For love or money, women carry drugs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Debra Anderson did it for money. Rose Times thought she was doing it for love.

For $900 to pay bills and buy her daughter Christmas gifts, Ms. Anderson carried 2 pounds of heroin in an overnight bag for two young men she knew only as "A.J." and "Snapper." Ms. Times brought a pound of crack cocaine in the waistband of her girdle for a man named Rudy, who had promised to marry her.

They became couriers, joining the underground artery that carries drugs from New York to feed Baltimore's insatiable habit. Aware of the hazard of arrest, most drug dealers recruit naive or desperate people to take the trip by car, bus or train from the wholesale markets of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx to retail cities like Baltimore.

Often, they recruit women.

Of the 612 people sentenced in state court for smuggling drugs into Maryland since 1983, three-quarters have been men. But the number of women has increased dramatically in recent years. Between 1983 and 1988, 13 times as many men as women were sentenced for bringing drugs into Maryland. Between 1989 and 1993, men outnumbered women only 2 to 1.

After detectives collared Ms. Anderson and Ms. Times in Baltimore, the women learned too late why drug dealers prefer to delegate the smuggling role to others -- usually to people who know few details of the dealers' operations.

Unable to offer prosecutors much inside information, each woman got five years in prison, though neither had a criminal record and both had small children. The men who gave them the drugs beat the charges. The women have not heard from them since.

"We all have the same stories," says Ms. Times, 24, sitting in a windowless office at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

Inside the Jessup prison, she says, the dozens of women serving time for drug smuggling swap tales of undercover detectives they never suspected, fail-safe hiding places that failed, dealers who assured them that women always get off with a warning. They speak of children left behind and vow to keep their daughters clear of the web spun by the drug dealers.

Ms. Times says she feels guilt, especially since inmates with "abscesses on their arms" have given her a crash course on the destruction wrought by drugs. But she also feels anger at the man who abandoned her after she broke the law to help him.

"He took the best four years of my children's lives away from me," she says. "I'd like to ask him,'Why?' "

She understands that no one sees as victims the people who deliver the poison that saps the city's life. But she sees inequity in the way couriers sit in prison while the dealers who hired them remain free to sell more drugs.

The couriers, says Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, are "disposable drug mules, who are used to carry the drugs from here to there and then get abandoned. . . . They're used in the worst possible fashion. They're the ones caught with heavy amounts of drugs. They're the ones who are prosecuted. They're the ones who have to scratch and claw to get a lawyer. They're the ones who go to prison."

Debra Anderson discovered that the hard way.

Now 36, she grew up in the Bronx and finished community college before spending a decade working for an insurance company. Then, like three of her four siblings, she got addicted to crack. She lost her job and spent a few years on welfare.

By 1990, she had kicked her habit and was working part time, hoping to get off welfare and back on track. But in her Bronx housing project, drugs surrounded her. A neighbor named Peggy, who was busy selling cocaine, began paying Ms. Anderson $25 a week to walk her daughter to and from elementary school with Ms. Anderson's daughter, Manda.

One night Peggy came by Ms. Anderson's apartment with an unexpected offer.

"You want to take a trip?" Peggy asked. "To take a package to Baltimore?"

"I asked her what the package was. She said, 'Don't worry about it.' I said, 'No, I don't want to do it.' She said, 'You'll get $900.' I said, 'I'm not going.' "

Peggy left. Ms. Anderson lay in bed and couldn't get the money out of her head. "I thought, 'Christmas is coming. I could pay the phone bill. For once I could get my daughter her wants as well as her needs.' "

After midnight, she leapt from bed, dressed, crossed the courtyard to Peggy's apartment and told her she'd changed her mind.

The next night, she was in a cab headed for the train station with two young men whom Peggy, the go-between, had introduced as A.J. and Snapper. Snapper gave Ms. Anderson $55 for a train ticket, $10 for a cab to "Martin Luther King and Pennsylvania" -- the Baltimore rendezvous point -- and a plastic shoe bag with a drawstring at the top.

