Did They Have to Die?

Police were investigating Gwinnett dealer as three overdosed with his drugs


Police orchestrated their first drug sting at Carlos Ramirez’ Gwinnett County home two years ago. Appearing undercover at the drab gray house in Lilburn, an officer working for the county’s Metro Task Force bought 55 grams of methamphetamine.

County narcotics officers showed up next. Operating covertly over the next two months, they repeatedly bought heroin from Ramirez, methodically gathering intelligence they said helped them dismantle a massive drug ring with ties to Mexico.

But it was all too late for three people who died after overdosing on the heroin — laced with a powerful painkiller called fentanyl — that Ramirez and his girlfriend sold them while they were under investigation. The tragic deaths illuminate the race-against-time dilemma for local police battling a nationwide opioid and heroin overdose epidemic, a crisis that is now killing more people than car crashes: Grab the dealer now or take the riskier route with the bigger payoff and work your way slowly to his suppliers?

The case also underscores gaps in the nation’s immigration enforcement system at a time when illegal immigration remains a red hot issue in the presidential race. Ramirez and most of the other 15 suspects who were arrested following the undercover investigations in Gwinnett are Mexican natives living illegally in the U.S., according to a Gwinnett prosecutor. Ramirez’ unlawful status went undetected in the U.S. for many years before he was busted in Gwinnett, despite at least four prior arrests and several stints behind bars in Florida and Georgia, public records show.

It all angers Pat Strickland. She wonders why authorities didn’t catch on sooner to Ramirez, who prosecutors have connected to her 33-year-old daughter’s death. Strickland vividly recalls trying to resuscitate her daughter, Stephanie Futrell, after finding her body in her cluttered upstairs bedroom the day after Thanksgiving two years ago. A lively Phoenix High School graduate who liked poetry and who had aspired to be a journalist, Futrell died after overdosing on heroin that prosecutors say came from Ramirez.

“Why was that man still in the country?” said Strickland, a legal assistant who is now raising Futrell’s two young boys in Tucker. “Why did they keep picking him up and letting him go?”

“Sorry your daughter died”

Futrell’s family fondly remembers her bigheartedness, her keen sense of humor and her desire to make people laugh. But they also recall the rapid mood changes that came with her drug use. She started abusing a pain medication called Lortab in her 20s and eventually moved to heroin. Before succumbing to her years-long addiction, Futrell survived at least one heroin overdose. Her mother found her passed out in their bathroom on Sept. 3, 2014.

“We got her up. We got her in the shower,” Strickland said. “We called the ambulance, the police. Everybody came.”

Once her daughter came to, Strickland said, she reluctantly told a Gwinnett County police officer she bought the drugs from a man named Carlos Ramirez at an address on Chisholm Way in Lilburn. The officer’s police report makes no mention of Ramirez or that address.

But before the end of that month, an undercover Gwinnett Metro Task Force officer would buy some methamphetamine from Ramirez at the Chisholm Way address. A spokeswoman for the task force — which includes the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office and some of the municipal police departments in the county — said the investigators were acting on information from a source, though she declined to identify that person. The task force backed off its investigation after learning Gwinnett County police were already probing Ramirez, Gwinnett Sheriff’s Deputy Shannon Volkodav said.

Six days later, Tracy Childs went to the house on Chisholm Way and bought heroin mixed with fentanyl from Ramirez. She died from an overdose at a Waffle House in Lilburn that day. And three days after that, Jordan Johnson bought heroin laced with fentanyl from Ramirez at the same location and died from an overdose the same day. Johnson’s mother declined to comment. And Childs’ relatives could not be reached.

An undercover Gwinnett County narcotics officer went to the Chisholm Way address later that month to investigate the two overdose deaths and “everybody was pointing a finger at” Ramirez, court records show. But instead of arresting him, the undercover officer — and a confidential informant for the police — bought some methamphetamine and heroin from Ramirez that same day. The officer would buy heroin from Ramirez four more times through October and November.

Four days after the last undercover drug buy, Lilburn police arrested Ramirez on a shoplifting charge at a local Walmart and took him to the Gwinnett jail. Authorities secretly listened to Ramirez as he called his girlfriend from the jail and asked her to go to his car in the Walmart parking lot and get his heroin and cell phone. They agreed she would continue to sell his drugs and give the proceeds to his parents. Ramirez’ girlfriend later sold a half an ounce of heroin to the Gwinnett undercover officer at a Taco Bell, court records show.

On Nov. 28, Ramirez’ girlfriend would have another customer: Stephanie Futrell. She bought some of the leftover heroin and died from an overdose later that day.

Strickland said she believes her daughter and the others could still be alive had police arrested Ramirez sooner. Gwinnett police – who said they started probing Ramirez based on information supplied by sources other than Futrell — argue they probably saved many more lives by carefully investigating him and busting the larger drug operation to which he belonged. A few months after Ramirez went to jail, Gwinnett County police announced they had seized $2.5 million in drugs and arrested 16 people, including Ramirez. The fentanyl-laced heroin they were selling was coming from south of the U.S.-Mexican border, according to a county prosecutor.

