John Butler planned to take a few months off earlier this year to work on his master’s degree.
The veteran attorney had left the Navy after nine years as a judge advocate general – serving in San Diego, Norfolk and Kandahar, Afghanistan. He wasn’t really interested in juggling school and work.
But then a dream job fell in his lap: Taking down violent street gangs dealing heroin on the streets of Hampton Roads.
“I could not conceive of a better opportunity than this,” Butler said last week from his office in the World Trade Center in Norfolk. “I had to make this happen. I couldn’t pass this up.”
Butler was hired in February as an assistant attorney general with the state’s Major Crimes and Emerging Threats Section, but he’s not like other state lawyers. He also serves as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, prosecuting criminal cases full time in federal court.
“He’s unique,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, noting that most other state prosecutors who work with his office do it only a few days a month. “He is full time, all the time, every day.”
In interviews, Boente and Attorney General Mark Herring said they were concerned about heroin’s spread across the state. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there has been a 286 percent increase in overdose deaths nationwide since 2010. The state Medical Examiner’s Office has said that Hampton Roads’ rate of overdose deaths in 2013, at 4.17 per 100,000 people, is significantly higher than the state average of 2.41 per 100,000.
Describing it as an “epidemic,” the CDC added that heroin use had increased across all income levels and many age groups. Some of the greatest increases occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use: women, the privately insured and people with higher incomes.
The Drug Enforcement Agency attributed that in part to the fact the drug is cheaper and often easier to obtain than prescription painkillers.
“We had to do something,” Herring said, explaining why he approached Boente last year about putting an extra prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office to take on more large-scale heroin distribution cases in Hampton Roads. He said it is sometimes easier to prosecute large criminal conspiracies in federal court than in state court.
Herring recalled touring the state last year and speaking over and over with parents who lost otherwise upstanding children to heroin use – straight-A students and star athletes among them. He noted one conversation with a grieving mother.
“She looked at me right in the eye and said, “Don’t let this happen to another child in Virginia,’ ” Herring said.
Boente welcomed Herring’s offer to help put an additional full-time prosecutor on the job.
“We’re incredibly busy,” Boente said. “We can always use the additional resources.”
A state and federal partnership called Project Safe Neighborhood covers Butler’s nearly $90,000 salary, with half coming from a federal grant geared toward reducing gang and gun crime and the other half coming from state asset forfeiture funds.
Butler remains a lieutenant commander with the Navy Reserve. Now in his late 30s, he was the 2013 recipient of the Federal Bar Association’s Younger Federal Lawyer of the Year award. He recently earned a master’s degree in national security policy and strategic studies from the Naval War College.
He emphasized that the strategy of his new job is to pursue cases that will have a significant effect on the drug trade.
Butler said he and two of his fellow prosecutors – Assistant U.S. Attorneys Joseph DePadilla and Andrew Bosse – are targeting the “leaders, the managers and the sources of supply” to make it harder for drug users to buy heroin and to deter others from selling it.
He said he thinks a few successful prosecutions will reduce crime in general.
“We’re interested in the crime drivers,” he said, citing research by a former crime analyst with the Buffalo, N.Y., Police Department that shows about 6 percent of criminals are responsible for 60 percent of the crime.
Butler noted perhaps the biggest case of his short career as a federal prosecutor: Alonzo Outten – who pleaded guilty last week – and his wholesale drug distribution ring. According to court documents, the group distributed as much as 198 pounds of heroin the past two years in Hampton Roads, resulting in five overdoses in March. Outten was the supplier for at least two other street gangs operating in Portsmouth and Norfolk, the leaders of which have pleaded guilty to their own charges.
“We’ve made a huge dent in dismantling some of the major drug trafficking organizations in the Hampton Roads area,” Butler said, noting that two of the groups his office prosecuted this year waged war last summer in the streets of Portsmouth.
“There will certainly be more prosecutions to come.”
Butler said he is one facet of a multipoint plan Herring devised last year to combat heroin.
Project Safe Neighborhood includes two other prosecutors. Another assistant attorney general is working with the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. A third will work in Hampton Roads handling some state and some federal cases.
But Herring and Boente and even Butler stressed it will take more than court cases to stop the heroin epidemic.
“I don’t think anyone will tell you that you can prosecute yourself out of this problem,” Boente said.
During the past legislative session, Herring championed efforts to make it easier for people who witness an overdose to seek immediate medical assistance without fear of criminal charges. He also sought to expand a pilot program to allow law enforcement to administer a prescription drug antidote to heroin or prescription opioid overdoses.
According to the CDC, Naloxone successfully reversed more than 10,000 overdoses between 1996 and 2010.
Herring also is working to make it easier to prosecute drug dealers for homicide when their drugs lead to a fatal overdose, and to “aggressively seek suspension, revocation, or other appropriate sanctions” against the doctors, pharmacists and pharmacy technicians accused of overprescribing or stealing prescription opiates.
Prevention and education are key, Herring said. Project Safe Neighborhood includes a “community coordinator” who meets with members of the public to make sure people understand the dangers of heroin and the warning signs of its use.
Butler noted that heroin – at least the kind prevalent in Hampton Roads – is not like most people think. To use it, addicts don’t have to heat it with spoons or inject it with a needle.
“That’s not the case. We’re not seeing that down here,” Butler said, describing it as a “transition drug” for individuals hooked on hydrocodone or other opiates. “This is not about shooting in veins. It’s just taking a pill like you would take a capsule – like you’d take hydrocodone.”
For Butler, the new job brings new dangers – including gang members armed with M16 and AK-47 assault rifles.
In the interest of safety, he declined to pose for a photograph for this article and asked that personal identifiers – such as his exact age and details about his family – not be included. He would say only that he lives in Hampton Roads.
With pictures of him in uniform in Afghanistan on his office wall, however, Butler said, he did not believe he is really at risk. He argued that as long as he treats defendants with respect, he believes they will respect his role in the legal process.
“I’m not going to gloss over the fact that this is dangerous work. It is,” Butler said. “But Virginia is my home and there is a lot more work to do.”
Scott Daugherty, 757-446-2343, firstname.lastname@example.org