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Vignettes: ‘Walking these streets, you think you’re a zombie’

For 72 hours in the Metro area — from 3 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 27, to 3 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 30 — the Journal monitored drug arrests, crimes tied to drugs, Albuquerque Fire Rescue calls, overdoses and how the community is responding. What follows is a snapshot of Albuquerque’s drug problem and how it played out during one three-day period.

FRIDAY, SEPT. 27

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Jessica Plumley walks past a vacant lot in Southeast Albuquerque as she leaves a weekly needle exchange. She and her mother had just turned in over 1,000 needles they picked up from the neighborhood streets, parks and alleyways and left with boxes of sterile supplies. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

5:56 p.m., south of Central

The sun is sinking low, casting long shadows on the sidewalk as a crowd a dozen deep gathers in a loosely formed line at a needle exchange in Southeast Albuquerque.

Volunteers, medical professionals and harm reduction specialists with Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless have stacked a folding table with tourniquets, boxes of needles and other supplies.

They had been giving out condoms, too, but an hour and a half into the day’s outreach they have all been snatched up.

Those who want more privacy — or want to talk about housing or rehab options — can go inside a large van whose inside resembles a doctor’s office.

Jessica Plumley and her mother walk through the site toward a harm reduction specialist giving out the anti-overdose drug Naloxone from the passenger seat of a minivan. Plumley, a bubbly woman in her 30s, leans in for a hug and chats with the specialist for several minutes before moving on.

The mother and daughter duo — users of methamphetamine and heroin — say they comb the streets daily looking for needles to pick up and return. That evening they had turned in more than a thousand.

“We just pick them up wherever, they’re all over the place,” Plumley says. “I have a 4-year-old boy and I don’t want him picking up needles or accidentally getting poked by one.”

While needle recipients are not required to bring in old needles in order to get new ones, they are encouraged to do so. Regardless, each participant gets a paper ID card alerting law enforcement that they’re taking part in the harm reduction program and shouldn’t be arrested for having needles as they leave.

Plumley says she has quit doing drugs in the past — and even gave it up for six years after she met her son’s father and became pregnant — but started using again about a year ago after they broke up. She suffers from scoliosis and says heroin helps numb her daily pain.

“I don’t recommend it to anybody,” Plumley says. “Don’t even try it. Seriously it’s very, very addicting. Once you start walking these streets you think you’re a zombie.”

Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

8:11 p.m., Metropolitan Detention Center

Jane Doe, a 40-year-old woman, is booked into jail on charges of possession, drug paraphernalia and concealing her identity.

Earlier in the day Officer David Small is patrolling Southeast Albuquerque when he comes across “Doe” — she won’t give her actual name — and another woman breaking branches to conceal their tents at Jack and Jill Park, near Louisiana and Zuni.

As Small approaches, he spots bags of needles beside Doe. Small tells her she’s being arrested for having drug paraphernalia.

As he walks the woman to his patrol vehicle, she blurts out that “her dope” is in her right pocket. Small checks and finds a piece of plastic with meth inside.

The woman repeatedly refuses to identify herself, only telling Small she is “President Trump’s daughter.”

9:45 p.m., Near Goff and Sunset SW

A 40-year-old man is cruising along on a moped when a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputy pulls him over. He has been driving the motorized scooter without any registration. During a pat down search, the deputy finds a meth pipe in his left pocket. Then, the deputy finds a piece of plastic with a “crystal like substance” in his right pocket. The substance tests positive for meth, and the man is arrested for possession.

SATURDAY, SEPT. 28

12 a.m., 500 block of San Pablo SE, near Trumbull

Officers arrest a 19-year-old man in connection with the theft of a New Mexico State Police officer’s rifle days before. The rifle — along with its locking mechanism, 14 fully-loaded magazines and a “Go-bag” — had been stolen days earlier out of a State Police sergeant’s vehicle as it was parked in his driveway.

Police say a 24-year-old broke into the officer’s vehicle and put the rifle up for sale on a Facebook chat group. Detectives say the 19-year old responded to the post, offering to trade narcotics for the rifle. State Police say the rifle has since been found.

