Competition among Xalisco networks kept prices low. OxyContin pills cost $80 apiece and addicts needed five or six a day. Black-tar heroin was stronger and cost less than $50 for a day's fix.

By 2007, black-tar addiction had spread across Columbus, Dayton, Cleveland and other Ohio cities. At Columbus-based Maryhaven, Ohio's largest drug-treatment center, opiate addicts made up 20% of the center's patients in 1997, and many were addicted to prescription painkillers. Today, 70% are black-tar heroin addicts, said Paul Coleman, Maryhaven's president.

Xalisco heroin also penetrated the well-to-do suburbs of Delaware County, Ohio. Demand for treatment is now so great that Maryhaven recently set up a satellite clinic for heroin users there, Coleman said.

Rural Athens, Vinton, Meigs and Hawking counties have seen a tenfold increase in heroin addicts seeking treatment over the last four years, and almost all were black-tar users, said Joe Gay, director of Health Recovery Services, a drug-rehabilitation center serving those Ohio counties.

"When you see these increases, you ask why," Gay said. "The answer is availability and price. Heroin was never available in these rural counties, and now it's cheap and plentiful."

Hitting on addicts

Rick Jordan was an addict living in Columbus and, like many West Virginians, he kept close ties to his hometown, Huntington.

Family members say he and his wife Kandace met Xalisco dealers in Columbus in 1998. The couple were trying to kick an addiction to prescription opiates and had sought help at a drug-treatment center.

"The Mexicans would sit out in the parking lot, getting guys who were trying to kick," said Jordan's daughter, Tesina Ventola.

Soon the Jordans were hooked again, on cheap black tar. Rick began calling the Mexicans every day. His toddler grandchildren came to believe that the dealers were doctors, because Jordan and his wife seemed to feel better after their visits, said Ventola, the children's mother.

Around 2004, friends from Huntington began calling Jordan, hearing that he had a connection to cheap heroin. Jordan would call the Xalisco dealers. In Huntington, heroin then cost $50 per tenth of a gram and was usually diluted Colombian white powder.

Jordan would buy three balloons for $50 and keep one for himself. He'd sell the other two to a friend from Huntington for $50. The friend would return to Huntington, sell one of the balloons for $50 and keep the other for himself.

"That's where it all began," Ventola said.

Word spread through Huntington. By mid-2007, addicts were making pilgrimages to Jordan's wood-frame house west of downtown Columbus, sometimes carrying thousands of dollars in cash.

One of them was Michelle Byars, who had gotten hooked on pain pills after a back injury and switched to black-tar heroin.

"I'd show up and other people from Huntington would already be there," Byars, 34, recalled in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Connecticut.

One of the alleged Xalisco dealers in Columbus was a young man whom junkies called Carlos and whom police later identified as Juan Hernandez-Salazar (one of many aliases he has used).

His heroin was 70% pure, said Bobby Melrose, who described himself as a longtime drug user.

"I'd use two or three bags of dope to just get well, and not even reach the same high as one bag of Carlos'," Melrose said in an interview at a federal prison in Kentucky.

Via Jordan, this potent heroin got to Huntington, where addicts had little tolerance for it. Users began overdosing, and some of them died.