A 29-year-old heroin addict stood in a hospital parking lot, crying, as she told the story of how her life fell apart because of the drug.
The woman — a law-school dropout — had been snared in an Illinois State Police sting operation Tuesday targeting DuPage County residents who flock to Chicago’s West Side to buy the narcotic.
The Glendale Heights woman wasn’t arrested, but admitted she and her friend took the Eisenhower Expressway to the Austin neighborhood to score heroin. A street-corner dealer they approached was selling crack cocaine — not heroin — so they didn’t buy anything, she said.
They were sitting in the parking lot of West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, trying to decide what to do next, when state police troopers who were tailing them swooped in.
The troopers found a syringe and synthetic marijuana in the rusted-out Honda Civic the women were riding in — but no heroin. The officers let the woman go, but her friend was busted on an outstanding warrant.
Before she left, the Glendale Heights woman recounted the cliff-dive her life has taken into addiction. It’s a story that Illinois State Police officials said they have heard many times, the story of the heroin highway from DuPage County to inner-city Chicago.
The woman said she avoided heroin in high school after one of her best friends died of an overdose. She said she was at the top of her class at a small Catholic college.
Later, as a freshman in law school, she experimented with heroin for the first time and got hooked. Soon she was injecting heroin into her veins.
She said she was convicted twice of felony heroin possession, in 2009 and 2012, and regularly used the drug until she stopped about five months ago following rehab. Last week, though, she got a “craving” and started up the habit again.
The woman said she commutes from the west suburbs to Chicago every morning to buy heroin to “keep my sick off” — the symptoms of withdrawal. She said she knows more than a dozen former high-school classmates who also have become addicted to heroin.
“It’s an awful, awful, awful way to live,” she said. “It’s not about getting high. It’s about surviving.”
Thirty-eight officers from the Illinois State Police, the Chicago Police Department and other agencies were involved in Tuesday’s sting. It’s been about five years since the state police launched such a large-scale operation targeting heroin buyers.
The state police and DuPage County law-enforcement agencies have seen a rise in heroin arrests and seizures in recent years. Heroin-related deaths also are up — a record 46 in DuPage County last year, compared to 23 in 2007.
The Chicago metropolitan area, meanwhile, outpaces the nation’s rate of emergency room visits for heroin overdoses by nearly 3 to 1, according to the most recent federal statistics.
Illinois State Police Lt. Steve Loan said he saw a surge in heroin use in DuPage County when cocaine became scarcer about five years ago.
Troopers patrolling the expressways see the results of heroin abuse first-hand. It’s not uncommon for troopers investigating crashes to find drivers with hypodermic needles still in their arms, Loan said.
While Tuesday’s operation focused on heroin buyers, Loan said information gathered from the buyers could help police build cases against the sellers. Six people were arrested in the operation, three on drug-related charges, officials said. As for the Glendale Heights woman, she counted herself lucky, at least on Tuesday.
“Right now, I’m just trying to stay out of jail,” she said.