The War at Home: Fighting the Rise of Fentanyl, America's Deadliest Drug

Jon DeLena, the DEA's top agent in New England. Credit: Benjamin Lowy

It’s one of the more dependable maxims of Dope World: Cocaine money’s cautious, heroin money’s clueless. If you break down the door of a typical cocaine broker—usually a former gangster who’s quit the streets and now middlemans sales of kilos to multiple gangs—you will find neither coke nor cash at his house. Both are off-site—the drugs at his stash house, the cash at his count house—and the only evidence you’re likely to seize is on password-protected iPads and cell phones. Now break down the door of a typical heroin broker, usually an unbathed junkie who, deep in his addiction, has lost all capacity for guile. You’ll find knots of money, secured by rubber bands, in sock drawers, cabinets, and lawn-and-leaf bags, begging to be swiped by armed intruders.

You’ll find dope on the counter in hard-packed “fingers”: 10 gram units, about the size of a man’s pinkie, in sleeves of green waxed paper. And you’ll always—always—find boxes of Air Jordans, stacked up floor to ceiling. “These people are too dumb to launder their cash, so they invest it in sneakers,” says Jon DeLena, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s top agent in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine. “For them, they’re like T-bills—if they knew what T-bills were, or what the inside of a bank looks like.”

I’m parked with DeLena in an unmarked truck on the west side of Manchester, New Hampshire. He gestures in the direction of a clapboard Cape with security cameras mounted above its porch. Two years ago, he tells me, that house was the launch point for a mission that brought down dope mills in three cities. In the course of the operation, DeLena’s agents made seven arrests and seized 27 kilograms of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is 40 times stronger than smack. New Hampshire has been decimated by overdose deaths: Almost 500 residents were killed last year, in a state of barely more than one million.

DeLena, who’s 47, was raised an hour away, in a bare-knuckle suburb of Boston called Revere. He’s worked narcotics since he graduated college, building a dazzling record of arrests and seizures, mostly in south Florida, where he moved in the ’90s. Two years ago, he came back to New England with two Sisyphean tasks: to try to break the back of the fentanyl trade and to stem the massive die-off here.

Soon afterward, he caught wind of a doper named Jeannette Hardy—the former tenant of the clapboard house that stands before us. Hardy, an out-of-work stripper and fentanyl addict who was moving major weight from her apartment, came to his attention in telling fashion: She called the cops on herself after getting shot. “We’re talking felony-level stupid,” says DeLena, shaking his head. “Some gangster tried to break into her place, and when she fought back, he shot her in the hand.”

Officers responding to her 911 call were stunned by the size of her operation: Hardy was selling five kilos a week, making her the biggest broker in town. DeLena, the rare Fed who cultivates cops and state troopers, got a call from Manchester’s police chief, Nick Willard, asking for his help in growing the case. “We’ve got the second-worst death toll of any town in America”—more than 100 people last year, says Willard. “But we’re a city of users, not suppliers.” He needed DeLena to go after the sources: “They all live outside our city limits.”

That’s a remarkable thing to hear from a department boss. For decades, dealings between federal and city drug cops have been fraught with mutual suspicion. Narcotics squads resented the DEA’s penchant for swooping down to seize their biggest cases, while the Feds, with their elite training and worldwide mandate, saw narcs as second-raters in three-day stubble. But that was before opioids swamped America, particularly its enclaves of working-class whites in former factory towns and cities. Since the start of this decade, such places have been the explicit target of foreign cartels that make and ship heroin and fentanyl here. That is no accident: It is the product of market research by the most prolific drug trafficker of this or any age: Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo. “He studied us and saw we don’t like coke or speed but do like our pills and beer,” says DeLena. “Our people work long shifts, we’re on our feet all day. Friday night, out comes the OxyContin.”

Though Chapo was arrested in 2016 and will stand trial for narco-trafficking in New York next year, his products—cheap, potent heroin and its lab-made cousin, fentanyl— pour into this country by the metric ton. More lethal than any narcotic that has hit our streets, the heroin-fentanyl monster has killed tens of thousands of people since Chapo began shipping it in the early 2000s. Of the 480 drug-related deaths in New Hampshire last year, roughly 430 were opioid-caused, a threefold increase in just three years.

