Marty explains that the Lawrence crews mostly come from Baní, a coastal city in the Dominican southland that sends its young to staff the dope game here. They start at the bottom—first as drones in basement rooms who cook and blend fentanyl all day; then as the runners who ferry the product; and then, if they’re cunning, as dealers themselves. It’s the rare kid from Baní who takes the last step: from dealer to wholesale supplier. “That’s where the money is, moving weight by the kilo,” Marty says. “You go down to the D.R. and drive the coastline there, you’ll see mansion after mansion on the beach.”
The real tycoons, however, are the mass producers—first Chapo and now his successors in Sinaloa. When DeLena launched his surge in the summer of 2015, he aspired to build cases that traced back to those men and empowered him to indict them from afar. “How do you tilt the battlefield? You extradite,” he says. “The only thing they fear more than death itself is spending the rest of their lives in Supermax”—the remote federal prison in central Colorado where kingpins and terrorists are sent. It is, by broad consensus, hell on earth: lockdown isolation in windowless cells and no contact with the world beyond its walls.
In the summer of 2015, DeLena sent his teams south to Lawrence, taking Interstate 93, the “Heroin Highway.” Their orders were to bust everyone they saw buying dope, then flip them for the names of their dealers. The first day, agents arrested 35 people and got many of them to flip on their dealers. They fitted the addicts with wires, then sent them back to the dealers to place their usual orders. After several buys, agents raided the dealers, going in hot in full armor. If the dealer was willing to flip, they’d put him to work, buying from the next guy up the chain. If not, they seized his phones and plugged his call logs into the DEA’s database in D.C.
By the end of that summer, they’d arrested 235 people, including the heads of various drug cells in Lawrence. “Those are the guys calling home to Baní, talking to the command-and-control bosses,” says DeLena. “And the bosses in Baní are talking to Sinaloa, arranging major shipments into Lawrence.” Recording those calls gave DeLena his prize ticket: sufficient grounds to charge foreign kingpins. “We’re at the end of the rainbow with two guys in the D.R.,” he says. That’s half the battle—the other half is jailing their Mexican partners. “When that happens, I promise: The worm’ll turn. They’ll start sending their dope somewhere—anywhere—else.”
In 25 years of law enforcement, DeLena has seen drug plagues come and go. Starting in the early ’90s as a sheriff ’s deputy in Florida, he was tossed, day one, into the crack pandemic, staging buy-and-busts on the anarchic western coast. At 23, he was detailed to Operation Schoolboy, in which he famously impersonated a high school junior to arrest dozens of students using date-rape drugs to sexually assault their girlfriends. That bust was his springboard to the DEA, where he quickly made a name working undercover. Stationed in Broward County during the powdered-cocaine boom, he nailed foreign traffickers in Miami Vice getups for quarter-ton shipments of blow. All told, he was in Florida almost 20 years, busting Colombian coke rings, cruise-ship drug mules, and prescription-pill-mill owners.
DeLena comes honestly by his hatred of drugs; addiction cracked his family down the middle. The second son of a sober Irish mother and a high-times Italian father, DeLena watched his dad deteriorate into a junkie who betrayed, and later abandoned, his wife and kids. The house they shared with his mother’s parents was like something out of O’Neill. The grandfather living above them was a prison guard; DeLena revered him and would sneak upstairs to play with his gun and badge. DeLena also snooped in his father’s things; invariably, he’d find his weed and coke and the Xanax “he gulped like Chiclets.”
Dad left for good when DeLena was 16; the two men haven’t spoken since. Meanwhile, his high school was packed with kids busy making their beds on the wrong side. “You’d see ’em on the corner, selling this, that, the third. I was lost, but at least I knew, fuck it, that ain’t me.” After a year at a local college, he packed everything in his car and drove to Florida. He finished his B.A. there, paid his way to the police academy, and began to climb the ladder in drug enforcement. But he always kept in touch with his friends in Revere, getting updates on the ones who didn’t make it. A couple of ex-classmates overdosed and died; others lost their freedom and/or loved ones to opioid addictions.
And so, when the New Hampshire job opened, he leapt at the chance to go home. He moved his family north and bought a house near Manchester—then struggled to find tradesmen to fix it up. Most of the local painters and plumbers couldn’t keep a staff. “Their workers showed up high or didn’t show at all. The contractors had to do the job themselves.” At the big mall in Nashua, there were signs in every window: help wanted. top dollar paid. This thing, this fentanyl, was everywhere he looked; he couldn’t just jail all the addicts. There had to be a second, soft-power thrust: He’d have to change the culture of the place.
Around the time of Eve Tarmey’s overdose, a death notice ran in the Exeter News-Letter for Adam Moser, age 27. Composed by his parents, Jim and Jeanne Moser, it dispensed with the usual platitudes—“Adam died after a long illness.” Instead, the Mosers wrote, Adam had “left too soon after making a bad decision.” Several sentences on came a direct appeal: “Please stop [drugging] before you or a loved one” dies. “There’s no turning back, no do-overs.”
It was among the first of its kind in New Hampshire papers: the so-called blunt obituary. The Mosers didn’t coin it; Jim had read one months before about a local girl dead of drugs.
But they were determined to tell the truth about their son, who seemed to all who knew him like the last kid on earth who’d succumb to drugs. Adam was a two-sport star in high school and a math whiz in college who could have written his own ticket on Wall Street. Strangely, he chose to work with his hands, as a stonemason and sailor and knockabout tradesman. This baffled his parents, who rode him about it but eventually let the matter go. They decided he’d find his calling in due course.
