NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- Virginia is on pace to surpass the 729 heroin and prescription drug overdose deaths from last year. Numbers released from the state health department show that in the first half of this year, 379 people have died.
In the state's largest city, Virginia Beach, 33 people have died from heroin overdoses this year. These are some of the stories of Virginia's growing killer.
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'I don't think she thought it would happen to her':
A young Virginia woman, dead from a heroin overdose
Sitting in the dining room of her sister's Suffolk home, Cassie Prince is surrounded by pictures of her late sister, 32-year-old Rachel Prince Khould. It's been five months since Rachel was found slumped over in the bathroom of her brother's house in Isle of Wight County, dead from a heroin overdose.
"I had spoken to her that night around 10 p.m. She was great. She was happy. It was a fairly lengthy conversation," recalls Cassie.
But hours later, Rachel would be dead, heroin baggies, a spoon and syringe by her side.
"She didn't want to die, and we talked about that. She knew that was a real possibility, but I don't think she thought it would happen to her."
Cassie says her sister was getting treatment, but was in the process of finding a new doctor. It was within that week between doctors that she went downhill, eventually leading to her overdose.
A mother of two small children, Rachel was a horse trainer who as a teenager found herself hanging with the wrong crowd. Bad influences led to an introduction to drugs, including heroin.
Cassie says she intervened. "I told my parents, and they actually put a halt to it."
But Rachel never kicked her addiction. "She would tell me, 'Oh, I'm not addicted. I'm just i'm stressed out and I need to do this.' And I would say, 'If you're not addicted, then why don't you stop?'"
Cassie considers Rachel a victim. "No one grows up and says, 'I want to be a drug addict.' It's a disease."
Although she would love to see authorities track down Rachel's dealer, she wasn't hopeful that would happen. But text messages between Rachel and someone known as "Country" told the story of a transaction just five days before her death.
At 10:12 pm the night of May 25th of this year, Rachel texts: I coming to see you be over that way in 45 min
Country: OK that's cool wat u need
Rachel: 5 or 6 not sure
And then later:
Country: OK wat u need
Rachel: Got to cash the check then I'll be ready. Can you do 6 for 50?
Country: Yea you find a place open
After Rachel's death, undercover narcotics agents launched a surveillance operation and caught Country -- real name Justin Monette -- in the act. Monette was arrested for conspiracy to distribute heroin and possession.
But while he was charged with drug-related offenses, Commonwealth's Attorney Georgette Phillips wasn't able to secure a charge of manslaughter in connection to Rachel's death. Further text messages showed Rachel had contacted another dealer, and it made it hard to prove that Monette's heroin was the actual batch that killed her.
Still, the possibility was enough to entice him into pleading guilty and getting a five-year sentence, more time than what the guidelines allow.
"That he had in fact sold to the woman who overdosed... we did use that as a factor to deviate it to the extent that we did in lieu of going after manslaughter charges, " explains Phillips.
An undercover agent describes Monette as a mid-level dealer. When confronted in front of the sheriff's building shortly after his sentencing, Monette refused to comment on Rachel's death.
Monette's sentencing was surprising and welcome news to Cassie. "I have not heard. Oh wow. I'm happy he's serving time."
A soul-snatching disease:
Pregnant and addicted
Tiffany Lewis is a recovering heroin addict who's eight months pregnant and says there's no better motivation to change her life for the better.
Sitting in her room at the Southeastern Family Project Residential Substance abuse treatment home in Newport News, she talks about the heroin addiction she's fighting to leave behind.
"His name is going to be Chance Antonio. I named him Chance, because this is going to be my second chance in life to do better," she says as she touches her belly.
She's been in the program since July. It's run by the Community Services Board of Hampton-Newport News. The program integrates life-training skills, relapse therapy, psychotherapy and medication to help with addiction and overcoming depression.
Lewis had enough after getting arrested for heroin possession. Two months after her release, she started using again.