When DeLena got Willard’s call about the Hardy bust, he sent every agent from his Bedford office to drive the case forward at warp speed; if news of her shooting made the morning papers, he’d lose his chance to knock down her suppliers. Hardy, at the hospital, gave the name of her source; agents listened as she placed a re-up order. Hours later, agents arrested the source’s runner and flipped him for the address of Hardy’s supplier. Both the supplier and his source, a thug named José Casellas, lived across the state line, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. For any other squad, that would have stopped things cold; neither state nor local cops can cross jurisdictions. “But we’re the DEA: We go where the drugs go, and we don’t stop till we put our target down,” says DeLena. He recruited cops from four Massachusetts towns to help him find Casellas and his mills. By the end of the second day, “we had a buy into Casellas and sent 15 guys in armor to smash his door.” They arrested Casellas, an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic with a long sheet of priors and a previous deportation. By day three, they’d located his work house in Lawrence, where they found 26 kilos of fentanyl— enough to kill each addict in New England.

Within 72 hours of Hardy’s hand wound, DeLena’s men rolled up all seven dopers and set a state record for opioids seized. Most feds would have done a victory dance and embarked on a two-day bender. DeLena, who doesn’t drink, went home and sat up brood- ing; he hasn’t slept a full night since. For the first time, he saw the hard bind he was in: The users were mostly white and lived in towns like his; the sellers were mostly Latino and lived in towns like Lawrence. To build big cases against them, he’d have to arrest and flip his neighbors, or worse, their school-age sons and daughters. In this tale of two cities, everyone would come up losers—except the men counting their billions in Sinaloa.

If you want to understand how America got to this place—an opioid pandemic that’s killing 160 a day and could claim half a million lives over the next 10 years—drive a six-block strip of Merrimack Street, minutes from Manchester’s thriving bistro district. On every corner slouch white girls wearing knapsacks, disheveled and exhausted at 10 a.m. “They start on The Stroll when they turn 18,” says “Jay,” a Manchester vice cop assigned to DeLena’s squad as a task-force officer on loan. (As with all the cops interviewed, Jay works undercover, so can’t be photographed or named here.) Around the office, he’s called “the Whore Whisperer” for his years of flipping hookers to bust their dealers. “They got strung out [in high school], and here they are now, selling blow jobs” for the price of a bag of dope. He nods at a girl in a denim romper who’s sitting on a curb, arms folded. She has the sunken gaze of a lifelong addict; she might be all of 20 years old.

I watch from the back of Jay’s SUV as girls scatter, knowing cops when they see them. A couple of years ago, they were kids attending class and having fun with pharmaceuticals at weekend parties. “Parents leave their Percocets lying around the house,” says DeLena, riding shotgun as we tour the west side. Teens afraid of street drugs swipe a few pills, “thinking no harm, no foul,” he explains. “After all, they were prescribed by a doctor.” They quickly develop a taste for Percs-and-beer, then build a tolerance and bump the dose. When there are no pills left to steal, they canvas the streets, but find the price well beyond their means. Things begin to go missing around the house: mom’s tennis bracelet; dad’s Patriots memorabilia. By that point, the teen has switched from Percs to powder: Fentanyl’s far more potent than pills and, dose for dose, a good deal cheaper. “They tell themselves, ‘I’ll snort but never shoot it,’ ” says DeLena. “That’s the line they swear they won’t cross—but they always end up crossing it. Every time.”

He points across the street to a public park. It’s a block from Central High School, whose football team warms up there and holds scrimmages during the season. Before doing so, however, the players must walk in file, patrolling the grass for used needles. “Christ, does that chap me, that they have to live like this,” he bristles. “We come back in a couple hours, there’ll be junkies booted up here, sacked out beneath those trees.”

