Return to Dust: Bane of the ’70s, PCP Now a Supporting Player in the Saga of Aaron Hernandez
This post has been updated to reflect the latest developments in the criminal case against Aaron Hernandez.
The powerful street drug PCP, largely unheard of since its violent heyday in the 1970s, may go higher profile as the saga of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez continues to unfold. Hernandez, already charged with murder in the execution-style slaying of former semipro football player Odin Lloyd, now faces two more murder charges in connection with a drive-by shooting outside a Boston nightclub.
According to a report in Rolling Stone magazine, about the time Hernandez signed a $40-million contract with the Patriots in August 2012, he began habitually using the notorious drug known as “angel dust” during a period of escalating bad behavior that reportedly ended in the execution-style slaying of his friend Lloyd in 2013.
Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and weapons charges in Lloyd’s death. His first court appearance on the latest murder charges is set for May 28.
“Aaron’s out of his mind,” an unnamed Hernandez family friend told Rolling Stone. “He’s been twisted on dust now for more than a year, which is when all of this crazy s— started.”
Angel dust has taken a back seat to more recent scourges like cocaine and methamphetamine during the last 30 years. But the hallucinogen known for making its users aggressive, paranoid, even psychotic, has recently staged a comeback in pockets of larger American cities, says one of law enforcement’s foremost PCP authorities.
‘I Want a Kobe’
PCP is a trifecta of stimulant, depressant and hallucinogen that causes a dream-like state, but at higher doses may leave the user with a sense of being invincible, says Los Angeles Police Department narcotics Det. Frank Lyga, who has investigated PCP for more than 16 years. Lyga, a member of California’s only complete clandestine lab team not run by the DEA, testifies in PCP cases throughout the country, in New York, Nevada and Texas, and such cities as Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. While angel dust sounds powdery, PCP is used almost entirely as a liquid, and ordered on the street by code.
“It’s sold using basketball names for the amount wanted,” Lyga said. For example, code for 24 ounces of the drug would be a reference to Kobe Bryant, No. 24 for the Lakers. “So,” Lyga says, “they’ll call up and say ‘I want a Kobe’ or ‘I want a Shaq.’ Or, ‘You want a Lamar?’ ”
Developed in the 1950s as an intravenous anesthetic, PCP’s use was discontinued due to the high incidence of patients experiencing postoperative delirium with hallucinations. PCP is no longer produced or used for medical purposes in the United States. However, once it became a recreational drug of choice in the 1970s, angel dust was the stuff of legend among police officers for the almost superhuman strength and aggressiveness of people they encountered under its influence.
“There’s a saying on the street, ‘two puffs I’m good, three puffs I’m whacked,’ which is when people do crazy stuff like pull out their own teeth,” Lyga said. Based on increased production and levels of seized product in places where gangs have spread, there’s been a rise in PCP use in many regions of America.
One of those places is Bristol, Conn., Hernandez’s hometown. “We have been experiencing a resurgence in the use of angel dust,” Bristol Det. Lt. Kevin Morrell told Rolling Stone. “We deal with it all the time.”
The use of PCP, also called “wet,” is reported to have contributed to Hernandez’s alleged manic behavior during the months leading up to his arrest. During that time, he became so paranoid that he installed 14 security cameras in his mansion and began carrying a handgun in his gym bag, according to the magazine.
“Angel dust had begun to take him on this real death spiral for the last 13 to 14 months,” Rolling Stone writer Paul Solotaroff told Boston’s CBS News, “which is when the really deranged behavior began.”
It is not known whether PCP will ultimately be introduced by the defense or the prosecution in Hernandez’s murder trial. Nevertheless, Hernandez’s story has cast light on the growth of one of the most dangerous drugs to hit the streets.
Nation’s PCP Is Coming From L.A.
Los Angeles is the nation’s epicenter of angel dust production, according to Lyga and others in law enforcement.
