War on drugs: When the options for addicts aren’t enough

Photo: Amy Jackson Photo: Amy Jackson

His family and friends describe Luke Beckelman as someone with a big heart and loving soul. The former Monticello High student’s passion was hip-hop: writing it, rapping and making several videos, says his mom.

He also was an addict.

And he sold drugs—twice to a confidential informant in 2015—which led to his arrest for felony distribution. And when the 20-year-old couldn’t bear the idea of three or more years in jail, Beckelman killed himself November 28.

What he was not offered in the course of his interaction with the legal system: treatment for his addiction.

“He was sweet and kind and had the biggest heart, even though he went down the wrong path,” says his mother, Kimberly Beckelman.

“People were drawn to Luke,” says his aunt, Becky Beckelman, in a phone call from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. “He was like a people magnet.”

The people drawn to him were often older, like his girlfriend, Kristie Ryder, who didn’t realize he was four years younger until they’d fallen in love, or his friend Zach Holmes, who was about three years older and a senior in high school when he met Luke. “I used to go to his house every day,” says Holmes.

Kimberly Beckelman, a single mom, says Luke told her he’d been getting high on marijuana since the sixth grade. When he was 14, he tried bath salts and ended up in the hospital. “I’d never even heard of them,” says Beckelman. He went to rehab, and was clean for a while, she says.

However, Luke started smoking pot again, and doing molly, aka ecstasy and MDMA. He sold cocaine “because that’s what his friends requested,” says his mom. And he was addicted to Xanax, she learned after he died.

In October 2014, Beckelman had a weird premonition. She took her dog out and, as she puts it, “got spooked” when she saw a drunk man sitting on the curb. “I don’t get spooked easily,” she says. “I told Luke, ‘I had a horrible feeling something bad is going to happen if you don’t change your lifestyle.’”

At 3:30am October 30, 2014, she got a phone call from Luke, who was crying hysterically. His girlfriend had gotten shot during an attempted robbery of their apartment by other drug dealers.

He stayed with Ryder every day in the hospital, says his mom, and said he was through with drugs—a vow that lasted until she got better.

After the shooting, Luke told Beckelman, “We can’t go back there.” Beckelman got new locks and tried to make the apartment feel safer, but he and his girlfriend were staying at her house by the time the lease was up. Her son “became more paranoid,” says Beckelman, and began accumulating guns.

“I was worried sick,” says Beckelman. “I wanted to get him help without getting him in trouble.”

It was already too late.

Unwilling to snitch

The Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force is a local assemblage of law enforcement dispatched to fight the war on drugs, and Luke had already come into its sights.

On May 27 and June 3, 2015, Luke sold $80 worth of molly to a confidential informant. On June 9, 2015, 10 cops surrounded his mom’s house on Monticello Avenue and seized seven guns, MDMA and a little more than an ounce of cocaine, according to the JADE case file.

JADE officers badgered Luke to become an informant, says his mother. When she took him to pick up his cell phone, which had been confiscated in the raid, “He came out in tears,” she says. They told him they were going to lift his bond and he’d get 20 years in prison, she says.

“He kept saying, ‘I can’t be a snitch. I can’t be a snitch,’” Beckelman recounts.

Officers would pull up in front of her house and text Luke that he had five minutes to get out there, she says.

Kimberly Beckelman believes JADE arrested Luke after he refused to become an informant. Photo: Albemarle Charlottesville Regional jail
Kimberly Beckelman believes JADE arrested Luke after he refused to become an informant. Photo: Albemarle Charlottesville Regional jail

“They were harassing him,” says Holmes. “I don’t know how many times when I was with him, he’d look at his phone and have five texts that said, ‘If you don’t answer right away, we’re taking you to jail.’”

Lieutenant Joe Hatter is the head of JADE and he declined to be interviewed, referring C-VILLE to the chiefs of the four jurisdictions that supply officers to JADE. Charlottesville Police Captain Gary Pleasants and Albemarle Acting Deputy Chief Greg Jenkins, to whom the city and county officers assigned to JADE report, spoke with a reporter. And both expressed doubt JADE detectives would pressure someone into becoming a confidential informant.

“I don’t believe that,” says Jenkins. “I know for sure they’ve had people beg them to be informants. A lot of people get in trouble and want to work for us, and some we’ve said no to.”

“We don’t say, if you’re not going to work for us, we’re going to arrest you,” says Pleasants. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Nonetheless, on July 6, 2015, nearly a month after the June 9 bust, an arrest warrant was issued for Luke, who had been free on bond, according to court records. The day before an already scheduled July 9 court date he was arrested and taken to jail, where he spent the night.