"I called my probation officer and I told her I needed help. I knew I couldn't stop and I didn't want to harm my baby, because a week before that, I found out I was pregnant."
She was arrested again. That led her to the treatment program where she says she's happy and ready to make a change for her husband, the new baby and her three other boys.
"I want to go home with his daddy and I'm ready to go home with his daddy... but in a way, I'm enjoying the time that have here too. I need every bit of tools and information I can get for when I leave this program."
Hardships are nothing new for Lewis. When she was nine years old, she lost her mother in a car accident. In 2012, she witnessed the father of one of her three kids get shot. He survived but was later killed in prison. Heroin became a way to mask the pain. At 30, she can recall her own close brushes with death from several overdoses.
"My 6-year-old was there too and it was sad. When he seen me -- you know how the ambulance puts you -- puts the white sheet on you to keep you warm? He thought I was dead. He kept saying, 'Is my mommy dead?'"
Her visits to the obstetrician confirm baby boy is growing nicely. The sound of his heartbeat is strong. Baby is ready and Lewis says she is too.
"I call it a soul-snatching disease, doing drugs. I'm just ready to live better."
A brand new 'Chance':
Where are the drugs coming from?
On Friday, November 20, Chance Antonio Ramirez came into the world weighing a little more than seven pounds.
Tiffany Lewis is in love. More than a baby has been growing inside Lewis for the last nine months. Looking at her and listening to her, you hear a fully developed resolve to turn her life around.
Heroin had been her baby... but no more.
She leaves the treatment home in January, ready to strike out on her own and take another chance.
"I'm totally just in love with him... yeah, he's awesome. I wouldn't change it."
Where does it all come from?
The Drug Enforcement Agency's National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary paints a vivid picture of a drug that is exploding popularity.
Heroin seizures in the US have increased by 81 percent over the last five years.
Richmond Assistant Agent in Charge, Greg Cherundolo, says 95 percent of it comes from Latin America.
"Most of it is smuggled into the country from Mexico," he says.
According to the summary, in the previous two decades, South America was the biggest provider of heroin to the Northeast, but now Mexico traffickers are expanding their operations to grab a bigger share of the market. Mexican organizations now stand at the top of wholesale-level heroin traffickers in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Washington DC.
Cherundolo says the DEA is working both inside and outside the border to find the big dealers and traffickers. And one of the first stops in the U.S. is the Northeast.
"Most of the heroin we see come to the Hampton Roads area comes from New York, Northern New Jersey. We're seeing some from Baltimore. We start with local investigation of individuals who are trafficking here and try to link them either to a big source or city, even over to the border," adds Cherundolo.
DEA Photos: Smuggling heroin
DEA photos obtained by 13News Now show how heroin is smuggled across the border. One picture shows a hidden compartment built into a car. Another shows capsules filled with heroin, inside a baby wipes box.
Other DEA findings include: more people seek treatment for heroin use than for any other illicit drug, except marijuana: 8,620 Americans died from heroin related overdoses in 2013, which is triple the number in 2010, and heroin today is much more pure and lower in price.
Heroin's gateway drugs:
Addiction often begins with a prescription
The first time Keaton Kowalsky arrived at the Youth Challenge Women's Home for women battling substance abuse, she ran out the front door, not ready to face up to the challenge of getting better. Now at 27 and several years later, she's giving it another try.
Kowalsky and another housemate, 34-year-old Jessica Lester, both took a similar road to heroin addiction... one that is all too familiar to so many addicts. They both started off addicted to painkillers prescribed to them after an injury.
"I broke my collarbone and had reconstructive surgery and they prescribed me painkillers. One day the painkillers weren't strong enough," says Kowalsky.
Lester says she had a staph infection. "I got hooked on prescription pain pills and once those pills stopped, doctors stopped prescribing them, I turned to heroin."
Not only to continue the high, but because Lester says street heroin is cheaper than pain pills.
