This is the second installment of a series of stories on the police work that led to the arrests of two men in connection with the overdose death of Wauwatosa's Alexandra Hopping.
Based on interviews with her family, Wauwatosa police knew Alexandra Hopping had been using narcotics for three years before she died at 19 of a heroin overdose on April 18.
But according to her mother and stepfather, she had been through several rehab programs and had been drug-tested regularly since last October. They were fairly certain she had been clean for six months – which may ultimately have been a factor in her death.
A flurry of text messages exchanged on her phone in the two days before she died was all Wauwatosa police had to go on in finding the people who had supplied Hopping with the heroin that killed her.
But that was a lot. Hopping’s messages indicated she was again eager to score heroin and fall prey to her heroin demons, and she was not at all cautious in contacting someone she clearly believed could get her what she wanted.
The phone records gave detectives a prime suspect in Daniel Lee Birtic, 23, of Waukesha as the go-between who could make a drug buy for her. The messages Birtic sent to Hopping were more guarded than hers, but besides implicating himself, he mentioned an unidentified driver who would take him to Hopping’s house and pick her up, then drive them to Milwaukee’s north side to make the buy from his dealer, also unnamed.
For detectives, that painted a picture of what has become a pattern in the recent rise of heroin as a drug of choice among suburban youth. A group of users, often friends, most of whom like Hopping started out on the prescription narcotic Oxycontin, is touched by heroin. It’s actually cheaper and easier to get. Someone knows someone who can supply the drug from a source in the central city of Milwaukee.
For Wauwatosa police, then, there was a great challenge in finding a way to catch Birtic, a small-time supplier, with heroin in his possession and to solidly link him to Hopping’s death. There was an even greater challenge in finding out who the big-time dealer was – but then, it was also a great opportunity.
If officers could patiently connect the two and take them both into custody with a good enough case to put them away on homicide charges, they would not only be solving the Hopping case but taking out another rung in the ladder of drug dealers, possibly saving other lives.
A link in the chain
The text messages of Hopping and Birtic alone, while damning, left detectives wanting more proof. Even though they wrote extensively about making one drug buy, there was no single message from Birtic that indicated he was handing her heroin. That had taken place face to face.
The police did have one good place to start – the driver.
“(He) was the weak link,” said Wauwatosa Police Capt. Jeff Sutter.
Police knew that Birtic didn’t drive because his license was suspended. Officers had a vague description of the car that had dropped Hopping off the night of her death. It was white. If they were to watch Birtic and see him being picked up regularly by the same car – a white car – they might be able to follow it to the source in Milwaukee.
On watch in Waukesha
So began a surveillance campaign, along with side investigations and background checks of anyone with whom Birtic had contact. Detectives were also looking deeper into Hopping’s past to see if they could make connections between her and anyone involved with Birtic.
Hopping had actually grown up in Waukesha and only recently moved with her mother to Wauwatosa. She had gone to Waukesha West High School, graduating in 2009, where she had started using narcotics. It seemed likely that if Birtic was supplying a circle of users there, Hopping had once been part of it.
Police did not reveal to Patch all of the methods they used, but together they resulted in an all but certain identification of Birtic’s usual driver – white car and all. What’s more, the 19-year-old driver was someone Hopping had known in Waukesha.
The problem was, sometimes that driver used a different car, and sometimes other people would drive Birtic around. Police would have to follow them to see where they were going. They had a good idea of Birtic’s habits, but did not want to stop him while he was just running errands.
Opportunity presents itself
On Sept. 26, a Monday, undercover officers went to stake out the driver’s house in hopes of seeing him leave and following him to Birtic’s house. But conditions weren’t optimal. They hoped to be able to be able to make the bust in a few more days, or perhaps the following week.
“There were about six cars there, and any two or three of them might have been cars that (he) would drive,” said Detective Sgt. Dave Moldenhauer. “There were likely a lot of other people around, too, and it just didn’t seem like a good layout.”
One officer had been sent to stake out Birtic’s house as well. As luck would have it, in short order a white sedan pulled up, Birtic came out and got in, and they left in a hopeful direction.
Oddly, though, the car was not even being driven by the right person. There was a woman at the wheel.
Nevertheless, it seemed there was something going on. The word went out: If this continues to play out, today is the day to make the arrest.
“From then on, it was all on the fly,” Moldenhauer said. “We weren’t intending to make an arrest that day, but it was unfolding in front of us.
