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A shot in the dark

A recovering heroin user tells his story

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It had been months since he had pulled the trigger, but Abe Gordon still couldn't find the words.

He would play back the shooting in his head. The argument on the roadway in El Llano. The headlights appearing, then growing in his rear-view mirror. His back window blowing out. Turning and pointing the revolver, not looking. The flash and crack of the shot.

The bullet he had fired had killed a teenager no older than he was when a dealer first put a needle in his arm. But after he was incarcerated in 2006, Gordon would continue to lay awake in his cell, his mind still awash with heroin and cocaine, burying the truth under rationalizations.

"That was the life we were living," he thought to himself as he sat in the Río Arriba courtrooms where his case was heard.

He had been charged with first-degree murder and was facing 42 years in prison, his lawyer had told him.

Gordon spent eight months moving from cell, to cell, to courtroom, when he received a rare second chance. His lawyer reached a plea deal with the state, represented by current Taos District Court Judge Jeff McElroy, who was then an assistant district attorney at the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office. Gordon's charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter. He pleaded guilty.

His sentence would not be served in prison, but at Delancey Street Foundation, an old ranch located along the Río Grande, where recovering addicts – many of them former heroin users – work and live together to recover from addiction.

It would be Gordon's second time at the facility, and the judge told him it would be his last.

He had spent one miserable week in withdrawal, but even after the drugs had left his system, he found himself staring down the barrel of everything else – everything he had ever suppressed by getting high, every decision he had ever made during his 12 years as a user.

The things heroin had taken from Gordon's life were more than years – the years themselves took much more. From his first hit to his last, he lost around 50 people he knew to overdoses, some of whom he had provided with their first loaded syringe. Many others had walked away from him.

It was difficult for him to fathom many of the things he had done to feed his habit, and harder to think about the many things he had lost.

He was starting to piece it together, seeing his decisions for what they were. But the shooting remained somewhere out of reach of his self-reconciliation. He couldn't make out the shape of what had happened. Perhaps he didn't want to.

Sitting in his room at Delancey Street, holding the pen above the letter to be sent to the family of the young man he had killed, he still couldn't write.

More than one year into his time at the ranch, other recovering addicts invited Gordon into a room and asked him to start by telling the story of how his addiction had started.

That, they said, might help him understand where it had ended.

The apple orchard

Gordon grew up in a trailer on a country road outside Chimayó, a small Northern New Mexico town in the mountains north of Santa Fe, where heroin addiction would take root as it did in few other places.

A block down from Gordon's home were lines of houses owned by families that seemed to be better off, Gordon thought. He knew some of the children who lived in them, but it wouldn't be until he was older that he learned why he was rarely welcome in their homes.

"Some of the families further down were starting selling heroin and coke," Gordon said. "They were probably some of the first."

There was a large apple orchard across from Gordon's home, a kind of common ground between these two worlds.

When he was still young, he ventured across the road to play there and met two neighbor boys that were close to him in age – one a year younger and the other a year older. They spent their early years playing in the orchard together.

As they grew older, they wandered beyond the shade of the trees into the surrounding badlands and built a fort among the arroyos and steep cliffs.

From an early age, Gordon said he felt like an outsider everywhere he went. At six years old, that feeling deepened after a family friend molested him – an experience that he said he "blacked out," until years later, when his ex-girlfriend encountered a man in a grocery store whom she said had raped her.

Before that day, however, Gordon had already started to find ways to numb the pain.

The fort they had built provided his first escape. Then he and his friends started raiding local liquor cabinets in the houses near the orchard – snatching up half-drunk bottles of wine, liquor or beer that would warm for days in their high-desert hideout. They would get drunk together in secret, and by the time Gordon was 10, they were looting cigarettes and marijuana to add to their plunder.

They grew older and grew apart, but for Gordon, drugs and alcohol remained.

"I became addicted to feeling different," he said.

In the green shag carpet

When he turned 13, Gordon and his family moved west to Los Alamos.