Heroin and painkillers -- such as Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin -- are all opioids that relieve pain. According to the DEA, 80 percent of heroin users started their addiction to prescription pain pills. The growing abuse of pain pills is putting pressure on doctors to back off.
Virginia Beach addiction specialist and psychiatrist Dr. Mark Schreiber says the State Board of Pharmacy is watching.
"There's been a tightening up or made much more strict prescribing opiates. It's monitored much more heavily by the State Board of Pharmacy. Physicians are monitored very closely about the amount, the frequency of opiate they use."
At Youth Challenge, a non-profit faith-based treatment program relying on Christian principles, prayer is part of the daily routine for Lester and Kowalsky. They also work most days at the Youth Challenge Thrift Shop in Newport News or with the Peninsula Foodbank.
It's a chance for them to make some money to help support the group home.
Home Executive Director Denise Lee says the ladies get both group and individual counseling.
"On their own, they can't get out because if they could, they would have. If you see the resolve these women have, once they are given the tools."
There's even a pet snake at the home that serves as a therapy tool. Sampson's shedding skin represents leaving a past behind in exchange for a fresh start.
Both ladies, who had to apply to the Youth Challenge program, are motivated to kick their addictions by their families. Lester leaves behind a two young kids in Ohio while she recovers. It's painful.
"It's not anything that they could have done to stop what I was doing. And it hurts really bad."
Kowalsky, who served time for heroin possession in Virginia Beach, thinks about her mother. Recently, Kowalsky says she was finally able to tell her mother she's sorry.
"That's all she wanted to hear."
Lester and Kowalsky will spend a year in the home, they say feeling confident, they'll leave their addictions behind.
An attorney general's crusade:
Mark Herring's aggressive campaign against heroin
It's the middle of a sunny afternoon in Richmond and a group of recovering heroin addicts are telling their stories.
They're gathered at the McShin Foundation, a drug treatment center. On its website, McShin is described as Virginia's leading peer-to-peer recovery community center.
On the wall on one side of the room are the names of all the people who died from drug overdoses. On the other side of the room, painted on the walls, are words of inspiration. In middle of the room, listening to the discussion is Attorney General Mark Herring, hanging on every word.
Stas Novitsky, a recovering addict who serves as the Director of Collegiate and Family Development at McShin, speaks about getting on heroin at the age of 18 and using it for the next seven years.
"I lost connections with my family," he says. "I lost connections with my passion and my dreams."
Kristen Roope, a peer leader at McShin, tells the story about living in a tent in the woods and holding up signs along the streets begging for money to buy heroin. "Recovery has given me not only my dignity back, but my self-esteem. I actually have custody of my daughter."
And Honesty Liller says she once couldn't get up to use the restroom without first taking a heroin hit. She started using heroin at age 17 and overdosed soon after that. Her daughter was born addicted to the drug.
"But that didn't stop me from using. I kept using until she was five. I walked through these doors high," she says.
But now eight years clean, Liller is the CEO of McShin.
Leading the discussion is the McShin's President, John Shinholser. He reminds the attorney general that addiction knows no boundaries and snags people from all walks of life.
Herring has spent the last year making the fight against the growing heroin and prescription drug abuse epidemic in Virginia a top priority.
"I am not about the shy away from a difficult problem," the attorney general says.
He put together a five-point plan that integrates educational, legislative and prosecutorial strategies to tackle the problem. Herring is proud of the progress his plan has made in its first year.
"We brought 28 cases against the dealers who are profiting off of addiction involving over 210 pounds of heroin."
Virginia also just joined the Northeast Mid-Atlantic Heroin Task Force. The group fosters a multi-state pipeline of information and resources in hopes of stifling heroin distribution.
Herring's office also put together a documentary, The Hardest Hit detailing the impact heroin addiction has had on families. It will be available free of charge to schools, faith organizations, law enforcement, public health organizations across the state.