Opioid Crisis: Who Are Ohio's Anti-Heroin Vigilantes Helping? - Rolling Stone
×
Home Culture Culture Features

Who Are Ohio’s Anti-Heroin Vigilantes Helping?

In the Midwest, where the opioid crisis rages on, online groups have emerged to expose alleged dealers — but some residents worry they’ve gone too far.

opioid epidemic, heroin crisis

By exposing alleged heroin dealers, some believe they're helping ease the crisis. But the results are unclear.

Images used in photo illustration from Shutterstock

Listen to an audio version of this story below:

By the time Shannon Scaletta was 25, she had lost her mom, dad, and sister to addiction.

At eight, her father died of a cocaine overdose. At 20, her mother was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison for killing a judge in a drunk-driving incident. Megan, Shannon’s younger sister by five years, lived with friends and family before Shannon took her in. Scaletta — a resolute 26-year-old with dyed blond hair and hard green eyes — was barely in her twenties, but in their small town of Mantua, Ohio (population 1,019), she tried to be the parent Megan never had.

In 2012, when she was 16, Megan started dating Dylan Briscar, a mischievous, long-haired boy at her high school and soon-to-be Kent State University student. “Dylan used to do his homework at my table,” Scaletta recalls. A few years later, “things started to get weird” — Briscar dropped out of college, the couple started arguing regularly, and Scaletta would find liquor bottles and marijuana in Megan’s room. It was during this time that Megan first tried heroin.

In 2015, Scaletta got married and moved to South Carolina, and Megan and Briscar fell deeper into addiction. Friends had warned Scaletta for years that Briscar was an alleged drug dealer. It wasn’t long before the duo were identified by a locally famous Facebook page and online vigilante group called Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed, or PCHDE.

PCHDE uses social media to “dox” alleged drug dealers in Portage County, Ohio, revealing and publicizing personal information. It’s an anonymous vigilante group that formed to seek vengeance on dealers who, in PCHDE’s words, “are killing their loved ones.” One of the first memes it posted, in January 2017, warned “all Portage County Heroin Dealers” that “you are being watched. Sell Heroin in Portage County and you will be exposed to your neighbors, the police, your kids’ school, your family, and your life as you know it will change the way you have changed the lives of the people you sell poison to.”

PCHDE is part of a much larger phenomenon in which people express their collective grief and anger at the opioid crisis on social media, condemning those who use drugs and accusing those who sell them. Other Facebook pages — Meth & Heroin Dealers Exposed, Akron Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer, Madison Alabama Drug Dealers Exposed — have surfaced in the past few years, mostly in Middle America, and turned their crosshairs directly onto dealers. Based on rumors and community-generated tips, they share memes “exposing” alleged dealers and placing blame for local deaths on their shoulders — whether they have been officially indicted or not.

In late 2016, PCHDE posted a meme of Megan and Briscar on its Facebook page. “Word on the Street: Suspected of Selling HEROIN” read the headline with a picture of the duo, mimicking a wanted poster. “We received more complaints about these two than anyone else!… They allegedly sold the heroin to a person that died.” Included were Megan and Briscar’s dates of birth, addresses, and nicknames.

By that point, Megan had admitted to her sister that she was addicted to heroin. “She just kept sobbing to me over the phone, ‘I really need help,’” Scaletta remembers. She contacted PCHDE on Facebook on behalf of her sister. The group was sympathetic and gave her phone numbers for treatment centers that Megan could enter. They took down the original post but continued posting memes accusing Briscar, himself addicted to heroin, of dealing drugs.

On September 29th, 2016, Megan entered rehab and got sober. She started living with her sponsor, she held down two jobs, and made art. And she tried to help others. “I’m so petrified my friends are going to die,” Megan told Scaletta. “And I can’t do anything. All I can do is tell their probation officer or the Drug Task Force who their dealers are.”