He enrolled at Los Alamos High School, where he discovered LSD, cocaine and methamphetamine. Psychedelics provided an escape like he had never experienced before. When taken together, rooms would bend and shrink and the grooves on wooden doors that led to the outside world would swim together.

His addiction grew, and he needed new ways to feed it. When he was 15, he and a friend broke into a local Radio Shack and stole $30,000 worth of merchandise to finance their drug habits. Less than a week later, police showed up at the high school and pulled them out of class. Gordon would be convicted of his first crime.

Not long after, when he turned 17, he moved into a trailer of his own.

It was the early 1990s, and heroin was just beginning to inundate New Mexico and spread to other parts of the United States.

The first heroin dealer came by on a Tuesday

Up until that point, there had been no substance Gordon had refused. Heroin, he said, was different.

He had heard the stories of overdoses and the drug's uncanny ability to convert a first-time user into a lifelong addict. He was afraid of needles. But he was curious. He relented.

He sat down on his bed and put his arm out as the dealer melted down a ball of heroin into a bubbling pool of coppery liquid. He tried to look away, but Gordon still caught a glimpse of the length of polished steel as it flashed in the light slanting through the window. He turned his head. The needle went under his skin.

"I felt the heat and the warmth and comfort of the heroin going in," Gordon remembered, "Then I just kind of slumped down into the couch and faded away."

He came back hours later in the green shag carpet, his fingers wriggling out a euphoria he'd never before felt into the soft fibers of the floor.

Just hours later, he wanted more.

A monster in the dark

Chiva. Tar. Tripa. Gora. Junk. Dope.

Scrawled on a note, written cryptically in a text or spoken over a disposable phone by some nameless, faceless dealer, it all meant the same thing to Gordon as it did to other addicts – another day on heroin.

Every day for the next 12 years, Gordon would score, liquefy a ball of black tar in a spoon or the base of a Coke can, draw it into a needle and put it in his arm. If he ran out and money was scarce, he would find a way to score again. Desperation drove him. He stole for it, robbed for it, and eventually, dealt it to sustain a habit that had its claws in him from that very first hit.

He plunged deeper into addiction

His longtime girlfriend left him. People he had known for years turned away. Many more started to die of overdoses. Gordon himself would overdose twice, only to leave the hospital both times in search of another fix. Those who didn't become one of the thousands of addicts to die from opioids in New Mexico would continue to wrestle with an addiction to a substance that was becoming as pervasive as it is deadly.

From the time Gordon began using heroin in the 1990s, the opioid overdose death rate in the United States would nearly quadruple as chemically analogous opiate pain medications, like Oxycontin, flooded the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the quantity of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors' offices more than tripled from 1999 to 2010. Pills were prescribed liberally by doctors pressured to control pain, and who had been misled by medical research that claimed opioids to be non-addictive.

Perhaps the most infamous piece, titled, "Addiction Rare in Patients Treated With Narcotics," written by Hershel Jick and Jane Porter, was first published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980. Many point to this less than one hundred word letter as a major influence in unsettling decades of prior knowledge on the addictive nature of opioids. The authors, however, have since said that their words were only misinterpreted.

Meanwhile, opioid pain medications, pushed by major pharmaceutical companies, and black tar heroin, manufactured and trafficked from Mexico, were about to collide, creating the worst drug epidemic in the history of the United States.

Over the next two decades, millions of Americans became addicted to painkillers that were prescribed for a new, widened range of ailments. Some doctors did so unknowingly, but other licensed practitioners, proprietors of what would later be described as "pill mills," would prey upon their patients' addictions, opening new markets for an illicit, multi-billion-dollar industry that was beginning to flourish across the border in Mexico.

Gordon watched as towns like Chimayo, Santa Fe, Española and Albuquerque became some of the first stops for Mexican heroin traffickers. The same heroin he was shooting up in towns further south would also make its way north.

All across the state, the number of people dying from opioid overdoses was starting to rise.