It’s not rare to meet a drug cop disgusted by what he sees: All he encounters is human suffering marked down to yard-sale prices. It is rare to meet one as tortured as DeLena. When he took over this bureau in the spring of 2015, he was a bull in full-out charge mode. He pulled 16-hour workdays, waking up at 5 a.m. to pump iron before his agents came to work. Though he’s all of 5'8", you wouldn’t step to him at a bar: He’s got truncheons for forearms and a fire-wire gaze that tells you, in no uncertain terms, to sit back down. “My only focus was that day’s target, then the next one, and the next one,” he says. “Addicts weren’t victims. They were killing themselves—and my job was enforcement, not social work.”

But in the fall of that year, DeLena got word of a case on New Hampshire’s hard-bit coast. A girl named Eve Tarmey was found dead in a motel, an apparent OD. Tarmey was 17 and living at the motel with several adult addicts, including her mom, Jazzmyn Rood, and Rood’s boyfriend, Mark Ross. “We brought Ross in,” says DeLena. “He spilled the whole thing—he’d given Eve the dope she OD’d on.” Ross woke up and found her dead in the bathroom. He put her corpse in the tub and dumped his works in the trash.

The indifference of all concerned to the girl’s life and death made something in DeLena’s head burst. He ordered his team to investigate her passing as a potential murder. There was a clause in the national drug laws—called “death- resulting,” in courthouse shorthand—that he thought could be exploited in her case. “During the crack crisis, Congress added a statute that said if you sell a controlled substance and it causes someone’s death, you face penalties of 20 years to life,” says John Farley, the acting U.S. attorney in the district of New Hampshire. It had seldom been used in the region before, but the timing was ripe to deploy it. “There were hundreds of deaths a year here from fentanyl use,” says Farley. “Given the details of this case—a teenage girl dead and the adults in her life doing nothing to save her—we had a chance to show that we take these deaths seriously.”

With no evidence to hold Ross—he had scrubbed the crime scene—DeLena cut him loose but assigned a tail. Ross drove to Lawrence and copped from the guy who’d sold him the lethal batch. DeLena’s men busted him seconds after the buy; when Eve Tarmey’s bloodwork came back positive for fentanyl, Ross and a friend who had helped score the drugs were charged with causing her death. Farley’s office, which filed the charges, extracted a plea from both defendants. Ross got 20 years; his associate got five. Only Eve’s mother got off lightly: Having been elsewhere at the time her daughter snorted the fatal dose, Rood took a year in state prison for concealing a crime. At sentencing, the courthouse teemed with reporters covering this new front in the war on drugs.

DeLena had delivered a message: If you sell dope here and the user dies, we will pursue you for murder. He set out to train all first-response workers—cops, firemen, EMTs—to treat an OD as a crime scene. At a packed-house seminar at police headquarters in Con- cord, DeLena and his experts ran through the steps: The syringe is the murder weapon, and the dope is the bullet; handle them as if they were shell casings. Get permission from next of kin to open the victim’s cell phone; the killer’s name and number is in its call log. And videotape everything, interviews included; that way, they’re admissible in court.

For those who couldn’t attend, DeLena filmed the training and began sending it to every department in the state. Even in limited rollout, it’s been wildly productive. “In the last year, we’ve gotten 15 pleas or convictions,” says Ben Agati, assistant attorney general of New Hampshire. He adds that it’s already left a mark on local dealers, some of whom have fled across state lines. In the very near future, that will grant them no quarter: Agati plans to extradite a dealer from Massachusetts to stand trial in New Hampshire for death- resulting. “You’re not safe anymore behind some line on the map,” he says. “We have the jurisdiction to go grab you.”

Twenty-eight miles from Manchester’s limits sits Lawrence. It is the undisputed choke point for opioids in the region: Much of the fentanyl used here is boughtand sold on its streets. A city of about 80,000 people on the banks of the Merrimack River, Lawrence has done a long, slow jackknife from its prewar prime. For more than a century, tanneries hummed on its canals, employing waves of immigrants, skilled and not, to make woolens and leather goods. When demand for those products shrank after World War II, much of the entrenched workforce—Irish and Italian laborers—moved elsewhere. They were replaced first by families from Puerto Rico, and then, in the 1980s, from the Dominican Republic. “As folks here used to say, ‘We went from bar brawls to drive-bys,’ ” says Marty, a DEA agent with a dense Southie accent who drives me through the city’s downtown strip. “There’s no tax base to hire cops: They’ve got three fucking guys here working narcotics.”