Sometime after 4:30 a.m., Prairie Hills apartments

Twenty-three-year-old Megan Lawson is awakened by a phone call. The person on the other end tells her to come get her Jeep, which had been stolen from her apartment complex near Lomas and Tramway two days earlier.

She discovered the Jeep had been taken as she was leaving for work as a security guard.

“I was pissed,” Lawson says. “In my line of work, it’s my job to prevent this kind of stuff from happening. So it was kind of a huge shock that it actually happened to me.”

Aside from preventing burglaries and thefts “all the time,” Lawson says she deals with finding drugs and people under the influence a lot in her job. She says she isn’t surprised police found multiple needles inside her Jeep, but “I was surprised they found it at all.”

“You never think it’s going to happen to you, until it does,” she says. “It kind of puts you in your place to realize that you’re not untouchable and that you probably need to take better steps to keep yourself safe.”

Lawson’s stolen Jeep was found by an officer patrolling the parking lot of the Motel 76, just east of Interstate 25 near Candelaria. He came upon a 40-year-old man sleeping behind the wheel. The officer found two syringes loaded with heroin beside the man, who appeared to be high, “could not stay awake” and refused to talk to police. He was charged and taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Used needs on the ground in Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

10:04 a.m., Central and Washington

“Needle! Needle!” shout teenagers wearing brightly colored bandanas, pointing at the area next to a dumpster in a vacant parking lot.

Nick Pavlakos, a 57-year-old property owner, runs over to answer the call. He’s armed with a trash picker that he uses to grab the needle and deposit it into a biohazard bucket.

It’s the third annual clean-up organized by the Highland Unified Businesses and more than 120 students, business owners and neighbors have donned latex or leather gloves to pick up trash from the streets.

They swarm the area, gathering plastic foam cups, empty liquor bottles, candy wrappers and, yes, lots and lots of needles. Pavlakos, who graduated from Highland High School in 1980, said he remembers walking to and from school as a teenager, feeling safe and secure.

He now lives in the Northeast Heights but returned to the Highland area in 2014 to rebuild a strip mall on his family’s property on Central between Jackson and Manzano. He said at that time he was hopeful the Nob Hill businesses would push east.

Instead, Pavlakos said, the area took an opposite turn.

These days he owns the recently opened Albuquerque Distilling and is part of a business group grappling with homelessness, petty crimes and drug users who congregate on the streets, alleys and vacant lots. He said he and his brother comb through their property every weekend and almost always find at least one needle.

“I love Albuquerque and I love this area,” Pavlakos said. “I grew up here and I want to see it become what it was.”

Metropolitan Courthouse. (NMCourts.gov)

11 a.m., Metropolitan Court

It’s just after 11 a.m. on Saturday when a 29-year-old walks into a third-floor courtroom in a wrinkled black suit with an upturned collar.

His mother joins him moments later. She lovingly brushes something from his beard and folds his collar into place before Judge Brittany Maldonado Malott calls his name.

“I have some concerns as to whether or not he’s sober,” the prosecutor tells the judge.

The criminal complaint filed against the man says he was picked up after police found him unconscious in his Volvo in a West Side parking lot. He had track marks on his hands. He told an officer that he’d been “using” on his lunch break and had planned to return to work.

Instead, he was hauled to MDC after officers found needles, a pipe and drugs in his car, the complaint states.

His mother sits quietly through the matter-of-fact proceeding, and she has tears in her eyes as she leaves the courtroom behind her son and his lawyer.

“You’re just grateful they’re alive,” she says.

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Bernalillo County Deputy Alex Apodaca peers through a window of a vacant property in the South Valley where known drug users tend to stay. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Around 3:52 p.m. off Bridge, west of the Rio Grande

Deputy Alex Apodaca steps carefully outside a dilapidated hotel near Bridge and the Rio Grande.

BCSO has been called here numerous times for drug use and break-ins, he says, noting that people often sleep inside. The charred remnants of campfires are visible through the broken windows that haven’t been boarded up.