While these deaths would later be recognized by national health organizations, Gordon and the addicts he ran with were watching a nationwide epidemic unfold in real time.

Living the dream

When he was 24, Gordon moved to Cuarteles, where he would continue to be, as he described it, a "low level drug fiend."

He recalled several occasions when he would sit on his couch in his living room and shoot up as mice scurried across his chest. As long as he could hit, he didn't care, he said.

He didn't care that the electricity in his house didn't work. He didn't care that his girlfriend had left him. He didn't care that he rarely saw his family or that he had no friends at all.

Heroin had become the center of his life, and after working a series of jobs that only seemed to get in the way of his life as an addict, Gordon dreamed of becoming a successful dealer.

Doing so required a knowledge of how the trade worked – and a connection – a major dealer who could supply him fast, and supply him big.

On his lunch breaks at his father's record shop in Los Alamos, he would often steal a $20 dollar bill from the register and drive his father's truck as fast as he could to Chimayó to meet his dealer, John.

He would usually wait at the house while John took his truck to pick up from a supplier.

"I'm going to go with you this time," Gordon told him one day.

Gordon climbed in behind the wheel and switched on the classic rock station. John guided him toward a country road, not unlike the one Gordon had grown up on. They headed down an arroyo, crossed a rickety bridge and turned onto a road that ran along the Santa Cruz River.

The compound was a low building among a cluster of cottonwood trees, Gordon said, its borders marked by a boundary of junkyard cars. His plan was to lie low, at least for this first visit. He knew he had to be vetted and accepted. He stayed behind the wheel as John approached a man waiting outside the building.

"This is my bro," John said. "He's got some money." John pointed toward the truck.

The man started hitting John. "What the hell are you doing bringing this guy around," he yelled.

John returned to the truck bloodied.

"You can't come back here," he told Gordon.

But Gordon returned to the compound a few months later on his own.

He pulled past the junkyard cars and up the dirt drive. Two men emerged from the building, one approaching from the front of the truck and the other disappearing from view somewhere behind. There was a knock on the passenger side window. Gordon looked, and when he turned to his armrest to roll the window down, he felt the cool circle of a gun barrel press against his forehead.

He stared directly at the man holding the assault rifle. He didn't want to show fear.

"If you ever come back here," the man told Gordon, "I'll shoot you, bury you in a ditch somewhere and no one will ever find you."

Gordon placed the car in reverse and drove back down the driveway, his hands rattling on the steering wheel as he went.

Border business

After so long on the periphery of the drug world, Gordon had met drug mules who had trafficked heroin across the border. They told him how the drug he had then used for several years was entering the United States – and where it was coming from.

By the early 2000s, heroin was crossing the border by the tons. Grown in poppy fields in the mountains of Mexico, the flowers would be cut and drained of opium resin, which would then be dried and pressed into bricks of raw morphine for easy transport. Morphine would then be combined with another chemical, forming a compound that manufacturers then purified into the heroin addicts would buy on the street.

Production had been widely known to take place in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, which produced a variety commonly sold in the form of a brown powder. In Xalisco, a small town in the state of Nayarit on Mexico's west coast, cartels were manufacturing a form of black tar heroin that was eclipsing all others in terms of quantity, quality and affordability in the United States.

Over the next 20 years, law enforcement agencies throughout the country would come to understand Xalisco as the birthplace of a new, innovative and highly lucrative system for selling heroin in the United States, as detailed by Sam Quinones, author of "Dreamland," a comprehensive study of the Xalisco system and its history in the United States.

In 2000, then town of Taos Mayor Frederick A. Peralta and Town Manager Gustavo Cordova formed a sister city relationship with Xalisco through the International City Management Association. Peralta and Cordova even traveled to Xalisco that year to meet with Oscar Sanchez Ahumada, then presidente municipal of Xalisco. Economic development officials and representatives from Taos County would also later visit with government officials in Xalisco. They formed an agreement that called "for joint cooperation between the two cities in the areas of cultural exchange, education, health, tourism, construction, technology, and other service activities of mutual benefit."