Megan reached six months of sobriety on March 29th, 2017. Eleven days later, on April 9th, Scaletta received a call from a friend of Megan’s who said that Megan had asked her for a ride from Briscar’s house. Scaletta’s fear and panic began to condense — she believed Briscar was still using drugs. She called Megan’s sponsor, who said that Megan hadn’t come home the previous night.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2015 LONDON, OHIO:A variety of different types of heroin on display at the State Crime Lab at the Ohio Attorney General's headquarters of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation on Wednesday, September 16, 2015 in London, Ohio. (Photo by Ty Wright for/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A variety of different types of heroin come through Ohio, here on display at a crime lab in London, Ohio. Photo credit: Ty Wright/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Scaletta called and texted Megan to no avail. She stopped around midnight, resolving to find her the next day.

Around 4:45 a.m., Scaletta rose to get ready for work. At 6:25 a.m., while getting dressed, she typed out one last text message to her sister and pressed “Send.”

At 8:30 a.m., Scaletta received a call from her half sister, Whitney. “She’s dead,” Whitney screamed. “Megan’s dead.”

Megan Scaletta died of a drug overdose at a motel in Streetsboro, Ohio, on the morning of Monday, April 10th, 2017. She was 20 years old. In her blood was a fatal combination of heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil, cocaine, and meth. Also present was her 22-year-old boyfriend Briscar, who called police and left the scene shortly after.

At 6:02 a.m., police arrived and found Megan without a pulse. At 6:25 a.m., her phone would flicker with Shannon’s final text: “Last night was the first night in 6 months I didn’t sleep. I don’t know what is going on, but I refuse to let you backwards.”

PCHDE uses social media to “dox” alleged drug dealers in Portage County, Ohio, revealing and publicizing personal information.

Portage County, Ohio, is a quiet place. Exit the highway, and you’ll drive on slim roads bordered by overgrown grass, past houses that stand like tombstones, into communities where folks stay for generations and everyone knows everybody. As social media has overlaid its crisscrosses on the region, gossip can spread like wildfire — imagine my surprise upon seeing an accusatory meme of a classmate from middle school, Dylan Briscar, pop up on my timeline. 

Facebook particularly provides a a platform for citizens to post pictures, make accusations, and spread rumors. The first group in the area to capitalize on this, in late 2012, was Portage Dirt, a Facebook page with more than 22,000 likes. Portage Dirt posted about crime in the region, with information so fresh — “Shots Fired at the Den On Meridian St.” or “Arby’s employee found a small handgun in the men’s bathroom!”— that many speculated it was someone in law enforcement.

Portage Dirt stopped posting in late 2016, around the same time that Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed started. PCHDE took elements of Portage Dirt — identifying alleged culprits, posting community tips, encouraging gossip in the comments — but had a decidedly more ferocious tone. As the heroin epidemic engulfed Portage County, PCHDE swore vengeance on all dealers, rumored, indicted, or convicted.

PCHDE created a website, where it maintained a gallery of all known dealers in the area, with their pictures, addresses, dates of birth, and other details, such as where they could be found or who they would usually hang out with. Each time a dealer was caught, they would slap a red “arrested” label over their picture.

But PCHDE’s main weapon was its Facebook page. As it gained likes — as of this writing, it has over 13,000 — PCHDE shifted its operations entirely to Facebook. On any day, the group might share the identity of an alleged trafficker, the location of a rumored dope house, or an incendiary article about the light sentencing of a dealer. PCHDE actively solicited tips from the community, claiming to pass them onto law enforcement and also taking matters into its own hands, creating embarrassing memes identifying alleged criminals that would be shared hundreds or thousands of times in the community.

For example, in September 2018, the page posted a meme of 27-year-old Robert Koprivnyak with a caption and a photo of him: “Suspected of selling FENTANYL! Linked to 3 overdoses!!! Last known address Seville, OH.” The post gathered 155 comments and more than 1,000 shares. Koprivnyak, for his part, completely denies selling fentanyl — he claims that he called 911 for the overdoses in question, and struggles with heroin addiction himself — but found it hard to go out in public after. “I wouldn’t even be able to associate in certain areas anymore,” he says. “People would tell me, ‘That’s horrible, you’re doing this to people, and they’re dying.’”

