Angela Halliday was a junkie. Does that make her a murderer?

Angela Halliday was a junkie. Does that make her a murderer?

On April 11, the final night of his life, Ben Berkenbile cruised across the Clark Bridge from Illinois into Missouri, where he and his fellow travelers had an appointment to score some heroin.

Riding shotgun was Josh Rogers, a former cook who'd battled his opiate addiction for nearly a decade. In the back seat was Rogers' girlfriend, 27-year-old Angela Halliday, a former dean's list student and ex-suicide counselor.

Halliday and Rogers had woken up that day in excruciating pain. The two addicts were facing their second day of heroin withdrawal and needed to get high. Neither had any money, so they reached out to one of their many St. Louis dealers — the one they knew was a junkie himself — and offered him a trade: heroin in exchange for several tablets of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug used to soften the effects of dope-sickness and heighten the pleasures of shooting up. Halliday had a prescription for the medication, and she and Rogers had spent the afternoon popping several pills to numb their pain. By evening, says Halliday, "we were seeing pink elephants."

"Everybody loved Josh," says a former boss of Josh Rogers, pictured with Angela Halliday.
"Everybody loved Josh," says a former boss of Josh Rogers, pictured with Angela Halliday.
Ben Berkenbile was a "very spiritual person," says his father.
Ben Berkenbile was a "very spiritual person," says his father.

Halliday had recently lost her car, which made the couple's once-daily drug runs to St. Louis more difficult. On this particular night, they'd contacted Berkenbile, 27, a recent nursing school graduate who also lived in the Alton area. They offered him a few Xanax tablets in return for a ride.

Once in St. Louis County, Berkenbile swung into a shopping area to pick up the waiting drug dealer. Halliday says Berkenbile had $100 to spend on his own dope that night, but because of the pills she'd guzzled, her memory of the transaction is hazy.

Once the dealer was dropped off, Halliday and Rogers immediately cooked up a shot and injected themselves. Minutes later, they hit themselves again. The extras doses would prove almost fatal; Halliday, in particular, drifted into such an unresponsive state that Berkenbile had to douse her with water to bring her back to consciousness.

Once in Illinois, Berkenbile did his own shot. Eventually, he dropped off Halliday and Rogers at a local convenience store and headed to a bar. Around 1:15 a.m., he drove home.

The next morning, Berkenbile's father discovered his son's body slumped over a bathroom sink. His legs were in a standup position, his head pressed against the mirror. A syringe was lodged in his right hand, and two open heroin capsules lay nearby.

On March 17, Stephen Wigginton, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, approached the podium at the O'Fallon Police Department in front of a crowd of reporters. He'd called for the press conference the day before to address the rise in heroin overdoses in the Metro East and outline a new law-enforcement initiative.

Wigginton's message: When their dope leads to another person's death, we will start treating heroin suppliers like murderers.

"We are going to treat every overdose scene like a crime scene," Wigginton said as flashbulbs popped. Cell phones will be seized. Residue will be analyzed. Witnesses will be interviewed. "We are going to treat every overdose as a potential homicide," he said. "Heroin is the bullet."

And another thing, Wigginton announced: You don't have to be an actual dealer to be charged with these crimes. As long as you provide deadly drugs to another human being — even if that person is your friend, even if there is no money involved — you will be held accountable. "You'll be treated as a drug dealer, prosecuted as a drug dealer and may spend the rest of your life in prison," Wigginton warned.

Wigginton's announcement did not hinge on any new law. There had long been federal and state statutes in place allowing prosecutors to charge dealers for overdose deaths. But Wigginton wanted to make clear that the laws would be enforced more severely – and that he had the backing of the FBI, state's attorneys, sheriffs' offices and local police departments.

When Madison County State's Attorney Thomas D. Gibbons took the podium, his message was the same: "Users, this could very well be the end of your life. Dealers, your dead end will be in a state prison or in a federal prison."

By announcing the new initiative, Wigginton and Gibbons were appealing to a sense of fear and desperation in the Metro East — and indeed, the entire St. Louis region — as the body count of heroin-overdose victims continued to mount. In the city of St. Louis, the number of fatal overdoses jumped from 38 in 2008 to 66 in 2010. In St. Louis County, the tally ticked up from 51 to 60.

But the situation in Madison County seemed uniquely worrying. In that jurisdiction, home to a smaller population than its neighboring counties across the river, heroin fatalities had more than tripled, from five in 2008 to eighteen in 2010. That number will almost certainly be eclipsed this year, as the county coroner's office has already recorded fourteen fatal overdoses through June, with a fifteenth potential case still under investigation.

Experts give various reasons for the drug's rise. Whereas heroin once carried a stigma associated with dirty needles and sketchy alleyways, it's now being marketed to younger users as a socially acceptable drug that can be smoked or snorted, like cocaine. It's also gotten cheaper: A $10 button can get you high for four hours.

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