by Mark Boal
from the August 2003 Playboy
She was the new girl in town, a hot blonde hard body with a secret agenda. The inside story of an undercover high school drug sting
In the rusting, industrial city of Altoona, Pennsylvania, the corner of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue has held a special significance for generations of working-class kids. The hallowed ground is on a hilltop behind the Altoona Area Senior High School, just beyond the sightlines of teachers and other adults, a dilapidated intersection strewn with cigarette butts and shaded by a ratty old maple. Everybody knows it as Smokers’ Corner, where a click of boys and girls -- not student-council types or overachievers, mind you -- meet each morning to engage in a ritual. Faces still creased with sleep, they flirt and gossip, bum cigarettes, get the news and tell the tales of adolescence as they bring one another along in life.
On a wickedly windy day in April, a handful of seniors huddle in a semicircle on the cracked concrete sidewalk. Their torn jeans and low-end-designer hoodies flap and flutter in the blustery air. We are high above the half-deserted streets of downtown, where the tallest tower belongs to a public hospital. They take turns rehashing one of their now favorite topics: the beautiful transfer student Amber Baxter, who one day last year appeared on the Corner with her easy smile and sweet ride and then vanished three months later. Amber was gorgeous, they agree: a girly, petite blonde with a tight body and a major attitude, a flirt with a bit of a cruel streak. She arrived from Philadelphia, she told them, a city chick in a mint Cavalier. Flipping her hair, strolling to first period in a belly shirt, jeans slung low on her hips and a thong riding up in back, Amber was the girl everyone wanted to nail.
“She just came up and asked for a light,” says senior Jonathan Rhodes with a soft shake of his head, “and then it was like she was never not here.”
Sage nods all around. These kids are more advanced in physique, clothing and demeanor than the freshmen and sophomore, with their acne-cursed faces and chicken necks. These are worldy-wise seniors; they knew Amber personally.
“I’d say she was a 10,” says Luke Zorger, another senior and Corner fixture. “A 10 out of 10, just as far as looks go.”
He turns to the crowd for confirmation. “Remember? She had that red silky shirt she got sent to detention for. Her car was cool, too.”
“She always wore a thong,” says Bobby Noel in a hushed tone that implies it is illegal -- which it practically is according to Altoona High’s strict clothing policy. “And she made sure you could see it.”
But three months after Amber lit up the scene on the Corner in the spring of 2002, she vanished, leaving the students who knew her and the city itself changed forever. In the days that followed her departure, Amber’s time in Altoona would become the centerpiece of a large-scale police investigation that saw five juveniles and 11 adults charged and was hailed by community leaders and school officials as a major success in the war on drugs.
For Mike Fisher, the ambitious attorney general of Pennsylvania, Amber’s triumph in Altoona became political capital in a tough gubernatorial race. Fisher even flew in to take some credit, and the local newspapers gave him what he wanted. The official version of events was picked up by the Associated Press, and the story of Amber Baxter’s undercover stay at Altoona Area High made news across the state. Most significantly, the case entered the annals of Pennsylvania law enforcement history and became a model for how other schools in the state could deal with problem students.
But there was a sense of something unsaid in the published reports, a mystery at the heart of the Amber affair. The kids whose lives were scorched by the sting were never heard from, their names kept from the press, ostensibly for privacy reasons. Amber herself was silenced by the police bureaucracy. When, for the first time, some of the kids finally talked to me about the events of last spring, they told a darker, more complex story than what was reported in the newspapers, a tale of betrayal, drugs and teenage lust that raises serious questions about the scope of police power and the extraordinary lengths we’re willing to go to as a society to eliminate drugs from the lives of the young.
THE LOCAL HERO
That semester, Bobby Noel was working on building up his body every chance he could. He has an athlete’s genes to begin with: His brother has won state wrestling championships; his father considered playing professional baseball before settling down to drive a truck. Squeezing in sets at every free moment -- after a crack-of-dawn newspaper delivery run and at night in the basement gym his father built -- Bobby became a fire hydrant from the neck down, while above, a scrappy brown goatee struggled to take root in his sweet, open face.