Law enforcement also kept an eye on the page. “I don’t know who runs the Facebook group, but I wish I did, because they seem to know everything about everyone before any of us in law enforcement do,” a Portage County police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, tells me over the phone.

The Portage County Drug Task Force declined an interview request, but Chief Darin Powers of Streetsboro, the city in Portage County where Megan Scaletta died, was willing to talk. I meet with Powers in his office, a sparse room with a large wooden desk, at the police station. He is a serious man who speaks clearly and carefully.

When asked if he knows about Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed, Powers nods. Of course he knows about it. Everyone in the county does. “There’s good and bad with something like that from a law-enforcement perspective,” he says. “I know their intentions are great, but when you see dealers exposed on social media before we’re able to arrest them, they may jeopardize an investigation — the dealers might change tactics or go underground.”

I mention some of the people I’d encountered while reporting this story, and Powers nods. “When people go after the dealers,” he says, “I don’t know if that’s the most positive way to move forward, getting revenge.” He pauses. “The thing is, I empathize with them. In law enforcement, we go to the overdose, then we go home and don’t have to think about it again. But these families have to live with the death forever. So I understand that feeling of wanting to do something.”

“When people go after the dealers,” says one Ohio police chief. “I don’t know if that’s the most positive way to move forward, getting revenge.”

After Megan died, Briscar fled to Florida, and briefly ended up on Portage County’s 10 Most Wanted list. Shannon, who’d felt rebuffed by the justice system in the past — “As long as he’s out, I can’t get her,” she claims to have warned his probation officer when Megan was still alive — began to rely more and more on PCHDE to echo her grief. The page called for Briscar’s arrest, shared memories of Megan, and attempted to expose the other people who sold Megan drugs.

On June 26th, 2017, PCHDE posted an announcement: “Breaking News: Dylan Briscar has been arrested!” A few days later, the local press would report that he had been charged with tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony, for removing drugs from the motel room where Megan died.

PCHDE mostly focused on administering justice behind a computer screen. But it also recruited a small number of volunteers to represent the group at events, protests, courthouses, and other IRL places. One of their most devoted foot soldiers was Josh Pearce, a 34-year-old Ravenna resident and laborer who sells shirts that say “Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer.”

I meet Pearce at a cafe near his home. Pearce is tall and lanky, with angular cheeks and circular glasses. He’s dressed in a crusty, black “Shoot your Local Heroin Dealer” sweatshirt, its O’s replaced by crosshairs.

Pearce is a former drug dealer and gangbanger — “Never sold heroin though,” he emphasizes — who used to organize 30 to 40 events per year with PCHDE: protests outside of courthouses and police stations, and candlelight vigils, including Megan Scaletta’s in 2017. When one local, Joe Yeary, was indicted for assaulting an alleged pimp and dealer, he worked in conjunction with PCHDE to support Yeary, gathering others to show up to the hearings wearing “Shoot Your Local Heroin Dealer” shirts while PCHDE posted relentlessly in support of Yeary. (Yearly pleaded guilty to the assault and had to pay a fine.)

In 2016, PCHDE asked Pearce to protest at houses rumored to be selling drugs. “I said, ‘Hell yeah, let’s go,’” he says with relish. “It was me and a bunch of grandmas. I got 12 old ladies with me in the middle of fucking winter. We put masks on and stood outside of a red apartment building that had a bunch of dealers. We stood with signs and chanted, ‘I hate heroin! We have hope! Say no to drugs!’”

Pearce’s fiancée of seven years was addicted to heroin. “At one point, I was kicking in dealers’ doors to find my old lady,” he says, waving an invisible gun. “I’d take the dealer’s gun off the couch and tell them ‘Either she’s coming with me or…’” He squeezes the imaginary trigger.