“People just want to sneak away to find a hole in the wall to shoot up really quick and ride that high for a little while,” Apodaca says. “You can tell that people were living there. … They were always up to no good. I would find meth, heroin, on people.”

The front side of the building is boarded up tightly — a soiled teddy bear hangs from a doorknob. Glimpses through the jagged panes of glass reveal trash strewn about inside.

“People are sneaky about it,” Apodaca says as he points to the other side of the building, where many of the boards have been pried off. “Anyone with a brain could see someone trying to get in and out.”

Within feet of an open window a burnt and dirt strewn countertop is covered with pill bottles and several syringes, some with bent tips. On the floor, amid mounds of trash, a used needle container sits upside down.

4 p.m., Louisiana and Trumbull SE

Two officers patrolling the Southeast near Louisiana and Trumbull come upon a man in a purple shirt leaning against a boarded-up complex known to police for break-ins and drug use.

The 35-year old tries to run and begins banging on neighboring apartments when officers approach. After handcuffing him, officers find a needle, loaded with heroin and tipped with blood, where he had been sitting.

A neighbor comes outside and brings police a backpack she says he had left outside her door. Although the man denies the bag is his, officers find paperwork belonging to him in the backpack, along with another heroin-loaded needle and a meth pipe.

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Pictured are boxes of Narcan at the Resource Re-Entry Center in downtown Albuquerque. This center is used to help former inmates get back on their feet. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

7:01 p.m.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue administers Naloxone, which blocks the effects of heroin or other opioids. It’s the first of two times AFR will administer it during this 72-hour period. The department’s first responders have administered Naloxone more than 500 times in the last year. It’s unclear whether the Naloxone was successful in this case.

SUNDAY, SEPT. 29

7:05 a.m., Sandia Casino

Reports of an armed man in a vehicle send a Sandia Pueblo police officer to patrol the parking lot. The officer finds a 33-year old in his truck and notices a gun box on the truck’s floorboard.

The man admits to having a gun in the truck but tells the officer he “doesn’t have a key to open it.” A search of the truck yields several guns, more than an ounce of meth, two scales and multiple plastic bags. The man is charged with trafficking controlled substances.

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Pictured is a recently released inmate from jail who has been transported to the Resource Re-Entry Center in Downtown Albuquerque. This center is used to help former inmates get back on their feet. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

2:16 p.m., 400 Roma NW

Six people step off of a white Bernalillo County transport van into a gated parking lot in Downtown Albuquerque. They file into the county’s Resource Re-Entry Center, a place in between jail and freedom that, for most, offers simple niceties like phone charging stations, fresh clothing, sandwiches and cots.

For a handful of them each week, it’s an opportunity to be connected with a treatment program.

“Your first 48 hours are going to be the most critical time to get somebody services,” says Pamela Acosta, the center’s coordinator. “After 48 hours they’re returning back to old playgrounds, returning back to where they left.”

The center also hands out Narcan to those who agree to go through a quick training followed by a short test. Evan Gonzales, with the county’s Department of Behavioral Health Services, says people who don’t have access to the antidote go to extreme measures to try to counteract an overdose.

“We’ve had somebody tell us they tried to inject milk to offset an overdose; they tried to electrocute themselves. Crazy things,” he says. “As long as we can distribute Narcan and have it in the streets no matter where they’re at, they have a better chance of recovering from an overdose.”

5:27 p.m., Albuquerque and Bernalillo County public safety radio frequency

“Any unit that can clear for a priority 231, (5300 block of) Heritage Way Northeast,” a female dispatcher calls out over the scanner. “Male in a dumpster, and they’re advising possible OD and turning blue.”

Following additional back-and-forth between dispatchers and rescue crews in the field, a rescuer chimes in. “Ladder 15, Ladder 15, (5300 block of) Heritage Way NE, cross with Spain. … Thirty-year-old male, overdose; 23 Delta One. Ladder 15, (5300 block of) Heritage Way NE, Cross street of Spain and Heritage Court …”

MONDAY, SEPT. 30

8:45 a.m., District Court

Just 27 days into 2019, Joshua Perea was arrested for stealing a backpack and shaving supplies from the Target store in Uptown. When security tried to stop him, he pulled out a knife.