On the football field, Bobby was a show-off, flexing his biceps after a tackle. He played defensive nose and made 30 tackles over the course of a gold-plated 12-2 season in which the Altoona Mountain Lions advanced to the state semifinals. He was a local hero. “Everybody knows who I am now,” he says, wearing the team’s maroon-and-white slicker with an immodest smile.
Football is taken seriously in Altoona, perhaps because athletes are some of the town’s few prized exports. (Since the Sixties, five Altoona High School graduates have played in the NFL.) The railroad and related industries that made Altoona a prize of American industry -- a proud center of steam and steel -- have all but withered away in the information age, and Altoona has become a working-class town with little work, even for bright, talented kids like Bobby. In the Forties, Altoona’s famously curved railroad tracks were such a vital infrastructure that the Nazis targeted them for destruction. Now the railroad is an abstraction, represented in dioramas in a small museum downtown. Way off the grid of world affairs, straight out of a Springsteen song, Altoona is now a microcosm of the different ways American towns can decline: In Blair County, where Altoona is situated, nursing homes and elder-care businesses are the sole sources of growth, one in five kids lives below the poverty live, and education levels are among the lowest in the state (only 10 percent of adults finish college). Many young members of the German and Irish population look to Wendy’s or McDonald’s for burger-flipping jobs, unless they score a union connection. Drugs -- weed, crack and heroin -- fill the vacuum left by lost hope.
Bobby’s family was doing better than most. His dad racked up enough mileage on the road to keep his son in decent used cars (Bobby’s latest was a green 1994 Jimmy with tricked-out rims), but the Noels didn’t spring for luxuries like cell phones. They knew where Bobby was anyway -- working out -- and they didn’t worry about the house parties full of heroin, the drug that started whipping through Altoona a few years ago. Trucked in my low-level entrepreneurs from Philly and New York on Interstates 80 and 99, the junk is distributed by a ragged pack of teenage dealers with beepers in their waistbands who loiter by gas station pay phones, risking felony arrests for $20 deals and $5 profits.
The redbrick buildings of Altoona High, the most prestigious public school in Blair County, are defended like a fortress, with surveillance cameras scanning the halls and exterior, entrances monitored and a security team in a Jeep Cherokee patrolling the grounds and parking lot. Searches of cars, lockers and the 2000 senior high students have become routine. Altoona Area School District Director of Public Relations Thomas Bradley put it this way to the kids: “If you don’t allows us to do a search, we will be happy to get a warrant.”
Drug-sniffing dogs are brought in regularly, and even the honored athletes are closely watched. Bobby and the rest of the football team submit to urine tests each season. He always passed, of course, never daring to jeopardize his chance to play the game he loves.
In fact, Bobby was so good in 2001, he was getting letters from colleges offering football scholarships and -- who knows? -- he thought just maybe he’d see a bit of the NFL.
But that was before he met Amber Baxter.
THE BEAUTIFUL STRANGER
“She took a seat one day, and basically that was the end of my class. None of the guys were paying attention to me anymore,” recalls Kathy De Piro, who teaches Warehouse Sciences, a course in which kids learn how to track inventory and set up cold-storage rooms. “You have to understand, I had 18 boys in my class and two girls, and the women were like tomboy types. The guys just stared at her blatantly, with absolutely no shame. They were just, I think, really taken aback by this feminine girl with long blonde hair. And she was very pretty.”
Her eye shadow was the first thing you noticed. Bright iridescent blue ran all the way to the upper lips, giving her an extravagant, stagy look that attracted the boys and provoked instant hostility from the girls on the Corner. “I hated her,” says a senior who asked to be identified as Destiny. “She was kind of a loser. I don’t know why everyone says she was so hot. She wore this ridiculous glittery eye shadow all the way up to her eyebrow. How tacky is that?”
Malicia Darroch is an upperclassman with all-American looks: shimmering blonde hair and freckles over her nose and cheeks. At first, Malicia didn’t take to Amber, but when her boyfriend accused her of being jealous, she says, she decided to see what the new girl was all about. “I didn’t think she was so great -- a seven, maybe, depending on the day. She had a pretty big nose. She wore her hair up sometimes in this really gay way.”
Malicia decided to rise above the insult. One of the more popular girls in school, she had turned a rough start in life -- 15 schools in 17 years -- into an outgoing nature and a relaxed touch with strangers. She sympathized with Amber’s position as the new girl. “Most of my friends were too snobby to have anything to do with her. You know, that blue eye shadow was a real tacky minus. But I started being nice to her because I know what it’s like not to have any friends, and because, mostly, I wanted to stay on my boyfriend’s good side.”