For all of Pearce’s efforts, heroin, as it often does, claimed the victory. “My fiancée died on May 1st, 2015,” Pearce says, pulling his shirt up to expose the tattooed date on his hip. A few months later, he helped organize Ravenna’s inaugural Walk Against Heroin.

In that way, Pearce is no different than most in PCHDE’s orbit. They’ve lost loved ones and are looking for something to do, or at least someone to blame.

Online extrajudicial justice — the sharing of an unsavory old tweet, the dissemination of the phone number of an offensive organization — is entrenched in modern life. It was only a matter of time before someone weaponized it for the opioid crisis. Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed is certainly the biggest Facebook page of its kind on the internet, but it wasn’t the first.

In late 2015, in Louisville, Kentucky, a Facebook page called Heroin Dealers Exposed emerged. It began naming people who had allegedly sold drugs, many of whom had never been formally convicted. Louisville’s local news covered the story. Around a year later, the woman behind it went public. Her name was JoAnn Miller.

Over the phone, with the familiar rasp of someone who’s struggled with drug addiction, Miller tells me of the page’s origin. After getting sober, she started several Facebook pages such as Holy Addiction and No More Heroin. But with Heroin Dealers Exposed, she pioneered the model later adopted by PCHDE, posting multiple times a day about alleged dealers using community-generated tips.

In order to avoid misidentifying dealers, Miller cross-checked each tip she got with a Facebook database she compiled by friending, with a fake account, every drug-connected name she saw on the news. “If I had 150 mutual friends with the dealer, they might not be that great of a guy,” she explains.

After a few months, she was contacted by someone from London, Kentucky, who was interested in starting a similar page. Together, they created Meth & Heroin Dealers Exposed, a Facebook page that went live in late 2016 and gained more than 2,000 likes.

The Facebook pages culminated in Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed, which originally worked with the Meth & Heroin Dealers Exposed — the two groups served as administrators and backups for each other. “They are the one,” Miller says about PCHDE. “I exposed maybe a hundred dealers. They’ve exposed, I don’t know, a thousand.”

Meth & Heroin Dealers Exposed no longer posts regularly, and Miller eventually shuttered Heroin Dealers Exposed. “The reason why I stopped going after dealers is because 90 percent of them are addicts,” she admits. “I’m an addict, I have sold pills before, and all it would have took was for me to get busted once and they would have called me a dealer.”

“If people were contacting me with the big guys, I would have been all for it. But the little guys will be replaced in five minutes. It started to seem like I was possibly doing more harm than good.”

Nicole Walmsley knows about being humiliated online as a drug dealer. One of the charges against Walmsley, in 2011, was trafficking heroin in a school zone. “They plastered it in the newspaper,” she says. “And I read the comments on social media, and I couldn’t believe people. [They said] ‘You’re worthless, you should just die.’ It was so devastating.”

It would take Walmsley two more years to “divorce heroin,” as she calls it, but in March 2013, after “2,566 days shooting dope, 496 days incarcerated, and getting arrested 18 times,” she got sober and set upon a remarkable path helping others to get sober too. In 2015, she implemented the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, in Ohio, which allows people who use drugs to walk into police stations to be treated without fear of incarceration.

“If people were contacting me with the big guys, I would have been all for it,” says one advocate. “It started to seem like I was possibly doing more harm than good.”

Walmsley, a slim, pale 33-year-old with brown hair and stormy eyes, now speaks constantly at recovery walks, schools, and seminars. She founded the Walk Against Heroin in 2015 that Pearce joined and had helped console Shannon Scaletta after Megan died. Her name is held in esteem in the county: Both Chief Powers and PCHDE had spoken highly of her.

As someone who had been vilified online before, Walmsley is apprehensive about PCHDE’s approach. “I don’t always agree with them posting the addicts up there versus the actual dealers who are selling just for profit,” Walmsley says. She mentions Dylan Briscar as an example of a “dealer that is an addict themselves.” “Instead of looking at the dealers with sympathy,” Walmsley says, “they look at them with anger.”