Though it’s a little before noon, Lawrence is just waking up. Teens in wifebeaters drowsily man the doorways of bodegas and chicken joints. Marty cruises the side streets of shingled triple-deckers; once single-family houses, they’ve been chopped up inside into mazes of padlocked dope mills. “We punch down the door, we always find the same crap,” he says: a carton of aloe vera leaves “piled yea high,” microwave ovens “burnt out cooking the leaves,” and a Magic Bullet blender to mix down the fentanyl with its cut products, inositol and aloe. But fentanyl is impossible to blend for safety. Granules of pure drug will always poke through—and those are the bits killing addicts.

Marty explains that the Lawrence crews mostly come from Baní, a coastal city in the Dominican southland that sends its young to staff the dope game here. They start at the bottom—first as drones in basement rooms who cook and blend fentanyl all day; then as the runners who ferry the product; and then, if they’re cunning, as dealers themselves. It’s the rare kid from Baní who takes the last step: from dealer to wholesale supplier. “That’s where the money is, moving weight by the kilo,” Marty says. “You go down to the D.R. and drive the coastline there, you’ll see mansion after mansion on the beach.”

The real tycoons, however, are the mass producers—first Chapo and now his successors in Sinaloa. When DeLena launched his surge in the summer of 2015, he aspired to build cases that traced back to those men and empowered him to indict them from afar. “How do you tilt the battlefield? You extradite,” he says. “The only thing they fear more than death itself is spending the rest of their lives in Supermax”—the remote federal prison in central Colorado where kingpins and terrorists are sent. It is, by broad consensus, hell on earth: lockdown isolation in windowless cells and no contact with the world beyond its walls.

In the summer of 2015, DeLena sent his teams south to Lawrence, taking Interstate 93, the “Heroin Highway.” Their orders were to bust everyone they saw buying dope, then flip them for the names of their dealers. The first day, agents arrested 35 people and got many of them to flip on their dealers. They fitted the addicts with wires, then sent them back to the dealers to place their usual orders. After several buys, agents raided the dealers, going in hot in full armor. If the dealer was willing to flip, they’d put him to work, buying from the next guy up the chain. If not, they seized his phones and plugged his call logs into the DEA’s database in D.C.

By the end of that summer, they’d arrested 235 people, including the heads of various drug cells in Lawrence. “Those are the guys calling home to Baní, talking to the command-and-control bosses,” says DeLena. “And the bosses in Baní are talking to Sinaloa, arranging major shipments into Lawrence.” Recording those calls gave DeLena his prize ticket: sufficient grounds to charge foreign kingpins. “We’re at the end of the rainbow with two guys in the D.R.,” he says. That’s half the battle—the other half is jailing their Mexican partners. “When that happens, I promise: The worm’ll turn. They’ll start sending their dope somewhere—anywhere—else.”

In 25 years of law enforcement, DeLena has seen drug plagues come and go. Starting in the early ’90s as a sheriff ’s deputy in Florida, he was tossed, day one, into the crack pandemic, staging buy-and-busts on the anarchic western coast. At 23, he was detailed to Operation Schoolboy, in which he famously impersonated a high school junior to arrest dozens of students using date-rape drugs to sexually assault their girlfriends. That bust was his springboard to the DEA, where he quickly made a name working undercover. Stationed in Broward County during the powdered-cocaine boom, he nailed foreign traffickers in Miami Vice getups for quarter-ton shipments of blow. All told, he was in Florida almost 20 years, busting Colombian coke rings, cruise-ship drug mules, and prescription-pill-mill owners.