They became close friends, talking many nights on the phone. Malicia opened up to Amber about her troubled past, telling her how she had been tattooed at five and trundled from school to school. Amber seemed genuinely to care, and she tried to help out whenever she could, mostly by giving her new friend rides to doctor’s appointments. But Amber seemed to have needs of her own. “The thing was,” Malicia says, “she was always asking me if I could get her drugs. Once right before going to the doctor I smoked in her car and she asked me if she could have the shake left in the bag. I said I didn’t see why not.”
“Hey, Bobby, are you a faaaaggot?” Amber’s voice, high-pitched and teasing, rang through the halls where the kids hit the lockers between classes. The sound of it still sits in Bobby Noel’s ears, the elongated pronunciation turning it into a sneer. Then she spun around to show him the seat of her form-hugging jeans: He recalls that it had a red, heart-shaped patch sewn onto it. The patch read YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS.
Amber and Bobby sat next to each other in science class, the transfer student getting the attention of the popular athlete with the question about his sexual preference. When Bobby tells this story in a cramped guest room in his uncle’s house, his face reddens. When asked what response he gave, he doesn’t speak for a few moments. The television glows silent, muted, his two-year-old nephew flits in and out of the living room.
“I called her a bitch,” he says.
Bobby believed he was dealing with a “ho,” a word he huffs out with scorn. As proof of her claim on the title, he recalls the time Amber allowed his friend Taj to cup her breasts in public -- hands over the sweatshirt, but still. “I thought she was hot, and I thought she was a bitch and I hated her,” Bobby says.
Such was her charm that when Amber asked for a favor, Bobby jumped to oblige her. She pleaded with him in a note scribbled during class: “Bobby, can you get me some pot? I am really desperate and I have $40. xxx, Amber.”
Bobby wrote back: “I don’t smoke pot,” but he said that he would see what he could do. After finding his friend Jason Kruise, a senior who knew his way around, Bobby told him the new chick Amber was looking for some pot. But Jason didn’t want to get a bag for a stranger. So Bobby in his trusting, incautious way -- or perhaps in his desire to make her see him as a player and not as a faggot -- gladly played the middleman taking the weed from Jason and delivering it to Amber. he tossed the bag to her under his desk while the teacher fiddled with a PowerPoint presentation at the back of the classroom. It was a cool move that Bobby has come to regret. “It wasn’t even my stuff,” he says. “I don’t even do pot. I just passed it to her.” But in the hallway, when Amber pulled $20 from her jeans, he took the money.
From then on, Bobby said, she should deal directly with Jason.
THE LADIES’ MAN
Naturally, they met at Smokers’ Corner. “She just asked me if I could get her weed, and I was like, sure, yeah,” says Jason, a good-looking kid with an Ethan Hawke-type angularity to his cheekbones, a head of floppy brown hair, dark eyes and a pierced eyebrow and lower lip. “Bobby said she was cool, so I told her to meet me at the Corner.”
The son of a tire salesman and a housewife, Jason is a budding narcissist and minor league clotheshorse who wears the best brands his parents can afford. He is extremely popular and successful with the local girls. During the time he knew Amber, in his senior year, Jason’s main concern, apart from his social life and a particularly cool Ecko sweatshirt he’d just bought, was passing his certification to become a welder.
Jason turns sullen and shamefaced when his relationship with Amber is mentioned. No doubt he was happy to do a pretty girl a favor, but according to his mother his deeper motive had nothing to do with drugs or money, “She was just going to be another notch is his belt,” says Debbie Kruise. “Jason thinks he’s a studmuffin,” his father says. “He has girls stashed all over the place. She was just the latest.”
After meeting at the Corner, they drove to a ramshackle brick house where Jason scored his dime bags. But the dealer -- whom Jason insisted not be identified -- was reluctant to do business in front of a stranger, so Amber waited in the car while Jason went in with her money. “She gave me the 20 bucks, and I brought the bag out for her,” he says.