“The narcotics unit is focused on identifying the large suppliers of narcotics and illegal drugs that could have negative impacts on our residents and children in Gwinnett County,” the Gwinnett Police Department said in a prepared statement. The department added it was “successful in arresting many people [who] were part of this large-scale drug operation, saving an undetermined number of lives.”

Futrell’s father, Bruce, does not accept such an explanation.

“So my daughter and those other two people are just collateral damage?” he said. “It pretty well lays it out that ‘We were looking for the bigger fish. Oh, sorry your daughter died.’”

But there are practical reasons why narcotics investigators aim high, said Steven Peterson, a law enforcement instructor who served as a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for nearly three decades.

“Your goal is to try to disrupt and dismantle organizations at the highest level,” said Peterson, who was stationed at one point in Atlanta for the DEA and who served as the agency’s training coordinator for Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. “If you just cut the tentacles off an octopus… the tentacles will grow back. You are not accomplishing anything. You are just putting Band-Aids on a problem.”

Evading detection

The dealer tied to the three overdose deaths, Carlos Armando Ramirez, has close-cropped hair, a pencil-thin mustache and a slight goatee in his Gwinnett jail booking photo. There is a vacant – even sullen – look in his eyes. At that point, he probably knew his years living in the shadows had finally come to an end. Now serving a 60-year sentence in Dodge State Prison southeast of Macon, Ramirez, 32, will be deported when he is released, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In addition to showing how law enforcement decisions can have tragic consequences, Ramirez’ story also highlights gaps in the nation’s immigration enforcement.

Ramirez illegally entered the U.S. to start a better life, find a job and send money back to relatives living in his native Mexico, according to his court-appointed attorney, Martin Hilliard. But those plans were derailed when he got into a car accident in Florida and was prescribed Hydrocodone for his pain. He got addicted. Then he started using heroin, Hilliard said, and began selling it to pay for his own habit.

In 2007, police in Palm Bay, Fla., arrested Ramirez on several drug charges, including possessing Hydrocodone and selling cocaine. The following year, police in nearby Melbourne, Fla., arrested him for driving without a license and drug trafficking. He was ultimately convicted of those charges in a Brevard County, Fla., court. After passing through the Brevard jail several times, he would go on to spend two years in Florida’s prison system. But he wasn’t flagged for being in the country illegally.

Arrest reports from Melbourne and Palm Bay and jail booking records from Brevard provide some clues about how he may have been able to fly under the radar so long. They list his birthplace as California and include a Social Security number for him, indicating he could have been using phony documents.

“There was just no reason to believe that he was an illegal alien,” said Cpl. Dave Jacobs, a spokesman for the Brevard Sheriff’s Office. “We had positive identifying features. If they were fictitious or not, I don’t know.”

Officials at the Florida Department of Corrections said they were looking into the matter.

Freed from prison, Ramirez moved to Georgia and resumed his drug dealing. In 2012, a Georgia State patrolman pulled him over for speeding and driving without a license. He was booked into the Douglas County jail – which lists him as a U.S. citizen in its records — and was released the following day. A spokesman for the Douglas Sheriff’s Office said his agency checked seven times for outstanding warrants and ICE detainers for Ramirez and found none.

Two years later, another Georgia State patrolman arrested him for driving without a license and registration and for giving a false name. After he changed his story and gave his true name, he was booked into the Gwinnett jail and then released the same day. Gwinnett jail officials participate in the 287(g) immigration enforcement program, which is named after the federal law that authorizes it. The program gives local law enforcement officials the power to question people about their legal status, serve arrest warrants, and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations. A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett Sheriff’s Office referred questions to ICE about why Ramirez’ illegal status didn’t come to light then.

ICE never had contact with Ramirez until November of 2014, when Lilburn police arrested him on a shoplifting charge at a Walmart and sent him back to the Gwinnett jail, according to Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman. When he was arrested then, Ramirez gave authorities a false last name, jail records show. He eventually offered up his real identity. And ICE took custody of him and brought him before a federal immigration judge, who ordered him deported. ICE, Cox said, will seek to remove him to Mexico when he is released from Georgia’s prison system.

In a postcard he sent from prison, Ramirez wrote in neat cursive that he had been “railroaded” because he couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, though he didn’t elaborate or respond to a letter containing a list of follow-up questions. He asked whether The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was seeking to help him or if it just wanted a “heroin story.”

“If you’re trying to help me, let me know,” he wrote the AJC. “Then I’ll see you. If not, then there’s no need to talk.”

Mike Morrison, a Gwinnett assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ramirez, supports how police went about their investigation of the drug ring, saying “countless lives were undoubtedly saved by this investigation, which took kilogram amounts of heroin off of the streets.” Morrison also disclosed something chilling investigators heard while they were secretly listening in on the phone calls Ramirez was making from the Gwinnett jail: He was seeking to get deported while he was being held on the Lilburn shoplifting charge so he could avoid prosecution on his major drug offenses.

“He wanted to get deported,” Morrison said, “because he knew he would be back here right away.”



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