She put it in her blue vinyl tote bag without looking inside.

It was her first ride on an Amtrak train, her first visit to Maryland, her first time smuggling drugs. Soon, it would end with her first arrest. As she stepped out of Baltimore's Penn Station into the morning rush hour, an Amtrak security man tapped her on the shoulder. "I was shaking, shaking all the way down to my knees," she says.

Detectives had photographs of A.J. and Snapper, who had ridden in a different car. They indignantly told detectives they had nothing to do with Ms. Anderson.

In a little room at the train station, the officers pulled a brown paper sack from the shoe bag, and two Zip-Loc bags from the paper sack. They inverted the Zip-Loc bags and dumped out 2,001 glassine bags of heroin. For the first time, Debra Anderson saw what she had been carrying.

"The first thing I thought was, 'Oh, man, stupid! I'm going to jail,' " she says.

During five months in the Baltimore City Detention Center, she pondered what her case would mean for her daughter, then 7 years old. "I'd sit there and think about what happened and cry and cry," she recalls.

She was willing to turn state's witness -- but her public defender said she didn't know enough to interest the state. On trial day, her lawyer came to the courthouse holding cell.

"He came down and told me, 'Judge [Thomas] Ward's going to give you 12 years, the first five without parole.' " She protested to the lawyer that she had no criminal record, had a daughter, was trying to get a job. He shrugged. The plea-bargain assembly line for drug cases does not slow down for the tedious details of one defendant's life.

She got 12 years. Charges against A.J. and Snapper were dropped the same day.

After her third letter to Judge Ward, he cut her sentence to five years without parole. With time off for good behavior, she is scheduled for release this month.

Her daughter is 10 now, living with relatives, doing well in school and running in a police track league. Ms. Anderson says she is determined to get her daughter out of New York City, to flee the drug trade -- perhaps for South Carolina, where her younger sister has bought a small piece of land.

"If I was not saved, I'd feel revenge, hate," she says. Instead, she chooses to warn other women away from the temptation to which she succumbed:

"Don't be a fool. Don't be stupid. It's not worth it. You're going to pay, one way or another."

Lure for single mothers

A decade or so back, the big heroin-trafficking organizations that dominated Baltimore's drug industry never would have entrusted the New York-Baltimore trip to a naive outsider like Debra Anderson. Couriers were trusted employees of a drug ring, narcotics detectives say.

But the cocaine boom of the 1980s spawned scores of corner drug crews that found their own connections in New York, where wholesale drug prices are about 50 percent lower than in Baltimore. The newer dealers began subcontracting transport to amateurs.

Even the increase in the number of women arrested smuggling drugs in recent years may understate their role as drug couriers, interviews with a number of couriers suggest.

"I've met very few [male] dealers who carry it themselves," says Racquel Carter, 22, who made regular courier runs for Baltimore dealers between 1990 and her arrest in 1992. "It may be a child, or it may be an old lady, but it's a female."

Another Baltimore woman who has made about 30 courier trips to New York says she knows 25 women who worked as drug couriers -- and only one man. "The dealers I know don't carry drugs -- not interstate. When they come back [from a drug-buying trip to New York], the woman always has the drugs," says this courier, a 26-year-old hairdresser and former prison guard. Like several Baltimore women interviewed, she asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from local dealers.

Because police watch for cars that are stolen or rented, and a car lent by the dealer may lead detectives back to him, many dealers prefer to buy a courier a bus or train ticket.

"They'll dress her, make sure she's in casual clothes," says Ms. Carter, who recently got out of prison and vows to stay out of the drug trade. "If she's a drug user, they'll make sure she looks OK, that she doesn't stick out."

The payment for a New York-Baltimore trip runs from $500 to $2,000 or more in cash, or the equivalent in goods or drugs. The money is a powerful lure for many single mothers.