By that time, Jason had already taken Amber to the cemetery, one of the few places outside the bowling alley or the shopping center where kids went to relax. They stood among the tombstones in the midafternoon sun while Jason rolled a fatty from his own supply. He took a drag and offered the joint to Amber. “She said no thanks, that she was going home later and her mother would kill her is the saw her stoned,” he recalls.
Talking about her mother depressed her, Amber told Jason. She complained about how poor they were, living in a shitty place in Roaring Spring, half an hour away. Had Jason been even a tiny bit alert, he might have noted that if Amber lived with her mother in Roaring Spring, she most likely would not have gone to Altoona but rather to a high school closer to her home.
Over the course of the investigation, Jason allegedly helped Amber get $80 worth of weed, and his friends say he began bragging to them that he’d succeeded where Bobby had failed. “Jason said he and Amber had gotten drunk and had sex one day after school,” says Malicia. “And I don’t see why he would lie about it. I mean, usually it’s the girls who lie about having had sex with him.”
Now, talking to me almost a year after the fact, he says he regrets starting that rumor. “I don’t know why people keep saying that about me,” he says. “Every time they bring it up I have to say, ‘No, I didn’t really fuck her.’” Then he paused and said, “Look, I wish I had, because it would make your story better. But I did get her phone number and I called her once.”
It was April now, two months before graduation, when Amber went to Jonathan Rhodes’s house. “She came by about 15 minutes after school,” says Jonathan, a bright, sensitive kid who identifies himself as a former heroin addict. Jonathan smiles easily, revealing a row of ruined teeth, prematurely yellowed by a hepatitis C infection. “She asked me if I had a rig. She said if I’d hit her she’d split a bag with me. What was I gonna say?”
Jonathan was so excited that he didn’t bother to bring his whole kit -- he just grabbed a needle, a bottle of water, a tie and a spoon, and ran downstairs to meet Amber in her car. They drove to an alley by a seldom-used baseball field. Jonathan gestures to a patch of gravel and crabgrass in front of the field where it happened. “She said she had to go home or whatever, so we did it up real quick. I put the needle in her arm.”
Jonathan says that after shooting up they drove aimlessly around the neighborhood -- past the check-cashing store with the plywood door; and the bowling alley, hugely popular with the pompadour-and-acid-wash generation. They made stoner conversation and smoked cigarettes.
“We talked about her mom,” says Jonathan. “She said she was thinking about moving to Altoona from Roaring Springs. She said she wanted to sleep at my house if she did.”
Later, as Amber and Jonathan sat in the car idling in front of his house, Jonathan leaned over and kissed her on the mouth, “a real kiss,” he says. Leaving the car, he recalls thinking that the next time they got together, he could get her to go all the way.
But he never got the chance to test his hunch. Amber was moving on to other guys and never spent time alone with Jonathan again.
“I got one kiss,” Jonathan says,” That was it.”
On the morning of May 29, 2002, a swarm of local and state officers arrived at Altoona Area High. They burst into first-period classes, where they handcuffed several kids in front of their openmouthed classmates. “That was intentional,” says Jack Reilly, the school’s security chief. “We wanted to send a message and teach a lesson.”
Bobby was stunned when they called his name. He protested his innocence, became belligerent and made a scene, thrashing his big arms with such violence it took two cops to pin him against the orange metal lockers in the hallway.
The stopped Malicia, who was walking to class. She was floored. “I remember thinking, This must be some kind of mistake,” she says, “and they were reading me this paper, saying I handed them drugs, and undercover agent Jessica Miller this and Jessica Miller that, and I was like, I don’t know anybody by that name.”
Then Malicia had an epiphany. “I all of a sudden saw her face in front of me, and I was like, Oh god, I’m totally busted. They put the cuffs on me and walked me down this long hallway in front of everyone. It was really humiliating.”
Later, at the courthouse, Bobby watched Amber walk right by him. He wasn’t sure it was her, because she looked radically different in the dim light of the marbled foyer. No longer dressed to flirt, she was wearing a dark suit, and her long blonde hair was pulled tight in a bun. She looked like a Fortune 500 executive. But when she drew close, he knew it was the same girl with blue eye shadow he had wanted to nail so badly -- only now it was clear who had screwed who.
When Malicia saw that Bobby had been arrested, too, she turned to him and made eye contact. “Bobby,” she whispered, “what happened?” He just shrugged. Then she broke down in tears.