“PCP production and distribution from Los Angeles has been increasing steadily,” DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said. “Los Angeles-based street gangs continue to dominate the manufacture and distribution of PCP, continuing to serve as a major source area for PCP seized in, or destined for, other parts of the country [including] the Midwest and East Coast cities.”
Lyga said many police agencies don’t have the experience or the desire to deal with PCP users, who may violently resist arrest, which makes for unflattering cell phone videos “for the blue-suiters.” Lately, PCP has been mistaken by law enforcement for bath salts.
“[Last] July, for instance, a suspected PCP lab blew up a house outside Atlanta on a Saturday, Lyga said, “and the DEA called on Wednesday to have me write up the search warrant for what chemicals they should be looking for. A lot of police departments don’t have the experience [with PCP] to know what they’re finding.”
But the drug is out there and moving interstate, Lyga said, most popularly via the U.S. Postal Service.
“My team of people and a couple of others, including the U.S. postal inspector, are intercepting PCP on a regular basis being shipped across the country,” Lyga said, “so the seizure amount is up from years past.”
Just last year, $100 million worth of PCP – considered the largest PCP bust ever – was seized in Los Angeles and Culver City by the team on which Lyga and other Southern California police officers serve. Lt. Scott Fairfield of the Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Crime Task Force, known as L.A. IMPACT, announced the seizure of 130 gallons of finished PCP, 1,000 gallons of PCP-making chemical to produce millions more of the drug, as well as assault rifles and $389,000 in cash. Suspected gang members were arrested and raids conducted on several locations. (What was first announced in the media as 500 gallons of the chemical was, Lyga said, based on his preliminary estimate, and the actual amount was about 1,000 gallons.)
Though production and trafficking are up, and police in some cities report an uptick of problems, PCP’s criminal profile has remained low for some years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The District of Columbia is the big exception. The Office of National Drug Control policy reports that D.C. leads the nation in PCP arrests, with 12 percent of men detained last year having PCP in their systems, according to a recent Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program.
Results from the U.S. government’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health published in September show that the number of past-year initiates of PCP aged 12 or older was 90,000 in 2012, up from the 2011 estimate of 48,000.
In Camden, N.J., PCP is growing in popularity among young men and women, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Philadelphia/Camden drug market analysis, which notes the drug is “less expensive than crack cocaine.” Authorities in Monroe, La., have had a string of arrests over the summer surrounding people using PCP, reports KNOE News. “Not sure why that is, but when there is an influx in PCP in the area, we see an increase in number of calls when people are exhibiting bizarre behavior,” said Jimmy Fried with the Monroe Police Department.
Authorities in Missouri are also seeing an uptick in the use of PCP, according to Fox4kc.com. Kansas City police believe the drug may be responsible for an attack on an ambulance worker in 2012. The news station reported that “Kansas City police are investigating the use of PCP in the city’s urban core, trying to figure out where the drug is coming from.”
‘Functioning Addicts’ on West Coast
Lyga, the PCP specialist who trains law enforcement on how to recognize and handle angel dust, says most users go unnoticed; the drug’s quick evaporation on a cigarette and lack of odor helps PCP users fly under the radar.
One drop on the end of a cigarette, two puffs, and the $10- to $20-high typically peaks at four to eight hours, but may leave a user altered for 24 hours. And it is not uncommon to find users “dipping” the cigarette into the PCP, which is the equivalent of up to 60 times one dose, said Lyga, adding, “that’s when more of the bizarre and violent behavior happens.”
“We have people under the influence [on the West Coast] but they’re functioning addicts,” Lyga said, meaning they don’t seem to overdose and attract attention or medical aid, hospital visits being one measure of use. “The rest of the country, they are being overwhelmed with PCP, which is becoming the drug of choice for the rest of the United States,” Lyga said. “Gang members from South L.A. produce it nationwide and they own a monopoly; it all comes from here, 95 to 99% comes from here.”
L.A. gangs are either transporting it or have members who have relocated cross-country.
