Most of the dust has settled surrounding the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, but questions still remain. For instance, was Hoffman’s death an accidental overdose or an intentional one? Much criticism has surrounded the arrests that were made subsequent to Hoffman’s death, and still there’s the question of whether any of the people arrested were directly involved.
“Some people do it
to just get by… It’s
like breakfast, lunch,
and dinner— boom
12 bags a day.”
[The names of the individuals quoted in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.]
Most of the dust has settled surrounding the case of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, but questions still remain. For instance, was Hoffman’s death an accidental overdose or an intentional one? Much criticism has surrounded the arrests that were made subsequent to Hoffman’s death, and still there’s the question of whether any of the people arrested were directly involved. Lastly, there’s the elusive “Ace of Spades” stamp, which was ubiquitous in drug arrests and overdoses two to three years ago, but which has been nowhere to be found since Hoffman’s death.
Overall, the conversation about heroin abuse in the country has been brought to the forefront. Addiction counselors, lawyers, and writers were featured non-stop throughout the 24-hour news cycle for the month following Hoffman’s death.
But one group seems to be missing. If anyone is likely to have an understanding of Hoffman’s state of mind and his actions leading up to the day of his death; if anyone could lend insight into the arrests following Hoffman’s death; if anyone is likely to have come across “Ace of Spades” brand, it’s New York’s addict community—a community that’s heavily concentrated in North Brooklyn.
Since putting aside an acting career that began midway through my high school years and ended just after college, my work as a writer has been rife with drugs. Stories about recreational and addictive drug use, both fiction and non, have been plentiful throughout my work. During this time I’ve gotten to know New York City and Brooklyn addicts, be it by interviewing them or by asking for quick bits of insight or quotes for articles. And one thing I’ve learned is that the word “community” applies. Heroin carries with it a strong physical addiction. The biggest fear for a person who is heroin dependent is the sickness that comes from withdrawal, which is why people network, they share connections and information. So I took to the Brooklyn streets, looking for former sources, visiting heavy-traffic areas and opiate replacement clinics to search for answers to some of the lingering questions about Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death.
The central uncertainty in Hoffman’s case is the nature of his overdose. According to reports, those close to Hoffman stated that he’d suffered from addiction in his twenties and had only recently relapsed after a substantial stretch of clean time. Accidental heroin overdoses are most commonly a result of mixed substances. However, another prevalent cause of overdose is that a user’s tolerance is lowered after a substantial hiatus from opiates. Users return to the drug with a lower tolerance while using the same amount they once did, and the system cannot handle it.
Marcus Rosen is a North Brooklyn resident who was interviewed by the WG for our recent article on the branding of local heroin (WG News + Arts, Issue 44). “Most of the people I know who’ve overdosed, it was after a long time clean. It’s easy to take too much.”
Reports of the amount of heroin found in Hoffman’s apartment at the time of his death have varied. What was first reported as only several bags has since risen to around 80 small bags of heroin, with cocaine and benzodiazepines added in later reports. After an inconclusive autopsy, further tests showed a mixture of cocaine, benzodiazepines, and heroin as Hoffman’s cause of his death.
William Musial is a 40-year-old heroin user who’s spent half of his life on and off of heroin. He attends a Brooklyn methadone clinic to receive that medication, which curbs his desire for the drug, though he admits he continues to use on occasion.
“I didn’t know him [Hoffman],” William says, “but I knew people that knew him.”
I asked William whether the presence of benzodiazepines, cocaine, and heroin in Hoffman’s system points to an intentional overdose.
“Half the addicts I know also use benzo’s, most of them daily. As for cocaine, plenty of people start using dope [heroin] after they do cocaine for awhile. It’s a good comedown, its gets rid of the jitters. A lot of people don’t use one without the other.”
So, was it intentional?
“No, I don’t think so,” William says. “People do dope to escape the problems in their life. Once you start, your only problem is whether or not you got any dope. I read he’d used less than half of what he had, so I doubt he wanted out.”
Marcus has been using heroin “on and off since 2001,” and he agrees that there’s no sign of purposeful overdose.
“Everywhere I look they are calling him a hardcore addict. Just because he had 80 bags or whatever doesn’t make him a hardcore, like he was falling apart. Some people just do it so they can get by and live their life. It’s like breakfast, lunch, and dinner, boom 12 bags in a day.”
Four people were arrested in a Mott Street apartment building (just above Houston) in connection with Hoffman’s overdose. One was quickly released for being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Robert Vineberg was arrested after police seized over 350 bags of heroin from his apartment, although the stamp on the bags did not match the “Ace of Spades” branding. Juiliana Luchkiw, a college student, and Max Rosenblum, a DJ, both in their early twenties, were arrested in a separate apartment. At first it was reported that they, too, were caught with heroin, although it was later revealed that instead only a small amount of cocaine was found in their apartment. Rosenblum recently pled to probation and time served.
Tawnee Jackson is a Brooklyn-based former heroin user. When asked about Luchkiw and Rosenblum, she comments, “It keeps saying they were arrested in connection with [Hoffman’s] death, but I don’t see the connection. It all sounds kind of botched. They just had a little coke, and happened to live in the same building as Vineberg. Knock down the doors of 100 college-age kids in New York City and you’re bound to find some cocaine.”
Vineberg is a studio and touring saxophone player who’s been charged with two counts of felony drug possession with intent to sell as a result of the 350 bags found in his apartment, but the debate remains over whether or not his intent was actually to sell the stash of heroin.
Marcus claims that 350 bags doesn’t necessarily a drug dealer make. “If he does 10 bags per day, which is a somewhat normal habit, then 350 is a month’s supply. If he’s got to go on tour, he might need to stock up. Look, I’m not saying he wasn’t a dealer. In fact, I know some people that will tell you he was a dealer, but it all depends on what your definition of a dealer is.”
Jimmy Morton is a 28-year-old drug user in Brooklyn who has been homeless for several years as a result of his addiction issues. He comments, “I think [Hoffman] likely got the bags from the musician. There aren’t too many places in that area to get it from. But, he wasn’t no big-time kingpin. He probably just sells, like, half of what he gets so that he can pay for his own stuff. Someone who’s famous doesn’t want to go out to the ‘hood because they may get robbed or beat or just recognized, you know? So Vineberg probably just sold to people like that. That’s less a drug dealer than, like, a delivery man or something.”
Of the four people interviewed for this article, none of them had ever come into contact with the “Ace of Spades” strain of heroin.
“Name a stamp that’s been downtown or in Brooklyn the past few years, and I’ve likely seen it, or I know someone who has. I’ve never seen “Ace of Spades,” and I don’t know anyone who has,” says Jimmy.
Of all the questions I asked my sources for this interview, one elicited markedly different answers from each: “How did the story make you feel?”
William responded, “Some people are put on a pedestal after they die, and others their death overshadows their accomplishments. Hoffman was a genius more than he was an addict.”
“It’s kind of scary,” says Tawnee. “It makes me feel like drugs should be legal. Opiates themselves aren’t that detrimental; it’s the lifestyle of illegality. If heroin was regulated, the strength of heroin could be regulated as well, and maybe that could have saved his life.”
Marcus had a different response. To him, the death of Hoffman and the aftermath surrounding it just showed the great disparity in this country between the haves and the have-nots, the watched and the watchers.
“I’ve known three people who OD’ed in the last three years. Nobody got arrested for selling them their drugs, because it happens every day. It’s sad.”
All four people interviewed for this article come from different walks of life and economic situations. The same is true of three famous overdoses in recent years, from Cory Monteith to Amy Winehouse to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heroin remains rampant in North Brooklyn, and addiction is still treated as a crime.