe he added the fentanyl himself.

"He played both roles," said Derek Pollock, a task force officer with the DEA in Tampa. "He was a street dealer, dealing heroin to users, but he was also a middleman, obtaining large amounts of heroin from other sources of supply."

"(It was) his fentanyl," Steube said.

Also named were Cody Lambert, Brentton Edwards Woods and Robert Haynes, all associates of Houston's, detectives said. And there was Adrian Celestino, a Mexican citizen, whom agents suspect was responsible for directly importing heroin into the country. He is facing deportation.

Their arrests, Steube said, correlated with a decline in overdose deaths. Since the beginning of the year, he said, no one had died.

The crisis, he said, was over.

 

•  •  •

 

"To me, personally, I don't know why people are dying," Houston said during an interview from jail. Clad in a blue uniform, he spoke into a black telephone attached to a video screen and proclaimed his innocence. The cops unfairly targeted him, he said, and illegally searched his property.

Asked if he ever worries about his kids using drugs, Houston turned defensive.

"These people are grown," he said. "They party because they want to party. No one got into drugs because of me."

The cops blamed him, he said, because they heard him threatening to sue.

"I don't know nothing about no fentanyl," he said.

Plenty of people can testify to his good character, Houston said. Plenty of drug users, he said, can talk about how he tried to help them when no one else cared.

 

•  •  •

 

Angel and the other overdose victims had varied histories of substance abuse. Many had taken prescription drugs for chronic pain. Often, cocaine and alcohol worked in tandem with heroin to induce death. What makes fentanyl different is that there is no way, short of a chemical test, to tell if a batch of heroin is cut with it.

Either way, almost none of the victims died of heroin alone.

Manatee County doesn't have just a heroin problem. Manatee County — much like the rest of Florida, much like the rest of America — has an addiction problem.

•  •  •

Michael Dingman slumps in a sofa chair, sweating, his hands shaking.

He is anxious, he says. And irritated. It is a Thursday night at the end of February.

He hasn't shot up since the morning. A dealer will come soon, pulling up on the quiet, darkened street outside to deliver bags to his sister.

Dingman rests a minute, then gets up and pulls something out of a backpack. He retreats to the alcove behind the living room area of the mobile home.

"I (heart) drugs," is written on the side of a silver kit. "18+ Stay Out."

He pulls out a syringe, takes the orange cap off the tiny needle and rolls the plastic between his fingers.

 

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Michael Dingman, 28, prepares paraphernalia in anticipation of his nightly heroin injection in Bradenton on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016. 

"I like the short ones," he says.

Dim yellow light from a naked bulb casts long shadows under his droopy eyes.

Soon the dealer pulls up. Dingman's sister walks outside. When she comes back, she has a bunch of small bags of cream-colored powder. Dingman follows her to the bedroom, kit in hand.

The door closes.

About this story

This story is based on Bradenton police and Manatee County sheriff's records; Manatee County circuit court records; case summaries and overdose data from the District 12 Medical Examiner's Office; posts Cedric Houston made on social media and two interviews he gave after his January arrest; posts on the Facebook page for the anti-drug group No Longer Silent; and interviews with Michael Dingman, Angelina Sadorf's parents and friends, paramedics, law enforcement officials, Dr. Russell Vega, a treatment specialist, and a drug epidemiologist.

The fire inside: Manatee County finds itself at the epicenter of a heroin epidemic 03/30/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2016 11:36am]
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