The police found Jason at home. He was “running late for school that day,” he says, and was still up in the bathroom brushing his teeth when a school security guard and a burly Altoona cop charged up the creaky stairs to get him. He listened to his Miranda rights with a mouthful of Crest. Then he was taken to the police station.
News of the arrests spread quickly among the student body, hastened by a flurry of cell phone calls. “My daughter was out on a bus on a class trip that day,” recalls Thomas Bradley, spokesperson for the Altoona school district. “She’d heard all about it. The whole bus was talking about the undercover operation.”
“It basically annihilated the end of my semester,” says De Piro, the warehousing teacher. “I just couldn’t get the kids back after that. Whether they were angry or what, they couldn’t move on.”
On Smokers’ Corner, paranoia took hold. Everyone wondered who would be arrested next. They all knew there were heroin and crack dealers in the neighborhoods around the school; they suspected the cops wouldn’t settle for a few kids who had peddled some shake to a narc. Jonathan, of course, feared the worst, and he went straight home to hide any evidence of his addition and to cleanse his bedroom of heroin traces. Then he waited for a knock on the door.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
That afternoon, while Jonathan worried about his fate and the arrested kids sat in holding cells, school officials summoned the local press.
As video cameras rolled, school superintendent Dennis Murray, in a fine gray suit, opened the event by invoking Dickens and Frost, while half a dozen local reporters took notes. “We took the road less traveled in this instance,” he said. “We took an extreme measure because these are extreme times.” Then he addressed his remarks to the students, who would be forced to sit through the tape a week later. “To our student body, I would say you haven’t seen anything yet. We are going to get more and more creative.”
Officials explained that in the three months “the undercover officer” was in Altoona High School, “he or she” made more than 50 drug buys, which led to charges against six students and another 10 adults, busting a drug ring that preyed on students.
State Attorney General Fisher, who had organized the sting, told everyone that drugs in school are “a growing concern to all Pennsylvanians. Young people have gotten to the point that not only would they think of using and selling marijuana to someone but they would be using cocaine, heroin, and pills like OxyContin,” he said. “And in many instances they’re selling those drugs right here in the school building. These arrests today put a stop to that.”
He continued, “I believe this case should serve as an example to other school districts across Pennsylvania that law enforcement is out there to help them solve their problems in a cooperative fashion.”
Fisher’s presence propelled the story -- to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, to the front page of the Altoona Mirror, which praised the sting as “good for the community” and even to the AP, which sent out on the wires 720 words under the headline UNDERCOVER AGENT INFILTRATES SCHOOL DISTRICT.
In a local poll, Altoona residents were split evenly over the question, “Do you support the use of an undercover officer to make drug arrests at Altoona Area High School?”
Some parents wanted to know why it was necessary in the first place. There had been 16 heroin-related deaths in Blair Country from 1996 to 2000, and officials felt themselves under pressure to do something. Two students last year were caught using heroin. One set of parents complained that they slept with their wallets hidden from their drug-addled children.
“The overdoses were a real concern,” says Altoona’s principal, Sharon Fasenmyer. “When you see that happen in the society around the school, you have to wonder what’s happening in your high school. We knew there was a major drug problem in the community, but there was a question about whether it was also in the school.” When the school’s security chief called for an undercover sting, teachers and school officials had little choice but to go alone. Many of them didn’t know who Amber Baxter really was.
From childhood, undercover officer Jessica Miller knew she wanted to work in law enforcement. She says she was 10 years old when she realized what she wanted to be when she grew up. After high school in a small Pennsylvania town and with not much else going on -- she worked two years tending bar in various places -- she enrolled at the Johnstown Regional Police Academy.
Early last year while working in uniform on street patrol, she was recruited by Randy Feathers, a suit-and-tie agent for the Blair County Drug Task Force. He had been looking for a narc to send to Altoona Area High School, and he gave Miller a brief description of the assignment and offered her the job on the spot. “Whether she was good-looking or not had nothing to do with it,” Feathers told me. “It could have just as easily been a guy, or another woman. It was just that she looked young.” At the time, Miller was 23, but she liked to say she looked about 10.
