DULUTH – Carlos Coleman flaunted his success.
On social media, Coleman and his crew flashed wads of cash at nightclubs and drank pink champagne straight from the bottle. “We rich forever,” he wrote under one Instagram photo.
At the time, they were making up to $5,000 a day flooding this Northern Minnesota region with high-grade heroin.
But they sensed it wouldn’t last. One day in February 2018, Bernard Mims, one of Coleman’s partners, tossed a quarter-pound of heroin out of a moving car, fearing the cops were following him.
Two weeks later, a Duluth police task force and federal agents raided the heroin operation, arresting Coleman, Mims and several others. It was a major bust, the culmination of nearly two years of surveilling suspects, tapping phones and buying heroin undercover with marked bills.
It wasn’t enough to stop the flow of drugs reaching from across the continent into a world of well-connected drug dealers and desperate users just beyond the idylls of the North Shore.
Since 2013, the average number of opioid-related overdoses in the Duluth region has more than doubled.
Police seized a record 2,200 grams of heroin in Duluth and the Twin Ports region in the first half of 2019. That’s nine times what they confiscated in all of 2012 — the year police began seeing a rise in drug-trafficking cases — according to Duluth police data. Methamphetamine seizures could also reach a record high in 2019, and prescription pill seizures are surging year after year.
“The word is out on the street — there is a large demand pool for opioids in this region,” said Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel. “They can come here and sell it for two to three to four times the amount they can sell it in other places.”
Kazel runs the team of investigators in charge of interrupting the drug pipeline, a unit based out of Duluth police headquarters called the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force.
This month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced it will permanently post two agents in Duluth to embed with his team. The White House office of National Drug Control Policy also added St. Louis County to its national list of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in September, a designation that will funnel federal money to the Duluth region for drug treatment and outreach.
Some in the community are skeptical of adding more enforcement, fearing it will lead to the same outcome as the crack cocaine wave of the 1990s. “Is it going to be a pathway for another generation of mass incarceration?” asked Daniel Lew, chief public defender for northeastern Minnesota.
Law enforcement and prosecutors say that’s not the goal. The mission, they contend, is to disrupt the mid- to high-level trafficking that’s killing communities.
“We can’t just treat this as a war on drugs,” said Minnesota U.S. Attorney Erica MacDonald.
A long time coming
Duluth has faced waves of drugs before, but never of this scale. When Kazel first joined the narcotics unit in 2001, meth was the epidemic of the moment, most coming from amateur cooks in clandestine home labs, lacking the purity or scale of today’s product.
In the past decade, opioids have emerged as the biggest concern. In 2010, a powerful opioid painkiller called Opana flooded the market, selling for up to $100 per pill.
Those addicted to prescription drugs staged burglaries and reported only their pills missing in order to get refills from their doctors, said Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken, until officers stopped giving out case numbers to the alleged victims.
In 2013, police arrested a man named Courtney Williams moving heroin from Chicago’s West Side to the Twin Ports. When they pulled Williams over, they found nearly 500 grams — roughly $100,000 worth — of heroin bound for Duluth hidden inside his spare tire.
That year, police seized five times more heroin than the year before in the Twin Ports.
Police had little question about where the heroin was coming from. It was “caballo” — brown heroin. The bricks of powder still bore the stamp of the Mexican cartels.
Supply and demand
Kazel was chosen to lead the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force the year after the Williams case. By this time, the reality had set in: They faced new and formidable foes in both cartels looking to expand their territory and doctors prescribing drugs without fully understanding, or caring about, the consequences.
“People were dying,” Kazel said. “We’ve never seen this amount of overdoses or death — ever.”
A former Army sergeant who kept the crew cut, Kazel joined Duluth police in 1997 after a ride-along with a cop friend from high school. “It appealed to me that you were out there helping people,” he said. After working narcotics, he was promoted and worked in administrative and leadership roles.
When Kazel returned to drugs as the task force commander, Minnesota was locked in the jaws of a new epidemic. Last year, the state saw record highs in drug seizures, treatment admissions and overdose deaths related to meth, according to state data. Police seized 24 pounds of heroin last year, twice as much as 2014, and 16,000 opioid pills. Cocaine also made a comeback, in part due to increased production of coca plants in South and Central America, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
The epidemic hit Twin Ports hard. Tusken attributes it to doctors overprescribing pills. By the time anyone realized the devastating toll, too many were hooked. Those who couldn’t find pills turned to meth or heroin.
To stem the last meth wave, the Minnesota Legislature passed new laws that put key ingredients, such as pseudoephedrine, behind the counter, all but eliminating the home meth labs. But that addressed only the supply. The customers never went away, and the cartels moved in.
On a gloomy Tuesday afternoon, Jessica Nickila and her police escort ride through the hilly streets of downtown Duluth to St. Luke’s Hospital. This is Nickila’s second time coming here today, hoping to persuade a woman who recently overdosed to sign up for treatment.
“I was thinking about waiting until tomorrow,” says Nickila, “but I’m afraid she might be gone.”
Kazel hired Nickila in January to help reduce the demand for drugs in the area. With tarot posters on the walls of her office and tattoos on both forearms, she is a study in contrast from Kazel. An aspiring writer who became addicted to heroin and then got sober before she was old enough to legally drink, Nickila never dreamed she’d work for the police one day. “Hell, no,” she said, “not in a million years.”
She applied because “folks with opioid-use disorder are some of the coolest people you’d ever meet.” It also meant helping people like herself.
Over the past 10 months, Nickila has steered 50 people to supportive services and 35 to inpatient care, according to data tracked by her office.
Most of the people she meets are homeless, so helping them get clean means helping them find housing, employment, mental health treatment. She’s there when they schedule appointments and sometimes gives them rides.
Nickila has found most success in catching patients within a couple of days of an overdose. Every Tuesday, she drives around with her escort, knocking on doors, visiting hospitals.
Today’s trip is a success, she later reports. The woman agreed to a treatment plan and showed a positive attitude toward getting clean.
“Super sweet lady,” Nickila said.
Help is on the way
After being appointed Minnesota’s U.S. attorney last year, the first road trip MacDonald took was to Duluth to meet with Kazel, Tusken and other law enforcement leaders in the Twin Ports to talk about the drug influx and overdose rates.
“We knew then we had a problem to tackle,” she said.
MacDonald believes the solution is to bolster resources in northern Minnesota, rather than rely on regional offices to work the drug cases.
After the raid on Coleman’s operation last year, police saw a brief lull in heroin on the streets. But this year, they surged once again. In June, police busted an operation that pulled about a million dollars’ worth of the drug off the street, the biggest ever in the area.
Yet even with the added resources, Tusken says it’s a daunting job, ridding a scourge that’s so deeply embedded in the community.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “And it’s going to take us a long time to clean up the mess."