He knocked at the door with $1,400 in his pocket. Cathine Sellers welcomed her ex into the quiet of her red brick townhouse on Roswell’s Weatherburne Drive. He’d been there for drugs before. Now he was back to buy some more. The 38-year-old mother with hazel eyes offered up a selection of drugs, including counterfeit oxycodone pills full of the synthetic opioid known as fentanyl.
“Customers have returned the pills because they’re too strong,” Sellers told the man, according to federal court filings. “Try taking a quarter instead.”
He bought about 100.
Sellers later learned her ex was working as a confidential source for the Drug Enforcement Administration and had informed for the Sandy Springs Police Department since 2016. On June 13, 2017, DEA special agents arrested Sellers at a gas station off Ga. 400 and raided her townhouse. There, they found another 100 fentanyl pills inside a dietary supplement vial and a loaded Glock 30 in a laundry hamper.
Think of a drug dealer in Atlanta; the traditional picture that probably comes to mind is someone selling heroin on the streets of English Avenue. But who deals drugs — and how they deal drugs — has expanded to include doctors running pill mills and suburban mothers like Sellers. From police to prosecutors, authorities are not only grappling with this new breed of opioid sellers — but new kinds of opioids, too.
Federal authorities charged Sellers with possession with the intent to distribute fentanyl, a narcotic so potent it can kill someone exposed to a dose the size of a few grains of sand. They also found her with several others kinds of synthetic opioids — including U-47700, a drug that was legal until late 2016, even though it makes morphine seem like aspirin — that exemplify the insidious evolution of the opioid crisis.
Drug traffickers have resurrected obscure opioid recipes that were developed decades ago but never made out of a research lab. The makers of these new variants tweak drug compounds to avoid detection from law enforcement. The synthetics appear on the streets, often inside fake pain pills, like the ones Sellers sold. A legal game of cat-and-mouse ensues: Lawmakers outlaw one drug; traffickers make a new drug; cops find it on the streets; lawmakers pass a new law.
Last year, synthetic opioids contributed to the deaths of two Buckhead apartment-dwellers and a Brookhaven doctor. In 2016, synthetics helped drive up fatal overdoses nationwide to a record number of 64,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts believe those figures will rise again in 2017.
In recent weeks, President Trump called for some drug dealers selling synthetic opioids to face the death penalty if one of their customers fatally overdoses. It’s a proposal that draws fierce criticism from drug policy experts, and there was no evidence in court that any of Sellers’ customers died. But the intent of such a policy is to make dealers like Sellers think twice about continuing to sell synthetic opioids in metro Atlanta.
“It’s the perfect storm,” said Byung J. “BJay” Pak, the top federal prosecutor in northern Georgia. “This is a fast moving [epidemic] presenting challenges to law enforcement and prosecutors. We’re trying our best to stay ahead of it.”
From straight A’s into drugs
Nothing in Sellers’ early life seems to suggest that she’d be at the eye of this kind of storm. Born in El Paso, Texas, Sellers was an Army brat who relocated often but still earned enough A’s to attend college. In her early twenties, Sellers moved to Georgia where she raised two kids largely on her own. Efforts to reach her family for comment were unsuccessful. But, according to letters her 14- and 11-year-old children wrote to the court, she was a doting mother.
“She always make[s] sure we have everything we need for school and always buys us the things we want. She always hangs out with us and take[s] us places. She plays around with us and likes to joke around with us,” wrote one of the children. Her mother, Diane Causby, wrote that Sellers “has continued her spirit of excellence with her children, in raising them to be at higher standards in their education, behavior and choice of friends.”
It’s unclear, according to court records, whether the drugs, domestic violence or divorce came first. But about a decade after moving to metro Atlanta, she paid her bills by dancing as a stripper at the Cheetah, a gentleman’s club in downtownAtlanta, and sometimes used drugs. The Sellers family settled in Roswell in late 2016.
On the night of Jan. 13, 2017, a Roswell cop pulled over Sellers after her white PT Cruiser allegedly drifted out of its lane. An officer who watched Sellers said she became defensive and argumentative. After noticing her glassy eyes, the officer asked her to perform a sobriety test. Eventually, the officer found a folded $1 bill full of a white powdered substance inside her wallet. Tears streamed down her face.
“[I] was exposed to a certain lifestyle,” she told the officer, according to the report. They weren’t her drugs this time, she said, but she admitted to using cocaine in the past.
After getting arrested, Sellers entered a pre-trial diversion program. Four months later, though, she skipped a mandatory meeting and failed a drug test. She told her court-appointed officer she planned to vacation in New Jersey until this past August. Meanwhile, her name ended up in the news again: ajc.com published a story titled “Cops: Man with pills, syringes and $1,095 cash arrested in Alpharetta.” That man was Sellers’ fiancé, and she was in the car during the traffic stop in May 2017 that led to his arrest, though she was not charged.
Then, a month later, the DEA raid happened. Her lawyers tried to get her released on bond so she could be with her children. But a federal judge denied the request, writing that, “the court can conceive of no condition or combination of conditions that would reasonably assure the safety of the community” even though there was “strong evidence from her family and friends that she is a good mother.”
New dealers, new threats to police
Parents aren’t the only new target of police and prosecutors seeking to contain the suburban spread of opioids. The same month Sellers was arrested for cocaine possession, federal prosecutors charged Dr. Arnita Avery-Kelly, a licensed podiatrist, with the alleged illegal distribution of prescription opioids out of her clinic in Sandy Springs. In the nine months leading up to August 2015, she allegedly prescribed over 116,000 oxycodone pills, 41,000 hydromorphone pills and 400 fentanyl patches. Last year, Nisar A. Piracha, a 63-year-old former physician who ran the Piracha Wellness Clinic in Dunwoody, received a sentence of over seven years for prescribing opioids to people in exchange for cash. Some of his clients traveled up to 200 miles for his services.
Keith Zgonc, deputy chief of the Sandy Springs Police Department, says the kinds of synthetic opioids found in Sellers’ home are as much of a threat to his officers as they are to residents. Because grains of synthetic opioids are so fine they can penetrate rubber gloves, narcotics officers have overdosed in some cities nationwide while investigating crime scenes — prompting some departments to call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for assistance in handling the drugs.
“We don’t open it,” Zgonc said. “We’re not going to risk an overdose of one of our people to make a case.”
Despite such risks, police and prosecutors are finding ways to make cases. On May 24, Sellers, who has pleaded guilty, is scheduled to make an appearance in a 21st-floor courtroom inside the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta. Sellers will stand in her jail-issued jumpsuit accompanied by her lawyer — who didn’t respond to requests for comment — hoping the judge will spare her the maximum sentence of 20 years. But prosecutors hope this is one catch they can make in the endless cat-and-mouse chase of a deadly crisis.
Coping with a Crisis: Opioid addiction in the suburbs
The combination of prescription painkillers, heroin and synthetic opioids is killing people around the nation, including within Reporter Newspapers communities. In this exclusive four-part series, we will look at how local families, nurses, prosecutors, recovering addicts and others are responding to a growing epidemic that already kills more people than cars, guns or breast cancer each year.
For the first story, about families using obituaries to tell the harsh truth of loved ones’ overdose deaths, click here. For the second story, about a Dunwoody man who runs treatment facilities for opioid users after surviving eight overdoses and facing prison time, click here. For a local emergency department doctor’s overview of the opioid crisis, click here. To share your thoughts and stories, email firstname.lastname@example.org.