She remembers how she prepared for her first day at Altoona by trading in her pistol, holsters and ammunition belts fro some “teenager-type clothes” with hearts and trendy logos, and applying a thick swatch of glittery blue eye shadow, which she’d seen on her brother’s girlfriend.
Then she drove up to Smokers’ Corner. “I left my lighter in the car and went to the corner where they all hand out and asked some guy for a light, simple as that,” she says. “I never think -- I just wing it. I find it works better that way because you never sound rehearsed. I didn’t even find out my name was going to be Amber Baxter until the day before. And I almost forgot it a few times when people would call my name in the halls.” Armed with fictitious transfer papers and a report card concocted by the school district, she invented a past and a present, telling kids she lived alone with her mother; that her father, a Vietnam veteran and motorcyclist, was long gone. “It’s not like I had any training for this,” she says. “But I didn’t think it would be too hard. It wasn’t that long ago that I was in school myself.”
Though she has never before spoken publicly about the undercover job, she told Playboy that the hardest part of what she did in Altoona was keeping the truth from her father and brother. “My little brother would call me three times a week, wanting to go to the mall or the movies. I’d have to make up some story to tell him, and the more I lied to him the more he kept asking me. It was so hard.”
The man who had asked Agent Feathers to recruit a young narc was Altoona’s school director of police services, Jack Reilly, a chunky ex-cop. Previously, Reilly was the Altoona chief of police, and he runs the school like a station house commander battling a rising crime wave, eager to prove his place and establish “that cops and educators can work together.”
When I interview him a few months after Amber left, he jokes that “a lot of guys sure seemed to like her” and that “one football player was especially interested and wrote her a lot of notes.” Then Reilly turns serious. He leans forward in a metal chair, behind him a black gun safe the size of a small coffin. He says that Amber’s arrests “had a three- or four-year deterrent value, until the next batch of students comes through.”
A footnote to Altoona’s war on drugs may record her as the person who helped make sexuality an instrument of Pennsylvania’s drug policy. But Miller adamantly denies that flirting had anything to do with her police work. She denies shooting heroin with Jonathan or having sex with Jason -- “That’s just ridiculous,” she says. Then, faintly, she laughs.
“I was very careful not to let anyone think that by selling to me they might have a chance to go out with me, because that’s not fair and it raises entrapment issues,” she says. When I mention that so many guys had thought she was beautiful and sexy, she says, “I guess that’s just their opinion. I mean, I wouldn’t want them to say I was ugly.”
When I told her that Bobby Noel felt tricked and that he claimed he wasn’t anything remotely close to a drug dealer, she replied, “I could see how he would say that. But he approached me. I didn’t force him.”
Malicia and the boys didn’t put up a fight. Bobby and Jason pleaded guilty. The judge gave Bobby community service for passing $20 worth of weed. With less than two weeks left in school, he got suspended from Altoona High and kicked off the football team, spoiling his bid for a college scholarship.
“They completely ruined his life,” says Cindy Noel, Bobby’s mother. “Football was the thing he loved most, and now he doesn’t even want to talk about it.” Then her angry tone changes and she sounds almost pleading. “If they were so worried about him using drugs, why didn’t they just look at the two drug tests he did last year?”
These days Bobby refuses to discuss football. He still works out, and his bench is up to 265, but he will not set foot on a field. He’s focusing all his attention on Christa, his new fiancee, for whom he just bought a small diamond ring with a white gold band. “She it now, man,” he says. “Football is over.” He says he’s going to become a truck driver like his father, and that he has chalked up his NFL dreams to his boyhood. In the middle of such resignation, he suddenly turns angry. “How is this fair?” he asks. “Wasn’t she corrupting minors?” Still, remembering that day in the courthouse when he realized Amber was a narc, Bobby can’t suppress a smile. “To tell you the truth, she looked even better in a suit.”
Jason Kruise got 22 hours of community service for his felony conviction and now, on probation, works at a telemarketing outfit selling long-distance services. He seems to wear his conviction lightly, but his mother and father are deeply upset about it. “The judge told him there’s so much he’s not going to be able to do,” says his mother, Debbie. “He’ll never be able to get a loan, he’ll never be able to join the service, he’ll never be able to vote, he’ll never be able to do jury duty. You know, he’ll probably never be able to get a decent job around here.”
