A young woman is found dead in her home in Wauwatosa. Two men are charged with causing her death, although there is no solid evidence that either one of them ever so much as touched her.
Rather, they are charged with selling her the heroin that killed her in an overdose, under what is called the “Len Bias law.” And it isn’t the first time.
“We’ve had three previous cases,” said Wauwatosa Police Capt. Jeff Sutter, “and we have two more under investigation.
“We’ve been a little bit secretive about it up to now – not because we didn’t want people to know there was heroin in Wauwatosa, but because we didn’t want the bad people to know our methods and how closely we were investigating them.
“But we’ve decided it’s time people knew. It’s here. It’s happening. And we hope that maybe people can watch for the signs and prevent more deaths.”
The victim and the accused
Alexandra Michelle Hopping, 19, was found dead on April 18 by her former stepfather at her mother’s home in the 1800 block of North 70th Street. Evidence collected from her cell phone – a series of text messages sent during the previous 48 hours – identified one man as Hopping’s direct supplier of heroin and implicated another unknown person as his main supplier.
After a six-month investigation, both men were charged Tuesday with first-degree reckless homicide for allegedly supplying her with the drug.
Police surveillance led to the Sept. 26 arrest of Daniel Lee Birtic, 23, of Waukesha, for possession of heroin with intent to sell. He had 0.51 grams of heroin and drug paraphernalia with him in his car.
The next day, Edwin Esteves, 33, of Milwaukee, was set up for a drug buy with the help of a confidential informant and also was arrested for possession with intent to sell. He had about 3 grams of heroin with him in his car, and a search of his residence turned up another 19 grams of heroin and four guns.
Birtic and Esteves were both being held on the possession charges when Wauwatosa police came forward seeking additional homicide charges against the two under the Len Bias law, which allows for prosecution for causing the death of a person who overdoses on drugs.
Bias was a national standout basketball player for the University of Maryland whose death from a cocaine overdose in 1986 led to the adoption of much tougher federal and state drug laws, including Wisconsin's reckless homicide law.
Seeing it as a homicide scene
From the moment the first police officer entered the living room of Hopping’s home in the lower level of a duplex, the case became much more than just an investigation of how she had died. That seemed all too obvious.
Hopping lay face down between a couch and a coffee table, and from her appearance, she had likely been dead for hours. On the coffee table were a syringe, two spoons charred on their backs, a lighter, two emptied “corner cuts” – plastic bags tied off at the corner to hold a dose of drugs – and another bag with two corner ties inside, each containing a light brown powder suspected to be heroin.
Within five minutes, the first of four more patrol officers and six detectives would begin arriving to pursue an investigation that was already pointed at finding the suppliers and bringing homicide charges against them.
“The flag got raised,” Sutter said. “This is a young person. We treat it pretty seriously, and we invest a lot of resources in it. Oftentimes it’s putting a lot of resources into nothing more than a lot of loose ends.
“But if somebody’s dead (from an overdose) at 19 years old, we treat it like a homicide.”
Picturing a victim’s last moments
The neighbor in the upstairs flat of the duplex told police she had seen a young woman dropped off across the street the evening before. She had crossed the street by herself and entered the downstairs unit, and the car had driven away. She could only say that the car was white.
If the woman she saw arriving was Hopping, it seemed likely that nobody was with her when she overdosed. Her mother, the only other person living in the home, was vacationing with friends in Las Vegas.
But also on the coffee table beside Hopping’s body were two highball glasses. Two glasses, two spoons, two empty corner cuts. It seemed possible that someone had been with Hopping when or before she overdosed.
“But nobody cleaned it up,” said detective Sgt. Dave Moldenhauer. “Usually, if there’s another party, they try and obstruct our investigation by destroying evidence. They put everything away, flush any remaining drugs down the toilet. Then we have to wait for toxicology reports, and that doesn’t give us much to go on.
“Still, we can’t go in thinking that because there is evidence present, that means she must have been alone, and so we can dispense with it. We can’t get it back after it’s gone. We have to explore every possibility.”
Among those possibilities were that a companion had been with Hopping but left before she collapsed, or had become frightened and left when she did.
With all this in mind, detectives lifted fingerprints and took potential DNA samples from everything in the home that anyone might have touched that morning or the night before. Testing would take weeks. All would come back negative for anyone other than Hopping and her mother.
As near as could be told, Alex Hopping had shot heroin alone and died alone.
Texting her intentions
If physical evidence was lacking, the digital evidence contained in Hopping’s cell phone was another matter. Just between the morning of April 16 and the evening of April 17, Hopping had exchanged 66 text messages with one phone number and 68 with another, as well as some with two other phones not accounted for by family members.
One of those numbers proved to be Birtic’s, and the conversation clearly was about getting him to score Hopping some heroin.
On the 16th, Hopping asked Birtic if he could arrange a $200 buy. Birtic was unable to accommodate her that day, but the next morning, she began to text him again to see if he could make a $100 buy for her.
Messages continued throughout the day, including a lengthy exchange in which Birtic warned Hopping that his supplier sold a particularly high grade of heroin and that she could overdose if she was not careful. She assured him that she would be.
A deal eventually was set up for around 5 p.m., and Hopping asked to go along, apparently so that she could shoot up as soon as possible. Birtic could not drive, so a 19-year-old Waukesha man and his 19-year-old girlfriend, who have not been charged, agreed to take him and to pick up Hopping along the way.
Together, they went to a prearranged location in central Milwaukee and, as it would only much later be learned, bought $200 worth of heroin – $100 for Hopping and $100 for the other two teens – from a man eventually identified as Esteves.
After returning home, Hopping sent a message to another heroin user, hoping to sell him some of hers. It read: “I got some flameeee if ur interested. For real, OD [stuff] haha I bought too much I’m floored [on] 2.” He responded: “Nope No Money.”
“The text messages in and of themselves led to prime suspects,” Sutter said.
Catching Birtic holding heroin, and identifying and likewise arresting Esteves with the goods would be an entirely different matter.
Coming Wednesday: Tosa Police Build Their Case Against Suspected Dealers
Editor's note: As Wauwatosa police were wrapping up a six-month investigation into the death of Alexandra Hopping, officials offered to provide Wauwatosa Patch with an inside look at how the case was developed. The department provided access to investigative records and allowed Patch to conduct in-depth interviews with the detectives who played key roles in the investigation. The narrative above is based on those records and interviews.