Later, when police found him at Coronado Center, he “admitted to trying to steal the items to sell for dope,” police said.

That was the first of six criminal cases Perea has faced this year.

At a brief court hearing on this Monday morning, Perea accepts a plea deal that sends him to jail for a year but resolves four of his cases. He could be out in half that time with good behavior.

While he’s there, he’s taking part in the methadone program, the addiction treatment program, and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He’s sober now, he tells the judge. He just wants to get back to his life, get back on track.

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Rows of inmates huddle under blankets in the Metropolitan Detention Center’s Psychiatric Acute Care unit as they detox from hard drugs and alcohol. More than 100 people are housed in the unit on any given day. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

9 a.m., Metropolitan Detention Center

In a tiled room, kept quite cool, inmates wearing orange jumpsuits huddle under wool blankets, hiding from the fluorescent light. A man with a towel wrapped around his head like a blindfold shakes and twitches.

This is the detox unit where inmates are housed to come down from whatever substance they’re on — heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol, benzos, or a little bit of everything.

There are more than two dozen “boats” — plastic beds with mattresses — set up in rows, nearly on top of one another. Trash cans are scattered around the room, readily available for anyone who has to vomit.

Capt. Chris Sanchez, who has worked in the Psychiatric Acute Care unit for 10 years and was recently promoted to lead it, details the ways correctional officers and medical staff treat inmates who are coming down from a trip.

He said those who are on meth are usually louder, screaming and very disruptive, whereas the heroin users are experiencing body aches and chills, which he explains are called by the slang “malias.”

“Most haven’t slept for days,” he says. “Meth and Ketamine, it’s like they’re so up there and all of a sudden they’ll just crash — that’s what we have to watch out for.”

9:30 a.m., District Court

Scott Drennan thinks he started using meth when he was 18. Now, at age 53, he thinks he’s finally done with it.

“You see kinda clear, you know? It’s a lot different,” he says of his new life without drugs. “Way better. I’m taking care of myself, my family. Before you’re just … trying to be with a drug instead.”

Drennan detoxed in the county jail in 2017 when prosecutors accused him of fleeing police in a stolen car with two small bags of methamphetamine in his pocket. He’s since successfully made it through Drug Court, an intensive specialty program designed to stop criminal activity tied to drug use through a combination of judicial support and supervision.

Because of his success in the program, Drennan is sentenced on this Monday morning to 4½ years of probation in the case. Does he think he’d be sober without the intervention?

“Probably not,” he says. “I was pretty well out there.”

(Courtesy APD)

1:30 p.m., 124 Chama NE

The Albuquerque Police Department’s narcotics unit busts down the front door of this home after a weekslong investigation that includes controlled buys and surveillance. Based on that investigation, police conclude that Juan Gonzalez, 59, is a crack dealer.

The investigation begins after neighbors complain of constant foot traffic and dealing out of the house. Gonzalez is arrested during the raid, and detectives find a container with 44 individually wrapped bags of crack cocaine, two pistols and more than $4,000 stuffed into couch cushions and hidden inside a ceramic chicken.

(Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

1:30 p.m., Metropolitan Court

One-by-one, the orange-clad inmates make their way through a gray cinder block room to a podium where they join a public defender.

The scene at the Metropolitan Detention Center is broadcast onto a television screen miles away at the Downtown Metropolitan Courthouse. And at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Judge Michelle Castillo Dowler has around 30 cases on her felony first appearances docket. Almost half of the defendants she will call are facing drug charges.

Most of them are facing low-level paraphernalia or possession counts, and when she agrees to release them, she reads a list of conditions they must follow if they want to remain out of jail as they await trial. Among them: come to court for your hearings, don’t violate any laws, do not buy, sell, consume or possess illegal drugs.

Those who are released will be loaded onto buses for the nearly 20-mile ride to the county’s Resource Re-Entry Center, where some may seek help to address their addictions and others will resume the lives they led before their arrests.

For the full project:


7 2 h o u r s by Albuquerque Journal.

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