Basic and brilliant

That same year, Gordon moved to Albuquerque, where he encountered street dealers he later suspected to have been from Xalisco. Their system was basic and brilliant, Gordon said, different from all others he had encountered during his years as an addict.

He moved into a bandito hideout, a "shooting gallery," he called it – a place where addicts would live and use together, and often rob and steal to keep their habits going. Gordon started catching rides with another addict who lived there to meet the Mexican dealers that were operating in the city. The other addict would call a phone number. When he dialed, a dealer would provide an address and a driver would arrive on time – with a precise quantity of high-quality black tar in hand.

Heroin addicts coveted these phone numbers, Gordon said.

A driver who had seen Gordon several times handed him a card with a number on it. While he was never sold large quantities, he never had a better connection as a user.

"I never got burned by em'," he said.

'Waiting in the wings'

Meanwhile, certain clans in Northern New Mexico were developing long-standing relationships with Mexican suppliers, which would provide them with large quantities of heroin. A family would divide a shipment, often diluting it, or "stepping on it" in the process, before distributing it within a particular region.

The last publically known family to play this role in Taos County was that of Ivan Romero.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Romeros cornered the market in Taos and in surrounding villages in Northern New Mexico.

In late 2015, Romero and eight members of his crew were arrested as the result of a DEA stakeout operation performed in cooperation with the New Mexico State Police Taos district and the Taos County Sheriff's Office.

The resiliency of these operations, however, is remarkable, complicating the already difficult task of treating addiction.

Law enforcement has watched as the heroin supply in Taos County has returned to full strength over the past two years, and the number of drug overdose deaths locally has continued to rise steadily.

Commenting on the Romero bust, 8th Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos said, "there's always someone else waiting in the wings."

The same phenomenon has been noted of heroin networks based in Xalisco, which have survived multi-agency drug busts that have spanned the nation.

Inside

The withdrawal that any jail or prison promised was terrifying to all heroin addicts. The shaking, restlessness, body aches vomiting and diarrhea could begin within just hours without a fix and might last for a week, sometimes longer.

Gordon would experience it about four times. "It's like having the worst flu you can imagine," he recalled.

He would return to his using each time he was released – until 2005, when he was arrested in Santa Fe for forging checks.

In jail, Gordon asked to use the phone to call his lawyer. Instead, he called Delancey Street. Following an extensive interview, a peer support worker agreed to accept Gordon and spoke on his behalf in court. The judge ruled to sentence Gordon to attend the program for the first time.

Gordon said that he had only made the call "to please the courts," but upon arriving at the ranch, the first notion that he might actually beat his addiction entered his mind.

He encountered men and women who were all struggling with addiction of some form. Many of them had also been addicted to heroin.

Gordon was assigned to a mandatory work period – cleaning the property, cooking and serving food to the residents, among other duties. Days were long. He would sometimes work for 11 hours straight, but he stuck with it.

Another recovering heroin addict, Steve, joined him in the kitchen one day. They found themselves in a similar place in their recovery process – the chemical gone from their bodies, but their minds still wrestling with the rawness of being clean, the challenge of confronting issues long since buried by addiction.

Gordon said he sat down for lunch one day in the dining room. He was surrounded by dozens of other people, when he started to cry uncontrollably.

Sean, a peer support worker who had been at Delancey Street for years, followed him outside and embraced him. He grabbed Gordon's head and held it against his chest.

"Everybody goes through this," Sean told him. "The drugs are out of your system, but you don't know how to deal with anything yet."

Gordon would later recognize it as a pivotal moment, one that presented a choice – push through the pain of recovery, or return to the drug that he knew could numb his pain.

Back in the kitchen, he talked with Steve about his uncertainty, and Steve told him he was ready to leave.

They hatched a plan to rob a bank, buy a kilogram of cocaine, and make their way out to California, Gordon said.

They stole some cigarettes, packed up what little they had brought with them, and left.