Walmsley, in fact, helps temper the group. She says she speaks to both law enforcement and PCHDE on a regular basis, and says that “there have been several times where the Task Force reached out to me and asked me to contact the page and ask them to take down something … because it could hurt the chance of the dealer being arrested.”

“But I usually let them do their thing,” Walmsley says. On her own, she watches the page, and can often tell when someone has an addiction — looking for signs like thinness, sunken eyes, and sores on their face. She then looks up their name on Facebook and sends them a message, or posts in the comment thread on PCHDE itself, “Hey, if you want treatment, let me know.”

A hundred and fifty miles south of Portage County, in Granville, Ohio, stands the office of Dennis Cauchon. Cauchon, a tenacious, middle-aged former journalist for USA Today, founded the non-profit organization Harm Reduction Ohio in 2016. Harm Reduction’s philosophy is to make it possible for people who use drugs to do so as safely as possible until their eventual recovery; a few of its policy victories include clean-syringe exchanges, which reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases, and the now-widespread distribution of Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug.

Cauchon sees the vitriol online. He sees it on City of Chilicothe, Ohio, his region’s version of Portage Dirt, a sardonic Facebook page that posts memes and mug shots inviting its share of mockery and “drug war hate.” He sees it on the Facebook page for Harm Reduction Ohio — “‘Let the junkies die,’ that type of stuff.” But he doesn’t see it when he steps outside. “In Ohio, in the last four or five years, the shift in the zeitgeist has been overwhelming,” he says over the phone. “The arc is moving towards being compassionate to people who are using drugs.”

“One problem with the [Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed] page is that it doesn’t really have an accurate perception of the complexity of what’s going on,” Cauchon says. “It’s like there are good people and bad people. But there’s a myth of who the drug dealer is. In fact, most users deal and most dealers use. I would never tell someone how to grieve, but when you get [these pages] going on in your community, it changes how people talk to each other. You don’t want your community based on hate and anger.”

When asked what has caused this paradigm shift, Cauchon pauses to think. “Because almost everyone in Ohio now knows someone who’s died,” he says. “And they’ve loved someone who’s died. And they knew that person wasn’t a piece of shit. It’s like a parent told me: ‘This girl used to come over for sleepovers. She was a wonderful kid. And then she went to jail.’”

Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed’s identity is secret, making it the source of much speculation in the county itself. Joe Yeary referred to PCHDE as “him,” JoAnn Miller referred to them as “her.” “I’ve heard it’s a group,” said Shannon Scaletta. “I know it’s at least three people,” said Josh Pearce.

After multiple interview requests, the leader of PCHDE finally opened up over Facebook Messenger. As with most folks in the county, the activism was spurred by a loved one’s death. “I had lost one close family member to an overdose and another young family member that had fallen into the drug world,” the leader says. “I have seen the dealers coerce and manipulate young people into trying the drugs. Before I started this page, I was so angry that I am surprised I am not in prison … I wanted to kill them.”

The leader of PCHDE created a Facebook page and website, lifted hacker collective Anonymous’ mask for its profile picture, and began exposing dealers online. Over the years, it built up a significant reputation in the community. It constantly receives tips — when we spoke, PCHDE had received 10 that day alone — a fact the group attributes to its work ethic and track record.

Many of the comments in PCHDE’s Facebook page share their vitriol for heroin dealers. But the group also receives criticism from those accusing it of ruining the names of people with drug addictions who are dealing to support a habit, or of misidentifying people. PCHDE is unapologetic. “To my knowledge I haven’t posted anyone that wasn’t a dealer,” the group leader says. “If they can convince me that they are in recovery even for a short time, I will delete the post.… and yes, I post addicts that sell to support their own habit because their dope kills, too.”