“My gangs here, they ship it UPS, priority mail, people fly into L.A .almost daily to pick it up and carry it out,” Lyga said. “They’ve been known to mail it to legitimate businesses, and they sit out front in the car. When the tractor-trailer driver [with deliveries] pulls up, they jump in, sign for it and off they go.”
The difference between a light-headed, out-of-body high and an overdose of PCP is astonishing.
Lyga noted a horrific case on which he recently commented in a segment of A&E’s Biography program about an aspiring rapper named Antron Singleton, aka Big Lurch. Dubbed the Cannibal Rapper on Hiphopp03ress.com, he said during the program’s prison interview that in April 2002, he was hallucinating on PCP when he says he was driven to rid his girlfriend of the demons inhabiting her. He devoured some of her organs and part of her face. Lyga says in such cases, the prevailing cultural horror story — right now zombies are big — will often emerge in the tales of criminals who describe hearing voices directing them to kill some demonic creature.
While other drugs, such as meth and cocaine may get more ink in the media, PCP manufacturing is actively raided.
“There’s 150 to 200 gallons a year that I seize,” Lyga said. “There are 76,800 doses in one gallon. That’s more than 15 million doses worth of PCP confiscated in the Los Angeles area alone — not the amount of the drug actually in play. We’re good at what we do, but we get under 1 percent of it, and rarely do we get a lab or a big bunch of the stuff because it’s … sold fast.” The drug is “not physically addicting; it’s psychologically addicting,” Lyga said. “It’s a stimulant, a depressive and a hallucinogen — all three at one time.”
From the medical perspective, “PCP is the fifth-largest cause of emergency room visits of all illicit drugs with 75,000 [emergency room] visits a year in the U.S.,” said Dr. David Sack, CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, who treats addicts of all kinds.
“PCP has a high incidence of psychiatric complications including hallucinations, agitation, anxiety, paranoia, perceptual changes, irritability and unpredictable behavior,” Dr. Sack said. “Historically, PCP appealed to young adults and was frequently used in combination with marijuana. We have not seen a marked uptick at our programs and it is remains relatively uncommon compared with other illicit drugs in our centers.”
The effects of angel dust are legendary in law enforcement. “Kids fighting four of us and running naked down the street because their body temp is going through the roof,” Morrell said to Rolling Stone. In the ’70s, before there was widespread use of meth and crack, “dust was the madman’s drug of choice,” the magazine reported. It was banned for its “psych-ward side effects: mania, delirium, violent hallucinations.”
A wealth of PCP arrests has led Slate.com to create a regular feature called “The Month in PCP,” with a July segment featuring the story of a 32-year-old driver who hit three employees, a fire hydrant, a parking meter, a tree, and a man riding a Citi Bike. The driver, who allegedly had a bag of PCP in his sock, kept asking, “Am I dead?” when authorities arrived.
Here are some other PCP-related crimes:
A Texas mother was arrested May 22 for allegedly trying to drown her 4- and 6-year-old daughters in a bathtub while high on PCP. According to police documents, Sonja Gardner, who said she had smoked marijuana laced with PCP, decided to kill her daughters after they asked her for snacks.
Camden, N.J., resident Osvaldo Rivera, 31, told police that he smoked a combination of PCP and pot before he allegedly slit the throats of a 6-year-old boy and his 12-year-old sister in September 2012.
Also in Camden, authorities say Chevonne Thomas was smoking PCP before beheading her 2-year-old son, Zahree, putting his head in a freezer, and then killing herself in August 2012.
In Oklahoma City, a man reportedly high on PCP was arrested after he was seen running down the street naked. The man’s mother said that when she tried to talk to him, he yelled “Alah to God! I am Bootsey.”
And in a story that received international attention, police say a patient on PCP being taken to the hospital in the District of Columbia by an ambulance jumped out and stole a second ambulance that had arrived to help him.
Nancy Wride is a senior writer at Elements Behavioral Health. Before coming to Elements, Wride spent more than two decades as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.
Top photo: A burned-out PCP lab in Los Angeles.