Scared straight

The bust had an immediate and sobering effect on Luke, says his mother. He got three jobs. He said he was done with drugs. And he passed his court-ordered drug tests every time.

“He got up at 4am and was stocking shelves at Costco,” says Beckelman. “I’d never seen him so happy. It was like the child I hadn’t seen since the sixth grade.”

However, Luke was terrified about going to jail, she says.

Ryder also witnessed Luke try to clean up his act and quit drugs cold turkey. “He was so scared,” she says. “His head had been messed up for years from all the drug abuse, and now that he was sober, he realized what he had become and he was trying so hard to change.”

Those efforts didn’t seem to matter in court, say Ryder and his mom. When he went to court October 23, his lawyer, Lloyd Snook, told him that because he had more than an ounce of cocaine, pleading guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute was his best bet, according to Beckelman. Snook declined to comment on the case.

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Beckelman was in court with her son November 9 when Snook dropped a bombshell. When her house had been raided, agents seized $2,175 in cash, but Luke said he’d had around $4,000, according to his mom.

Snook brought up the missing money in court, and Charlottesville Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania asked for a special prosecutor. David Giroux with the Henrico commonwealth’s attorney’s office was appointed to investigate the allegation, and on January 19, nearly two months after Luke had died, reported there was “insufficient evidence” to take further action, according to court documents.

In court on November 9, Beckelman says, “The judge wasn’t giving Luke air in a jug. No one was saying anything for Luke because he had signed the plea.” According to Beckelman, the judge said he could give Luke the maximum prison sentence along with a $250,000 to $500,000 fine.

“I saw my son give up that day,” she says.

Holmes saw his friend struggle. “How would they expect anyone [20] years old to pay back half a million dollars working at Costco?” he asks.

Ryder had hoped treatment would be a possibility. “They gave him no option to rehabilitate his addiction,” she says. “I saw him lose hope as more days passed.”

A couple of days after that court hearing, Luke quit his job and started using drugs again. His mother didn’t know what he was on, but she knew he was high. His speech was barely intelligible. Later, she learned he was taking Xanax bars.

Xanax is an anti-anxiety drug in the same benzodiazepine class as Valium, Ativan and Klonopin. And it has been associated with abuse, says Dr. Chris Holstege, a UVA medical toxicologist. “If you take too much, it can make your speech slurred like someone who is drunk.”

In North Carolina for Thanksgiving, Luke seemed fine to his aunt. “He did mention a few times he wouldn’t see us for three years,” Becky Beckelman recalls.

But the day after Thanksgiving, Kimberly Beckelman saw him out beside her car drinking a tall beer, a no-no at her teetotaling parents’ house. “Kristie and I were so mad,” she says. “I asked him why he was trying to turn the people closest to him against him. He said, ‘Maybe that’s best because I won’t be here after January 9,’” the day he was to be sentenced.

They left and drove back to Charlottesville. On Saturday, November 28, Beckelman was still mad when she woke up. And when Luke got up, “He was still messed up and couldn’t speak,” she says. “I told him to go back to bed.”

A package arrived for Luke at the house, and she thought nothing of it because he was always ordering video games. She remembers looking at the clock, which said 12:01pm.

At 12:47pm, she called 911. “That’s when I heard a gunshot,” she says.

Paramedics told her he was still breathing, and all the way to the hospital, she thought he was going to be okay. A doctor and a policeman came into the room where she waited. “The doctor said, ‘With this type of wound, your son has zero chance of survival,’” she says. He instructed her to say her goodbyes, and she got on one side of Luke, and Ryder got on the other.

“My whole world went,” she says. “My whole world just fell out from under me.”

Drug interdiction and drug addicts

This is the last photo Kimberly Beckelman has of her and Luke (seated), taken three weeks before he died. With friend Dillon Brigman. Photo: Submitted photo
This is the last photo Kimberly Beckelman has of her and Luke (seated), taken three weeks before he died. With friend Dillon Brigman. Photo: Submitted photo

Seven months after her son put a gun to his head, Kimberly Beckelman still believes that the legal system treated Luke “like he was a piece in a game.” Not once, she says, did anyone say, this is a kid, this is an addict who needs help, not jail.

“Not once,” she repeats.

“He was a child,” she cries. “He was 20 years old. He was my child.”

Both Beckelman and Ryder point out that Luke’s brain wasn’t fully developed, particularly the part that understands consequences. “He was 20,” says his mother. “He thought he was invincible.”

For those Luke’s age, being charged with felony drug distribution and facing prison time can pretty much be the end of the world, says attorney Janice Redinger, who has represented other young people in the same situation. “It’s like making a huge mistake as a teenager,” she says, only one that’s not charged as a juvenile slip-up.