DeLena comes honestly by his hatred of drugs; addiction cracked his family down the middle. The second son of a sober Irish mother and a high-times Italian father, DeLena watched his dad deteriorate into a junkie who betrayed, and later abandoned, his wife and kids. The house they shared with his mother’s parents was like something out of O’Neill. The grandfather living above them was a prison guard; DeLena revered him and would sneak upstairs to play with his gun and badge. DeLena also snooped in his father’s things; invariably, he’d find his weed and coke and the Xanax “he gulped like Chiclets.”

Dad left for good when DeLena was 16; the two men haven’t spoken since. Meanwhile, his high school was packed with kids busy making their beds on the wrong side. “You’d see ’em on the corner, selling this, that, the third. I was lost, but at least I knew, fuck it, that ain’t me.” After a year at a local college, he packed everything in his car and drove to Florida. He finished his B.A. there, paid his way to the police academy, and began to climb the ladder in drug enforcement. But he always kept in touch with his friends in Revere, getting updates on the ones who didn’t make it. A couple of ex-classmates overdosed and died; others lost their freedom and/or loved ones to opioid addictions.

And so, when the New Hampshire job opened, he leapt at the chance to go home. He moved his family north and bought a house near Manchester—then struggled to find tradesmen to fix it up. Most of the local painters and plumbers couldn’t keep a staff. “Their workers showed up high or didn’t show at all. The contractors had to do the job themselves.” At the big mall in Nashua, there were signs in every window: help wanted. top dollar paid. This thing, this fentanyl, was everywhere he looked; he couldn’t just jail all the addicts. There had to be a second, soft-power thrust: He’d have to change the culture of the place.

Around the time of Eve Tarmey’s overdose, a death notice ran in the Exeter News-Letter for Adam Moser, age 27. Composed by his parents, Jim and Jeanne Moser, it dispensed with the usual platitudes—“Adam died after a long illness.” Instead, the Mosers wrote, Adam had “left too soon after making a bad decision.” Several sentences on came a direct appeal: “Please stop [drugging] before you or a loved one” dies. “There’s no turning back, no do-overs.”

It was among the first of its kind in New Hampshire papers: the so-called blunt obituary. The Mosers didn’t coin it; Jim had read one months before about a local girl dead of drugs.

But they were determined to tell the truth about their son, who seemed to all who knew him like the last kid on earth who’d succumb to drugs. Adam was a two-sport star in high school and a math whiz in college who could have written his own ticket on Wall Street. Strangely, he chose to work with his hands, as a stonemason and sailor and knockabout tradesman. This baffled his parents, who rode him about it but eventually let the matter go. They decided he’d find his calling in due course.

Their house is on a lush lane in East Kingston, about a half-hour drive from Manchester. Jim, in his 60s, is a hospital technician who assists surgeons in the OR. Jeanne, a slender blonde, is a fund-raising officer at a nearby private school. They take me into their vaulted den, where they’ve set up a shrine to Adam. On the shelving unit where his ashes rest, there are photos and plaques with Adam’s inscriptions, as well as mementos of his passion, deep-sea fishing. “He spent a season on that show Wicked Tuna,” says Jeanne. “It wasn’t the fun he’d hoped for, but he made it into most of the scenes.”

After the taping ended, Adam settled in Portsmouth, where he rented a big house with some friends. One Saturday, the bunch of them were drinking at home when Adam became disoriented and went upstairs. His friends piled out to dinner and came back a couple of hours later, poking in to see how he was feeling. He wasn’t in his room, so they checked around the house. They found him in a spare room, dead for an hour. He’d used fentanyl for the second time in his life.

That night, the Mosers were awakened by a knock from a trooper. They sat there, drop- jawed, as he told them the news; it was the first they’d heard of their son abusing drugs. They knew he’d taken pain pills, because who in this house hadn’t? Each of their four children had played contact sports, and Jim and Jeanne were workout junkies, going till their joints wore out. “The pills were just...around,” Jim says. “But they were meant for pain, prescribed by a doctor. We were just completely ignorant.”