“I’m not saying Jason was a saint, but what they did was wrong,” adds his father, Richard. “You put a knockout dressed like that in the school with teenage boys -- come on. I don’t care who they are, any guy would do the same thing to make out. And then you mess up a 19-year-old’s life for a lousy joint? Or even a $20 bag? That’s bullshit. They set him up. There’s worse crimes going on than that.”
Malicia was also suspended and sentenced to 40 hours community service. “I know I got off pretty easy,” she says, “but all I did was give her a bag of shake when she asked me for it. And it really blows having everyone think I’m a bad kid now, you know, because I used to get A’s and B’s.” Most of all, Malicia says, she feels betrayed. “I know busting people was her job, and I try to look at both sides of it. But she didn’t have to pretend to be my best friend and get me to open up to her about my personal life. She could have done her job without that. She was always asking me for everything, ecstasy, marijuana, heroin.”
As for Jonathan, he waited the entire afternoon of May 29, but when evening came without a call from the police, he was overjoyed. “I guess it would have been entrapment,” he says now, adding he was never arrested or charged with any crime. “Besides, it wasn’t my stuff.”
Jonathan’s future plans are vague. He says he’s been clean for six months -- he even quit smoking -- and is looking at going to Penn State, where his father is a senior engineering aide. Maybe he’ll work for his uncle’s construction firm in Florida. He says he is scared straight and is full of praise for the operation. “I am just tired of seeing all my friends get caught up in heroin,” he says, “although I am still pretty tripped out about getting high with a cop.”
After the sting, Miller was promoted out of the police force and given a plum job as an agent in the Attorney General’s office. The Pennsylvania Narcotics Officer’s Association gave her its investigator of the year award. “It was a very successful operation and we’ll be doing a lot more of these types of investigations with her,” says a spokesman for Attorney General Fisher, who lost in last year’s gubernatorial election.
As it turns out, by late March 2003, Jessica had had her fill of undercover work and resigned. “I know it sounds crazy to leave the Attorney General’s office, but right now my heart is really in patrol work and being on the road.”
When I ask her if she thought there were fewer hard drugs available to Altoona students now, she replies, “Honestly, I don’t have a clue. That job was the first time I had ever been to Altoona, and I haven’t been back since.”
To be fair, Jessica Miller didn’t only bust a group of working-class boys with raging hormones. Police records show she made forays into the tougher parts of Altoona, where she impersonated a strung-out crack addict and made several buys. But her refusal to smoke the product aroused suspicion, and a threat was made on her life. Her undercover buys helped bust a small-time heroin supplier, 1999 Altoona High graduate Rafael Sanchez, who was well-known and well liked on Smokers’ Corner.
So despite the collateral damage of her drug war campaign -- the broken dreams and interrupted lives of Bobby Noel, Jason Kruise and Malicia Darroch -- Miller says she is certain she made some difference.
“At least they’re not flashing it around in the hallways like they used to do,” she says.
People familiar with Altoona’s heroin scene would disagree. “Most of my friends just found other dealers,” says Jonathan. “There’s always somebody else in Altoona.” Several other kids to whom I pit the same question echoed the sentiment. Wally Shoeman, a straitlaced senior, says, “It’s the same as it ever was. One girl now is selling it out of her purse.”
“It’s just as easy to get drugs here,” says senior Luke Zorger, a Corner denizen. The only thing that’s changed, he says, is that at Altoona High every new transfer student is believed to be an undercover cop.
On my last day in Altoona, I went back to Smokers’ Corner, where a new crowd of freshmen and sophomores were out and jockeying up the pecking order controlled by the seniors. Luke Zorger was there and so was Destiny, the girl who thought Amber was trash. Jonathan came to say hello, although, since he’d transferred to another school, it technically wasn’t his corner anymore. In deference to the rules, he didn’t stay long.
“I heard all about her in my old school,” says Rachel Hayne, a fresh-faced sophomore in a hoodie. Puffing on her Marlboro Light, she adds, “I hate snitches.”
I ask her about the availability of drugs, and she asks me if I’m a cop. Then she points to an SUV double-parked three quarters of the way up the block and about a hundred yards from the school, in front of a boarded-up house with an irregularly pitched roof and a mattress leaning against the door. “That’s who you need to ask,” she says, gesturing to the car and house. I turn back to thank her, but she has already vanished down the hill.