At the end of 2017, a new Facebook page, Geauga County Heroin Dealers Exposed, was created to cover the nearby counties of Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, and Ashtabula. The person behind Geauga County Heroin Dealers exposed had contacted PCHDE, looking to do something similar, and the two decided to make the pages identical — the same Anonymous mask, the same vengeful tone —  to present a unified front.

PCHDE laid out the page for Geauga County Heroin Dealers Exposed, and gave it advice on how to stay anonymous online. The two groups shared each other’s posts and often exchanged tips.

“We will not solve the drug epidemic,” PCHDE concedes. “This thing is huge and only getting worse. Law enforcement does good work, but they are overwhelmed. This epidemic has been totally up to us to do something.” PCHDE mentions a dealer blamed for a family member’s death, declaring it’s “still on a mission to get his partner.”

In late May, PCHDE stopped posting on Facebook, seemingly due to an internecine conflict between its administrators. Shortly after, the Portage County Drug Task Force distanced itself via its Facebook page, claiming not to have received any official tips from the page. Geauga County Heroin Dealers Exposed remains and still posts regularly.

“There’s a myth of who the drug dealer is,” says one harm-reduction advocate. “In fact, most users deal and most dealers use.”

On January 16th, 2018, Dylan Briscar pleaded guilty to charges of “tampering with evidence.” At his sentencing hearing this January, he was apologetic and sincere. “I loved her,” he repeated. “I would change places with her, and have her down here and me up there.”

Judge Becky Doherty sentenced him to two years in prison. “Dylan, this sentence is not going to solve anything,” Doherty said. “It’s not going to bring Megan back, it’s not going to maybe even help her family, but it can help you.… The thing that you can do to commemorate Megan’s memory is to stay sober, talk about what you went through, and impact somebody else down the road.”

Portage County Heroin Dealers Exposed and their community were enraged by the sentence. Although Doherty had warned attendees at Briscar’s pretrial hearing to minimize Facebook activity around the case, PCHDE had stayed heavily engaged, sharing Shannon Scaletta’s memories of Megan, posting Judge Doherty’s email for people to send letters, even organizing a protest outside the courthouse.

A week later, I sit down with Judge Doherty and ask her opinion of PCHDE and groups like it. “Look, I get it,” she says firmly, “but it’s not always the most productive way to do things. Maybe it could assist in getting someone help or being prosecuted if their neighbors know they’re dealing. But sending the court emails or protesting is not going to influence my decision. If I sent everyone to prison who did drugs, we wouldn’t have many people left in this community.”

“It’s also a deflection,” she adds. “The simplest thing to do is go after the dealers: ‘I am aggravated because my child is using heroin.’ But it’s not going to solve the problem of addiction.” She offers her own solution. “I have my little army in drug court,” she says. “The ones who’ve been through the worst of it and gotten clean. They’re the ones who should be going to schools and talking to kids. These are the folks who are going to be making a difference.”

One night, I call up Shannon Scaletta. She tells me that she recently watched a prison documentary that upset her. “I was thinking, that’s Dylan right there,” she says sadly. “This is still a kid that used to do his homework at my kitchen table.… I know my family looks at him and wants him to go to prison for life. But that’s not going to bring Megan back.”

I ask Shannon what, in her eyes, would be the best outcome of this whole tragedy. She sighs — sounding, as she sometimes does, on the verge of tears  — before pulling it together, as always. “If Dylan could turn his life around,” she says slowly, “and become a successful person, that would make me feel better. And I would want that for any person who has an addiction or is dealing drugs.”

After Megan died, Shannon inherited her few possessions. One of them was a box of unsent letters that Megan had written to her mom in prison. The letters were a touching documentation of one young woman’s journey through sobriety — joyful exuberance, crushing depression, and above all, a burning desire to live, love, and improve. Shannon mentions a sentence in one of the letters that she kept thinking about: “I miss Dylan so much,” Megan wrote. “Everyone tells me that he’s bad for me. But I know one day he’s going to change.”

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.