ATLANTA -- A growing epidemic of addiction to opiates is taking hold in metro Atlanta.
A WSB-TV Channel 2 Action News investigation found a soaring number of heroin-related overdose deaths and reports of increased trafficking of the drug in the suburbs.
Jennifer Echols is a Cobb County resident whose 24-year-old sister died of a heroin overdose last year.
"I want the public to know that this is an epidemic. You can live in the nicest suburbs of Atlanta, Cobb, Cherokee and it's there. My sister was literally able to go down the street and find heroin," said Echols.
Echols told Channel 2's Tom Regan that her sister Elizabeth, who attended Auburn University, began using heroin after developing an addiction to pain medication. A year later, she overdosed and fell into a coma. The family decided to end life support after doctors declared Elizabeth legally brain dead.
"It was the hardest decision you could ever make, because you're always thinking in the back of your mind, ‘Maybe there's a glimmer of hope that she's really not gone,’" Echols said.
The Echols family is just one of many families grieving for a loved killed by a heroin overdose. Several major metro Atlanta counties report a spike in heroin-related deaths. In DeKalb County, heroin deaths doubled, increasing from 5 to 10 between 2012 and 2013. In Gwinnett County, deaths rose from 2 in 2012 to 7 in 2013. Cobb County saw heroin related deaths surge from 9 in 2011 to 16 in 2012, although deaths declined to 8 in the first nine months of 2014.
Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, has seen the biggest increase in total numbers. Heroin deaths rose from 24 to 31 from 2012 to 2013. Since 2011, the county medical examiner reports there have been 73 deaths caused by the drug. The actual number of overdose deaths is likely higher because is an unknown number go unreported.
In rural Georgia, 13 heroin-related deaths were reported in the first nine months of 2013. Georgia Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry said while deaths related to prescription medication are the main cause in drug related deaths, heroin deaths will continue to rise.
"The problem with heroin being available and being abused is pretty much everywhere." said Sperry.
Channel 2 spoke with Chris Zollman, a 24-year-old Georgia State graduate and recovering addict who described the toll heroin addiction has taken in his circle of friends.
"I've lost 24 friends in four years from heroin. When people died of heroin, you'd ask, ‘Where did they get it?’ Because you wanted it. Because it was that good," said Zollman
Zollman told Regan he became hooked on Roxicodone and began injecting heroin a year later. He said he supported a $300-a-day habit by selling large quantities of the drug and opening doors for other dealers.
"I would actually bring them up to Alpharetta, let them meet my friends, and then I would get free heroin. Suburban kids don't go to the 'hood where you can get robbed and shot. They would, you know, rather drive three miles to get their heroin," said Zollman
In Forysth County, law enforcement officers arrested three men who were charged with selling heroin out of a Cumming motel. Officials attributed three overdose deaths last year to a pure form of heroin that was being sold to young users.
"It's surprising to me, but it's more surprising to parents and the public," said Forsyth County Sheriff Duane Piper.
Authorities and drug addiction counselors attribute the rising use of heroin to wide availability and price. A single dose can be purchased for $10 or less, which is usually cheaper than illegally obtained opiate-based pain medication.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, many opiate abusers who can no longer afford to buy pain medication turn to heroin to feed their addiction and avoid dreadful withdrawal symptoms which include nausea, vomiting and fever.
"The younger age group maybe more likely to purchase heroin when a $10 to $15 bag of heroin is compared to an 80 milligram Oxycontin that cost $80. I think some start with the idea that they don't have to inject it, that they can snort it, or smoke it. But many ultimately transition to injecting," said CDC researcher Dr. Christopher Jones.
Addiction treatment facilities and recovery centers say they are experiencing soaring demand from addicts trying to kick the habit and stay sober. Regan spoke with the director of Lifeline Atlanta, a recovery residence.
"When we first opened in 2009, the majority of our clients were here for cocaine, crack cocaine and alcohol. Now it’s people in their early twenties addicted to heroin. We have a Heroin Anonymous meeting started a year ago by our alumni. It's huge, 200 people per week," said Lifeline Atlanta Director Trey Miller.
Miller said local governments and judicial systems need to commit more funding to heroin addiction treatment and recovery programs.
"I've been around the drug scene for 15 years in Atlanta. I have never seen any other drug rise to epidemic proportions as heroin has in this city," said Miller.
Zollman, who works as a counselor at Lifeline Atlanta, said he feels lucky that he didn't die from an overdose. He said he is committed to helping others kick their habits.
"I get to work with addicts, help them with their situations like I've been in. Everyone here is like a big family," said Zollman.
While Regan investigated heroin on metro Atlanta streets and at the morgue, Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Mark Winne, producer Jason Solowski and photographer LeVar James headed to the Mexican border, where they found an even bigger smuggling story than expected.
“In the eight ports of entry that cover the Laredo field office, we've had a 104 percent increase in the smuggling of heroin and being caught at our border crossings,” Customs and Border Protection Supervisor Eduardo Perez told Winne.
Winne met with Perez by the crossing between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico.
“In the past year, 2013, we had 1,213 kilos of heroin in the Laredo field office alone,” Perez said.
“One kilo of heroin is a huge seizure, is it not?” Winne asked.
“Yes,” Perez said. “The increase in heroin is really different this past year. 104 percent increase-- it’s unheard of.”
Winne and Solowski even crossed into Mexico briefly, on foot, to tell the story.
Once they got back to Atlanta, they brought the story full circle with a visit to the Fulton County Jail, where a 21-year-old from Alpharetta told his own story, emblematic of the stories countless young Georgians are facing.
They also spoke to top officials from ICE, Homeland Security Investigations and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
DEA Special Agent-in-Charge Harry Sommers revealed a startling account of how organized crime planned to take advantage of the prescription pill epidemic, essentially to turn it into a heroin epidemic.
A recent bust of roughly 57.5 pounds of suspected heroin at a Hidalgo, Texas, border crossing is a big enough story by itself, but Winne found the federal documents that spell out a major Atlanta connection to the case.
After returning to Atlanta, Winne rode with the DEA for a pair of heroin buys in the neighborhood known as The Bluffs.
In the course of investigating heroin use in Metro Atlanta Winne uncovered allegation that actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman used heroin in the Atlanta neighborhood while filming a movie in the metro area.
A contact of Winne’s said Hoffman did nothing to mask his heroin addiction around her. She asked to have her identity masked after sharing a picture with her and the actor, where she said he was in a drug house with her.
The contact said she witnessed everything but the initial purchase of the heroin, and that Hoffman acted lethargic, laughed a lot and talked about his children.
Hoffman, who won the Oscar for his portrayal of writer Truman Capote and created a gallery of slackers, charlatans and other characters so vivid that he was regarded as one of the world's finest actors, was found dead in his apartment Feb. 2 with what officials said was a needle in his arm. He was 46.
The actor apparently died of a drug overdose, said two law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case. Envelopes containing what was believed to be heroin were found with him, they said.
WSB-TV Channel 2's Tom Regan, Mark Winne and the Associated Press contributed to this article
Video: WSB-TV Atlanta