Their house is on a lush lane in East Kingston, about a half-hour drive from Manchester. Jim, in his 60s, is a hospital technician who assists surgeons in the OR. Jeanne, a slender blonde, is a fund-raising officer at a nearby private school. They take me into their vaulted den, where they’ve set up a shrine to Adam. On the shelving unit where his ashes rest, there are photos and plaques with Adam’s inscriptions, as well as mementos of his passion, deep-sea fishing. “He spent a season on that show Wicked Tuna,” says Jeanne. “It wasn’t the fun he’d hoped for, but he made it into most of the scenes.”
After the taping ended, Adam settled in Portsmouth, where he rented a big house with some friends. One Saturday, the bunch of them were drinking at home when Adam became disoriented and went upstairs. His friends piled out to dinner and came back a couple of hours later, poking in to see how he was feeling. He wasn’t in his room, so they checked around the house. They found him in a spare room, dead for an hour. He’d used fentanyl for the second time in his life.
That night, the Mosers were awakened by a knock from a trooper. They sat there, drop- jawed, as he told them the news; it was the first they’d heard of their son abusing drugs. They knew he’d taken pain pills, because who in this house hadn’t? Each of their four children had played contact sports, and Jim and Jeanne were workout junkies, going till their joints wore out. “The pills were just…around,” Jim says. “But they were meant for pain, prescribed by a doctor. We were just completely ignorant.”
They began to assemble the facts from the texts and mail on Adam’s phone. In high school, pills had been his weekend “hobby”; he sneaked them from the vials of unused Percs his parents kept in the kitchen. By the time he graduated Temple, he was all but addicted to Oxys. Now the Mosers knew why he hadn’t sought a desk job: He’d never have passed a corporate drug test. They also learned why he was always broke: He paid $200 for pills every couple of days. And they found that he’d made a pact with himself: that he’d never stoop to using fentanyl. He died snorting, not shooting, a standard dose.
The Mosers aren’t people who sit still in grief; even loss presents a path forward. Within weeks of the funeral, Jim was at the local high school, asking to address its 1,600 students about the lessons he’d learned from Adam’s death. The principal suggested a short video instead; the Mosers produced a 16-minute film and returned to the school to screen it. Called “Just the One Time,” it honored their son through the haunted recollections of his friends—eight young people who’d loved him deeply but were mostly in the dark about his jones. Naivety is the leitmotif of the film: “We never found out he had a problem,” says Jim, struggling to speak through sobs. “The moment we did, he was dead.”
Their film left a mark on the students who watched it; sobs could be heard throughout the screening. It also caught the attention of the state’s drug czar, James Vara. He invited the Mosers to a task force meeting; among the chiefs attending was Jon DeLena.
When DeLena gave his talk, he said nothing about pills, pounding home the fentanyl scourge instead. Jim Moser was incensed; he cornered him later about the death-link between pills and powder. DeLena apologized, and the two men got to talking. Moser told him about a program he’d just launched, a take-back initiative called Zero Left. For patients sent home with a scrip for pain meds, his hospital provided free, charcoal-filtered bags in which to dump—and deactivate—unused pills. DeLena loved the idea, and invited the Mosers to an upcoming rally for teens. Called the New Hampshire Youth Summit on Opioid Awareness, it would bring together pop stars, athletes, and politicians to address thousands of schoolkids from the state. It was the crowning event of DeLena’s two-year campaign to talk to youths where they were—at high schools and middle schools and Boys & Girls Clubs. If he could just reach them with stories like the Mosers’, show them the face of intolerable loss, then maybe he could keep kids out of their parents’ bathroom, where most of this misery began.
On a raw March weekday in 2017, convoys of school buses file through the gates of Southern New Hampshire University. Eight thousand kids, from all corners of the state, pack the arena to the rafters. A DJ and a rapper hype the house before a procession of officials take the stage. New Hampshire’s Governor Chris Sununu discusses the terrors of opioids; Attorney General Jeff Sessions vows to get the thugs who sell these drugs. By the time DeLena gets up to give his talk, the air has gone out of the room. He does his best to goose it with an urgent plea, asking every kid to join him in this fight, become an army of “upstanders, not bystanders.”
Then the place goes dark and a film comes on about two friends who get hooked on pills. Produced by Jim Wahlberg, the brother of Mark and Donny, If Only depicts the forking roads taken by the teens. The first kid is caught by his eagle-eyed mother and consents to a rehab stay. He gets sober there and resolves to live clean. Just before graduation, he learns that his friend has OD’d and died.
Two things happen next that electrify the room. As credit music rolls, the film shows local parents holding up pictures of their dead children. It’s a shattering tableau: photo after photo of kids in their 20s, ruddy, clear-eyed, alive. Then the lights dim again, and when they come up, more than 100 parents are standing together on stage. They clutch their kids’ photos to their chests; some sob, some rock in place.
Jeanne Moser takes the mike and, in a wobbly voice, says, “For us, that’s no movie: That was real. Each one of us will never share a moment with our child. We miss him every day. All of us do.” She hands the mike to Jim, who gathers himself. “Go home tonight and talk to your parents,” he begs the kids. “Do it for your family, your friends, yourself. And do it for all of us here onstage, who’ll have an empty chair at our dining table for the rest of our lives.”
A moment passes—a collective, stunned silence—and then the high beams strobe. From every corner, kids are holding up their cell phones, shining their flashlights back. Jon DeLena, standing side stage, feels his throat thicken: Signal sent and received.