Redinger defended Ryan McLernan, a Western Albemarle High grad who was 20 when he sold $50 worth of heroin one time to a JADE informant. He was charged with felony distribution and faced five years in prison. McLernan admitted he was an addict, but maintained he wasn’t a drug dealer, and only scored heroin to sell because the informant, Taylor Magri, indicated he was going through withdrawal.

In court in January, an Albemarle jury found McLernan not guilty of distribution because of entrapment.

His mother, Karen McLernan, is still livid that JADE used Magri to set up 10 people and then left a string of felons in his wake, while he walked away with a pot possession charge in March. Magri, who had faced three felony distribution counts, admitted in court he moved from Florida to Charlottesville “to get clean,” and that he would say whatever he had to to get people to sell him drugs.

“Entrapment is illegal,” says Karen McLernan. And addiction is a brain disorder, not a moral failing, she says. “Why are we criminalizing a mental health issue?”

McLernan, a nurse, lists six people she knows of locally who have died from drug addiction, including Betsy Gilbertson, 25, who overdosed on heroin in March. Gilbertson had gone through withdrawal while she was in jail last year and had been clean up until that last time.

“They overdose when they get out of prison,” says McLernan. “They do their normal dose. Their body can’t handle it and they die.”

Heroin and prescription opioid use has reached “epidemic” proportion in Virginia, according to the Governor’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse.

Ryan McLernan became addicted to opioids after breaking his ribs. He was prescribed painkillers, and heroin became easier to obtain than prescription pills. Realizing his addiction was spiraling out of control, he had already begun taking methadone when he was arrested in 2015. “They don’t look at me like an addict who needs help,” he said after his acquittal. “They look at me like a felon who needs to be in jail.”

“It is not the policy of this office to target nonviolent addicts for criminal prosecution,” says Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci, whose office prosecuted McLernan.

“The distribution of addictive and dangerous narcotics is not victimless,” says Tracci. “Heroin overdoses now kill more Virginians than traffic fatalities, and the problem is growing.”

“If you’re asking, does JADE ask addicts to buy drugs to arrest other addicts, that’s not their focus,” says Jenkins with Albemarle police. “We’re not going out seeking those people.”

Joe Platania prosecuted Luke Beckelman. “Looking back, nothing stands out as atypical in the prosecution of Mr. Beckelman,” he says. “He agreed to accept responsibility and plead guilty to possessing a large amount of cocaine with the intent to sell it. Several charges were dropped in exchange for his plea, as is customary. I don’t recall any red flags surrounding potential mental health issues or statements about him harming himself. Those would have been taken very seriously by both this office and the court.”

JADE’s shifting landscape

drugs

The crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s was like the Wild West in Charlottesville, say cops from that era.

“When crack hit us in 1988, that was a hard time,” recalls Charlottesville police’s Gary Pleasants. “People were standing on street corners shooting at each other. There were open air drug markets.” Violence and break-ins increased, and it took about three years to get the crack epidemic under control, he says.

That level of violence and addiction led to the formation in 1995 of a multijurisdictional unit to focus on drug trafficking.

The Charlottesville Police Department assigns six people to the 12-man JADE unit, Albemarle sends four, and the University of Virginia Police and the Virginia State Police each contribute one detective. JADE also can get assists from an alphabet of federal law enforcement agencies: ATF, DEA and FBI.

After 9/11, the task force added terrorism to its mission. Unofficially, it’s also directed its efforts to prostitution stings and human trafficking, because those activities can be associated with drug use and distribution, according to Jenkins and Pleasants. “It’s not always possible to say from the outside,” says Pleasants. “So many things go hand in hand.”

“Human trafficking is one of our biggest concerns,” says Jenkins. “Pimps are using narcotics to keep women drugged. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle and we take that very seriously.”

Both Jenkins and Pleasants note the violent drug dealing that JADE has halted. In 2008, there were mid- and upper-level drug dealers who were doing drive-by shootings in the middle of the day, says Jenkins. “If it wasn’t for drug agents taking them down, we could have lost members of the community,” he says.

Three years ago, a gang of dealers from Culpeper moved into Charlottesville, and shooting ensued, says Pleasants, including a police standoff at Brown Collision Center on Seminole Trail. “We never know what crimes [JADE] has prevented,” he says.

“Investigations into violent crime by the JADE Task Force and the resulting prosecutions, in both state and federal court, have made Charlottesville a safer community,” says Platania.

Violence and the use and possession of firearms often go hand in hand with the distribution of illegal drugs, he says. “Those investigations and building those types of cases are the primary focus of JADE. If charged individuals are nonviolent addicts, every effort is made to identify them and divert them into substance abuse treatment.”