El Llano

A week after they had left the ranch, they had resumed their using, their minds again twisted by their shared addiction, and having scored a new connection in El Llano – a small neighborhood east of Española latticed with dirt roads and trailer parks.

Gordon moved forward with their scheme.

He arrived outside the bank in the early hours of the morning with a handgun and a bag of cocaine in his pocket. He hid in the bushes for hours, planning to take the bank manager hostage when they pulled into the parking lot. But when the sun came up on the valley, Gordon looked around. He saw weeds sprouting in the sidewalks. He peered through a window. The bank had moved to another location.

When he returned to the trailer with his story, his new connection, a white-haired man about 80 named George, laughed at him.

George told stories of flying Columbian cocaine across the border in the 1970s. But all Gordon ever saw was the old man before him, usually wearing nothing but a diaper, directing his operation from the seat of a lazy boy, a can of beer glued to his hand and a pile of cocaine never far away.

As long as Gordon and Steve made the deliveries the old man requested, they used for free and had a roof over their heads – a luxury few heroin addicts in New Mexico could ever afford.

The free dope also called for a level of restraint few heroin users ever possessed.

Gordon reached the peak of his using. Heroin and cocaine. Heroin and cocaine. "It was an every five minutes thing," he said.

A week later, just two weeks after they had left Delancey Street, Steve would be found dead of an overdose.

A shot in the dark

It was the night of June 5, 2006, and George asked Gordon to make another drug run.

He was to deliver three grams of heroin to a woman on Riverside Drive in Española, but when he arrived at the location, the woman hadn't showed.

On his return, just a few blocks from George's trailer, he encountered a young man arguing with a woman in the street. He stopped, and the young man walked up and kicked Gordon's front bumper. They looked at each other, and Gordon drove on.

When he walked back through the front door of the trailer, George told him he had to go right back out again to complete the sale. Before he left, Gordon picked up a loaded .38 revolver, climbed back into the car and placed the gun on the passenger seat.

It was approaching midnight, and the young man was still standing in the roadway, then surrounded by a group of people.

"That's him," the young man yelled, pointing at Gordon as he drove past.

A set of headlights brightened in Gordon's rear-view mirror. He pressed on the gas pedal.

He turned down McCurdy Road and pulled off into an empty, darkened lot. He switched his headlights off, and hoped he wouldn't be seen.

Gordon saw the headlights pass, and then return and pull in behind him.

He heard voices and saw two men step out. His back window shattered, and the young man and another man were at his driver-side door. The man punched Gordon, who then reached for the revolver, pointed it across his chest and fired blind.

Gordon was arrested the next day. He would learn that the bullet had struck the young man directly in the heart.

Coming clean

Eighteen months later inside the room at Delancey Street, Gordon was waiting for someone to say something. A door opened, and a few residents brought in an empty coffin and laid it down at Gordon's feet.

None of them had seen the funeral of the young man Gordon had killed, but they all would imagine it. It wasn't far from the reality many of them had known.

"They made me feel it," Gordon said recently. "All of the pain and the hurt I had caused."

He felt clarity for the first time in years. In following days, he would return to his room and write the letter his probation officer would deliver to the young man's family.

Gordon stayed at Delancey Street for four and ½ years – twice what the courts had required.

A recovered addict, Jack, who had worked at Delancey Street for more than 40 years, took Gordon under his wing. Gordon watched him help countless others overcome their addictions. He was inspired.

Gordon graduated to new levels of responsibility at Delancey Street. Before his sentence had ended, he started visiting with other offenders. He stepped into the same courtrooms where his own cases had been processed and visited holding cells where he had been held to meet with men and women struggling with addiction.

They still present him with reflections of his former self – their faces strained by addiction, and in their voices, a familiar desperation.

Today, Gordon works as a peer support worker for Inside Out Recovery in Taos. His job is to connect addicts with treatment resources.

But often, he just sits with them and asks them to tell their stories. He does something for them that he knows can mean the difference between an addict saved and an addict lost.

He listens.

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