“They got on the freeway and headed toward Milwaukee. They went to the north side and pulled into a parking lot and waited near the street. A car came by, slowed down. They made eye contact. It was a classic drug deal going down.”
The deal goes down; police move in
Birtic and the woman followed the other car a short distance and then both pulled over and parked along a side street. Birtic got out and entered the car ahead of him. Soon he returned to the white sedan, and the presumed dealer drove away.
Police had no intention of arresting both parties that day. Birtic was their sole target because this was just their first glance at his source. Hopefully, others would provide more information that could both lead to the dealer’s arrest and link him to Hopping’s death. To do that, police had to know that he was, in fact, the same source that Birtic had used more than five months before, on the evening of April 17.
Detectives were pretty sure what would happen next, and it was important to them that it did happen. They expected that, like most addicts, these would drive a short distance and then pull over to shoot up – that’s how strong the pull of heroin is.
Had the car left the area and gotten back on the freeway, it’s likely no arrest would have been made that day, Moldenhauer said. There would be too many opportunities for the buyers to use the drugs or toss them. Too many things could go wrong.
“We don’t like pulling them over on a busy street or along the freeway,” the detective said. “In these types of investigations, we prefer to arrest them quietly.”
And that is exactly what happened. The buyers drove to an ideally out-of-the-way spot nearby and pulled over. Police immediately moved in to surround them before they could possibly use or discard the drugs.
“And that’s how it went,” Moldenhauer said. “We had a bird in the hand – he (Birtic) literally had the drugs clutched in his hand when we ordered him out of the car.”
Officers took both into custody and moved quickly to contact and question the usual 19-year-old driver and others involved with the group. Police asked Patch not to reveal exactly who said what – but they learned enough to arrange plans to lay a snare for the dealer the next day.
The Wauwatosa police also now had a CI – a confidential informant.
The informant “seemed almost relieved,” Moldenhauer said. “It’s kind of typical of suburban kids. After all, they’re doing this to their friends.”
“It’s people next door,” Sutter said. “They’ve made one bad decision, and now they’re battling a demon 24/7. You can’t even begin to appreciate the hold of that demon if you haven’t experienced it.”
Getting to the dealer's dealer
It was extremely important to Wauwatosa police to put together a bust of of Birtic’s dealer as soon as possible. They had taken two people into custody. Those two people had been on a drug run. When they didn’t return, those whom they were supplying would begin to talk and text furiously.
Detectives knew the dealer had protected himself – he never let Birtic know where he lived – but they knew that Birtic had also allowed numerous other people, including Hopping, to accompany him on drug buys, and that some of those people inevitably got a look at the man. Moreover, they knew that he was Birtic’s main supplier.
Word would get out soon, and it could get back to their man. The police needed to hurry. They waited only a day.
Giving their informant $600 in buy money, they put him on the phone. But the dealer, soon to be identified as 33-year-old Edwin Esteves, refused to answer and ordered the informant to text him only, writing, “text bro don’t tru the talk too much.”
Police told the CI to text his order, to which Esteves replied, “6?! How long?” Clearly, a $600 sale got his attention.
From the CI: “25 min that cool”
From Esteves: “K”
The two then arranged a meeting at North 41st and West Center streets, not too far from the 3rd District Milwaukee Police station. Wauwatosa police converged on the location, spotted the car and moved in. There was no need for the CI to make contact with his cash.
Things had gone like clockwork so far. Soon things got a little haywire.
Esteves had a woman with him in the car, and when they took her out of the passenger seat, they took her to the ground.
“When you take someone down, you immediately ask if they’re all right,” Moldenhauer said. “She didn’t answer, so the officer asked again, ‘Are you OK?’ She could only mumble, and her throat was working, and we thought she was trying to swallow something. So the officer reached down and pulled her jaw open.”
Out popped a bag with 33 individually wrapped $20 corner cuts of heroin – a total of about 3 grams. Busted, both of you.
A search of Esteves’ residence uncovered an additional 19 grams of heroin and four guns, plus a “grow” of marijuana – a few plants in a closet space.
Like Birtic, Esteves was arrested for possession of heroin with intent to sell. On Tuesday, both men were charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the death of Alex Hopping. Birtic is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on that charge Oct. 19. Esteves had not been scheduled for a hearing as of Tuesday.
The case against Esteves is aided by the fact that Hopping insisted on going along the night of April 17 to make the drug buy that would kill her. She was there along with other witnesses who could identify Esteves as the dealer of those drugs.
Coming Thursday: Family's Best Efforts Couldn't Bring Daughter Back from Precipice
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. See first part of series.