They began to assemble the facts from the texts and mail on Adam’s phone. In high school, pills had been his weekend “hobby”; he sneaked them from the vials of unused Percs his parents kept in the kitchen. By the time he graduated Temple, he was all but addicted to Oxys. Now the Mosers knew why he hadn’t sought a desk job: He’d never have passed a corporate drug test. They also learned why he was always broke: He paid $200 for pills every couple of days. And they found that he’d made a pact with himself: that he’d never stoop to using fentanyl. He died snorting, not shooting, a standard dose.

The Mosers aren’t people who sit still in grief; even loss presents a path forward. Within weeks of the funeral, Jim was at the local high school, asking to address its 1,600 students about the lessons he’d learned from Adam’s death. The principal suggested a short video instead; the Mosers produced a 16-minute film and returned to the school to screen it. Called “Just the One Time,” it honored their son through the haunted recollections of his friends—eight young people who’d loved him deeply but were mostly in the dark about his jones. Naivety is the leitmotif of the film: “We never found out he had a problem,” says Jim, struggling to speak through sobs. “The moment we did, he was dead.”

Their film left a mark on the students who watched it; sobs could be heard throughout the screening. It also caught the attention of the state’s drug czar, James Vara. He invited the Mosers to a task force meeting; among the chiefs attending was Jon DeLena.

When DeLena gave his talk, he said nothing about pills, pounding home the fentanyl scourge instead. Jim Moser was incensed; he cornered him later about the death-link between pills and powder. DeLena apologized, and the two men got to talking. Moser told him about a program he’d just launched, a take-back initiative called Zero Left. For patients sent home with a scrip for pain meds, his hospital provided free, charcoal-filtered bags in which to dump—and deactivate—unused pills. DeLena loved the idea, and invited the Mosers to an upcoming rally for teens. Called the New Hampshire Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness, it would bring together pop stars, athletes, and politicians to address thousands of schoolkids from the state. It was the crowning event of DeLena’s two-year campaign to talk to youths where they were—at high schools and middle schools and Boys & Girls Clubs. If he could just reach them with stories like the Mosers’, show them the face of intolerable loss, then maybe he could keep kids out of their parents’ bathroom, where most of this misery began.

On a raw March weekday in 2017, convoys of school buses file through the gates of Southern New Hampshire University. Eight thousand kids, from all corners of the state, pack the arena to the rafters. A DJ and a rapper hype the house before a procession of officials take the stage. New Hampshire’s Governor Chris Sununu discusses the terrors of opioids; Attorney General Jeff Sessions vows to get the thugs who sell these drugs. By the time DeLena gets up to give his talk, the air has gone out of the room. He does his best to goose it with an urgent plea, asking every kid to join him in this fight, become an army of “upstanders, not bystanders.”

Then the place goes dark and a film comes on about two friends who get hooked on pills. Produced by Jim Wahlberg, the brother of Mark and Donny, If Only depicts the forking roads taken by the teens. The first kid is caught by his eagle-eyed mother and consents to a rehab stay. He gets sober there and resolves to live clean. Just before graduation, he learns that his friend has OD’d and died.

Two things happen next that electrify the room. As credit music rolls, the film shows local parents holding up pictures of their dead children. It’s a shattering tableau: photo after photo of kids in their 20s, ruddy, clear-eyed, alive. Then the lights dim again, and when they come up, more than 100 parents are standing together on stage. They clutch their kids’ photos to their chests; some sob, some rock in place.

Jeanne Moser takes the mike and, in a wobbly voice, says, “For us, that’s no movie: That was real. Each one of us will never share a moment with our child. We miss him every day. All of us do.” She hands the mike to Jim, who gathers himself. “Go home tonight and talk to your parents,” he begs the kids. “Do it for your family, your friends, yourself. And do it for all of us here onstage, who’ll have an empty chair at our dining table for the rest of our lives.”

A moment passes—a collective, stunned silence—and then the high beams strobe. From every corner, kids are holding up their cell phones, shining their flashlights back. Jon DeLena, standing side stage, feels his throat thicken: Signal sent and received.