And, he adds, if guns and violence are not involved, prosecution of marijuana cases is not the priority of the Charlottesville commonwealth attorney’s office.

Concern about tactics

salaries

Some JADE-watchers believe its drug kingpin busts are few and far between, and that most of its efforts these days are setting up addicts and low-level dealers.

“It’s one thing if they’re violent, it’s one thing if they’re running an enterprise,” says Janice Redinger. But she contends that the majority of cases on a local court’s docket for distribution or possession with intent to distribute are all low-level buys.

“When you see ‘distribution of cocaine,’ the reality is it’s one or two buys of $50 each,” she says. “They don’t publish that it’s an 8-ball or a $50 buy.”

The use of the busted to buy drugs in return for a lesser sentence also raises other concerns—and has gotten some informants killed. The murder of Florida State grad Rachel Hoffman in 2008 led to “Rachel’s Law,” which established requirements for the use of police informants in Florida.

It was that fear that kept one woman, who was arrested in a 2015 JADE prostitution sting at the Courtyard Marriott on Hillsdale Drive, from becoming an informant. She spoke to C-VILLE only on the condition her name not be used, and said JADE offered to drop her misdemeanor charge if she bought drugs three times. A recovering addict, the woman believed she’d be putting herself and her kids at risk in a town the size of Charlottesville. Instead, she pleaded guilty and got a 90-day suspended sentence.

Redinger doesn’t think it’s surprising that so many people who are busted for drugs agree to be informants. “I’d have to think seriously hard about it if I had a felony charge,” she says. “The penalties are so draconian. They can’t afford not to do it. And JADE and the prosecution capitalize on these draconian sentences.”

Other attorneys agree. “I really think the problem is that we have ridiculously harsh punishments for drug offenses, as a result of which a threat of prosecution becomes an existential crisis and some people end up feeling they have to become informants or their lives are ruined,” says Snook. And for those who plan to go to law or med school, a felony conviction means abandoning a lifelong dream, he says.

“There isn’t even a drug rehabilitation program in Charlottesville,” says civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel. “As an institution, JADE wants to use substance abusers as stool pigeons.”

Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy is concerned that “we may treat certain people as criminals who have a disease. How do we turn the tide on that rather than put them in jail?” Bellamy wants to look at different methods other cities have used, such as needle-exchange programs that include treatment options, “the whole gamut,” he says.

Nikuyah Walker, who used to work for Region Ten, sees a racial element to the enforcement of drug laws, and she mentions Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“JADE has been wreaking havoc in the black community for years,” she says. “I don’t know a family in Charlottesville who isn’t a transplant to the community who doesn’t have a family member in prison.”

seizures

She also objects to the use of paid informants like Wanda Turner, to whom JADE paid $10,000 over two years, before she snapped and stabbed her crack cocaine-using buddy Eddie Snead 54 times in March 2012, according to a Daily Progress account of Turner’s 2013 trial.

“They’re using people who are suffering from addiction,” Walker says. “Now the conversation is changing because we have white upper- and middle-class people becoming addicts.”

And while drug court is an option for some who are arrested, it’s not a sure thing. “There are always more white people in drug court,” says Walker.

“The prosecution has to agree, and they won’t if JADE thinks a person is really a dealer more than an addict,” says Snook. “If the person is just a dummy who got caught up doing stuff he shouldn’t have been doing, but isn’t an addict, he is highly likely to get a conviction.”

Nationally, there’s been some recognition the war on drugs led to the United States having the largest prison population in the world. President Barack Obama has commuted the sentences of 348 nonviolent offenders incarcerated by “unduly harsh sentencing laws.”

On July 14, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan report, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, that addresses prescription drug abuse and overdose deaths—albeit without funding.

According to Senator Mark Warner, in 2015 alone, heroin and prescription drug overdoses claimed the lives of more than 850 Virginians, a nine percent increase over 2014. Since 2007, prescription painkillers and heroin have killed more than 4,400 people in the state.

Yet the Old Dominion is a state more prone to tighten rather than loosen penalties in its criminal justice system, and while other states have legalized or decriminalized marijuana possession, in the commonwealth, getting caught with a joint means losing your driver’s license for six months.

“We’re at a place where people feel hopeless,” says Walker. “Kids feel like they don’t have anywhere else to turn. Because of criminalization and stigma, they have nowhere to turn and they’re dying.”

Luke Beckelman loved life, says Kristie Ryder, who also saw him “go through a lot of struggle and pain in the years we were together. I know that’s why he resorted to drug use to numb his pain.”

Says his mom, “He was sweet and soft—and he was addicted to drugs.”