"Men are not as [financially] desperate as women," says a 37-year-old Baltimore woman who supports two children and one grandchild. She was arrested outside the downtown Baltimore bus station with a kilogram of cocaine on her second drug run, for which she was to be paid $1,500.

"Women got kids," she says. "They got a house to take care of. Men don't have anyone to worry about but themselves."

The only time money is not the motive is when the woman is romantically involved with a dealer -- or has hopes for a relationship.

"They're looking for a strong man to rely on, and in the drug dealer they think they've found one," says Ariane Swann, 29, who has interviewed many couriers in her job as a counselor at the prison system's pre-release unit for women in West Baltimore.

Sex between male dealers and their female couriers is common, Ms. Carter says -- "Where there's drugs, there's always sex" -- but a lasting relationship is rare.

"If she's young, she may believe there's a real relationship," she says. "She'll learn. It's almost the relationship between a pimp and a prostitute," but instead of the threat of beatings, there is a threat of "not having," of being cut off from a source of money.

"You can be easily replaced," she says.

Bitter lesson

Today Rose Times is sure she has been replaced. A few years ago she didn't believe it was possible.

When she met Rudy, she was just 18, the single mother of a toddler daughter and an infant son, a high school graduate who loved science. Rudy was a suave, generous Jamaican twice her age who seemed never short of cash.

She had held clerical jobs at Bloomingdale's, the telephone company and a check-cashing service. But Rudy brought adventure and elegance to her humdrum existence.

"I remember Rudy's first gift -- a dozen gold bangles that cost about $50 each. We were going to clubs, me hanging on his arm. We'd go out to dinner. We'd go to Virginia Beach, to his aunt's townhouse."

She discovered the source of Rudy's money one day when she surprised him opening a suit bag delivered from an overseas flight. Inside were bags of marijuana packed with orange peel, carrot slices and fabric softener to throw off drug-sniffing dogs. As the months passed, she learned more: that Rudy sometimes carried a gun, that he had served time in prison in Texas, that he had identifications with half a dozen names.

Ms. Times didn't like any of it. But, like her, Rudy never used drugs. "He kept it out of the house and away from the children," and that was good enough for her, she says.

Then, in January 1990, Rudy lost a shipment of marijuana and was suddenly desperate for cash. He and a friend had some cocaine they wanted to sell to dealers in Baltimore, he said, but someone would have to carry it there. Ms. Times volunteered.

"Everything was new to me. I was like a dummy, and they were dressing me," she recalls. The men gave her a girdle, and in the waistband she fitted two sandwich bags full of crack.

The three of them sat in the same car on the train to Baltimore -- Rudy near the front, Ms. Times in the middle, and Rudy's friend near the back. When the conductor sat down beside her to chat, she coolly recited a cover story about visiting a sister in Baltimore.

Even when detectives stopped her and Rudy and found the drugs, she didn't panic. "I was thinking, 'It's my first time, and I'm going home.' I knew Rudy would get me out of it, because he loved me," she says.

In anticipation of his chivalry, she protected her man. When police showed her a Polaroid picture of Rudy, she insisted that she had never seen him before.

Rudy said the same about her. Finding no drugs on him, police let him go. She went to jail, believing that Rudy would soon arrange to bail her out, hire a good lawyer, get her out of this mess he'd gotten her into. By the time she went to prison with a five-year, no-parole term, her hope of rescue from Rudy was long gone, leaving a residue of bitterness.

"I thought he would pay for a lawyer, pay my bail, send me clothes, send me money orders, help out my children through my mother," she says. He never sent so much as a postcard.

As freedom draws near, Ms. Times looks forward to a reunion with her children and other relatives, including her 103-year-old grandfather. She is determined to sit down for a frank talk with a close family friend, a 19-year-old woman who is spending time with a drug dealer.

If the dealer is trying to talk the woman into carrying drugs, she'll offer some simple common sense that she has purchased at a steep price.

"If he loves you," Rose Times says, "he'll risk his freedom and not yours."

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