El Pasoan leaves behind dangerous life as drug runner and snitch for the feds.
El Paso Inc.
El Paso, Texas - On a hot July day, Chris Heifner, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso, was sailing along I-40 in a rented Buick Century headed to Kansas City, when a state trooper pulled him over.
The lawman said Heifner had been speeding, and that would have been that, had a police dog not alerted the officer to a 200-pound stash of marijuana in the trunk of the car.
That day, July 17, 2000, changed everything in Heifner’s life.
He was thrust into a tiny jail cell in the north Texas town of Amarillo. On the back of the cell door, a previous guest of the county had scribbled a message: “You are here because you have been stupid.”
True enough, thought Heifner
“I had just flushed my whole future down the toilet,” says Heifner. “I felt right then like I was circling the bowl.”
But even as the young man, a self-described Army brat born in El Paso and raised in Alabama, studied his feet in his jail cell, he had no clue to the perilous journey that awaited him.
The twists and turns included service as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, treacherous work that took him even deeper into El Paso’s drug underworld, eventually leading to a divorce and a struggle to make a living.
Now 36, Heifner is an adjunct professor of economics at El Paso Community College. He was recently quoted on a New York Times blog about the economics of the drug war. He has a book proposal making the rounds, and he’s a motivational speaker.
He agreed to talk to El Paso Inc. in the hope that by telling his story, he’ll attract funding for travel expenses so he can take his message to high school students.
His message is a simple one: success is a process. Young people must develop good habits and stick with them and trust that those habits will eventually result in a good life, he says.
This would have been good advice for Heifner himself when he was bouncing from college to college thinking that life was forever. Life got much more serious in December 1999 when he graduated from UTEP with no job prospects, his girlfriend became pregnant and they were facing eviction from their apartment.
He turned to a friend in his graduating class who seemed to have a lot of money, Jeffrey Todd Andes, a good country boy from Kansas. Heifner asked him for $2,000. Andes offered him $4,000.
Deep down, Heifner says, he knew how Andes got his money. In his desperate situation, however, he tried not to think about that. But beginning on Dec. 28, 1999, he had to. It was payback time.
Andes asked Heifner to drive to Ruidoso, taking a load of marijuana that had come across the Mexican border and delivering it to a distributor there. Heifner says Andes ran a small drug trafficking organization or cartelito that took drugs from El Paso to Kansas, Tennessee and East Texas.
Heifner began an eight-month spree as a drug courier, making thousands of dollars each run. He took pot to Memphis. He delivered money to the Mexican operators in Juárez. He worried not just about the police but also the buyers, who, after paying $100,000 or more for the drugs, might follow him and try to get their money back.
One Memphis dealer paid $75,000 for the goods and the next day chased Heifner from Tunica, Miss., to Little Rock, Ark., in hopes of getting his money back and doing who knows what to Heifner.
A 300-pound load of marijuana wrapped tight in plastic earned Heifner $20,000. His most lucrative run brought him $35,000, he says. He was able to pay the rent in those days. “The money was insane,” Heifner says.
Then came the traffic stop in Amarillo.
“I was scared straight,” says Heifner. “I had a newborn son, I had married my girlfriend and she was pregnant again. I had a family to raise and this wasn’t the lifestyle I wanted. I decided I would do whatever it took to be good.”
Heifner got deferred adjudication of his case. That meant no jail time and no felony conviction on his record. He got a job at Circuit City. He applied to UTEP’s MBA program.
Things were looking up for about 18 months. Until the DEA paid him a visit, warned him that he could still be charged with conspiracy in connection with his drug running and “suggested” he become an informant for the government.
Heifner went back to Andes and asked for money to hire an attorney, in case he did face changes. But Andes turned him down, and then came to Heifner’s home with a tough-looking gentleman he introduced as the man who would kill Heifner if he snitched.
“The ghosts of your past come back to haunt you,” Heifner says. “I was a family man who went to church, was working a job and trying to get into grad school, and everything I tried to step away from is now coming back and has me firmly it its talons.”
Heifner decided to cooperate with the DEA.
“By day, I was a grad student, a family man, a church-goer, and by night I was hanging out with unsavory individuals trying to collect information.”
It wasn’t possible to verify many of the details of Heifner’s story. The DEA said it couldn’t comment.
“We don’t talk about information about a cooperating witness or informant unless ordered to do so by a court,” says DEA El Paso public information officer and Special Agent Diana Apodaca.
Andes disappeared in 2005. He was last seen driving a black-and-gold Ford Expedition from Winfield, Kan., toward Chicago. He is presumed dead.
Fact checking an informant is especially difficult because the informant’s name doesn’t appear in the court record.
But some corroborating facts do appear in a related case. Byron Segura of El Paso is serving 14 years in federal prison after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy to distribute illegal drugs. Although Segura pleaded guilty, he is appealing his sentence to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Details of Andre’s drug operation emerge in the government’s response to that appeal.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s brief filed in December, Segura worked for Andes and took over the cartelito when Andes disappeared.
According to the brief, the feds opened an investigation they called “Operation Player’s Lounge” in May 2002. It was named for the now-defunct Players Lounge on Dyer Street in Northeast El Paso. It was there that Heifner and at least one other informant collected information.
The DEA put Heifner to work in the daytime, too. He was assigned to photograph Andes playing golf with a Mexican drug dealer at Painted Dunes Desert Golf Course. Heifer recalls standing behind some bushes when he heard the telltale rattle of a rattlesnake. He suppressed the urge to run and blow his cover. Instead, he grabbed the snake by the tail end and flung it into the desert.
According to the government’s brief in the Segura case, buyers called Andes and later Segura to arrange the purchase of “multi-kilogram quantities of marijuana.” Andes and Segura arranged for the shipment of dope, collected the proceeds and delivered the cash to suppliers in México.
Soon after Andes disappeared in 2005, the DEA stopped using Heifner as an informant because his connection was gone. Heifner says the people he knew in the cartelito have either been killed or sent to prison. But he thinks the hitman may still be alive.
Aren’t you worried that one of them will get out of prison and come after you? he is asked.
“I put myself in the hands of God,” he replies.
And talking about this, won’t it encourage someone to come after you?
“That’s a risk I have to take. It’s my calling to talk to youth. We aren’t losing the drug war in México. We are losing the drug war in Kansas.”