King of Boise - Pacific Standard
The high comes on fast, a euphoric feeling of life itself slowing down, a calm feeling of absolute contentment. But the feeling is fleeting. Thirty minutes later, an addict will be itching for more.

Feature stories, read aloud: Download the Audm app for your iPhone.

section-break

Austin Serb mashed the pedal on his 1994 Mazda RX-7 and wound it up way past 100. It was six days before Christmas, 2012, and he was running late. Serb, then 19, had downed gallons of water and vitamin B-12 tablets to flush out prescription painkillers, cocaine, and whatever else might be lingering in his bloodstream.

His girlfriend sat in the passenger seat, clipped into a custom racing harness. It was for her that Serb was taking the drug test, a prerequisite for a tech-support job he'd applied for. She didn't want him to be a drug dealer anymore. And he, too, had been thinking of going straight.

Serb had been selling drugs since he was 14. He was wildly successful, often making more than $100,000 a month off the prescription painkiller oxycodone. The money paid for a diamond-studded Rolex, all-night hotel parties, and his modified RX-7—a 500-horsepower rotary-engine rocket straight out of the Fast and Furious film franchise—which was currently hurtling him west out of Boise. It was hard to think of $11 an hour.

Serb floored it and yelled over the howl of the engine: "Watch out for the cops." He had forgotten to put in his contact lenses.

As they raced down Interstate 84, flashing past cars in the slow lane, Serb saw it first: a black Dodge Charger in the right lane, Boise Police in silver letters below the taillights.

He hammered the brakes and felt all four wheels lock up, the rear end fishtailing, everything going slow motion, just like in Xbox Forza, his favorite racing game. This wasn't happening, he thought, as he slowed down and slid right next to the police car.

Heart pumping, hands on the wheel, Serb kept the speedometer at 65. The cop fell back, and pulled up close behind the Mazda. Serb's girlfriend yelled at him to pull over. But the cop hadn't flipped on the lights.

At least he had followed his rules for once, Serb thought. There were no drugs in the car.

Serb stole glances in the rearview mirror as the police car followed him for five excruciatingly long miles. As they approached the outskirts of Boise, the officer pulled alongside Serb's car. Serb kept driving. Eventually, he saw the police car's turn signal flashing. He watched as it pulled off at an exit ramp.

It didn't make sense, Serb thought. Maybe the officer didn't notice the RX-7 approaching rapidly from behind? Maybe he didn't see the smoke pouring off the skidding wheels? Nobody gets that lucky. Maybe the cop was calling for back-up?

Serb got off at the next exit and zigzagged down the back roads to the clinic, where he peed in a cup, then pulled out his iPhone and logged on to Facebook.

"Mobbing 130 mph," he wrote. "And blow past a cop. Hahahaha."

section-break

Austin Serb got his start at McDonald's. In 2008, his father lost his job making computer chips at Micron Technology, a semiconductor manufacturer based in Boise. Suddenly, money was tight.

Serb, who had been homeschooled by his mom using religious textbooks from Bob Jones University Press, entered public middle school and took a job flipping burgers for $6.50 an hour.

At school, the short and chubby 14-year-old hooked up with kids he knew from summers at the public swimming pool. On weekends, they rode their BMX bikes to a dried-up canal behind a gas station at the edge of town. Down in the canal, hidden away from the city, they drank cans of warm Keystone Light and smoked marijuana his friend Alex stole from his parents.

An illustration of Austin Serb.

They called themselves The Dots, a reference to the scars they burned into the bases of their thumbs with glowing cigarettes as an initiation rite of sorts.

One of Serb's co-workers at McDonald's sold weed on the side. In time, he fronted Serb an ounce, and, soon after, Serb quit, having found himself suddenly flush with walking-around money.

In high school, the drugs changed. Marijuana was a constant, but ecstasy and other party drugs were in higher demand. The Dots changed their name to the B.C. (short for Bro Council) and set up a private Facebook page, and the number of kids burning in grew, drawn from the outsiders—kids who didn't fit in with the preppies, jocks, or nerds.

Serb wasn't popular, but he sold drugs to all the cliques at the three Boise high schools he attended as a result of frequent family moves. The selling came easy. It was sourcing drugs that was the problem. He didn't have many connections.

By 11th grade, Serb was coaxing friends to take him to Seattle or Portland to buy ecstasy (he didn't have a driver's license). Often, the trips ended with him getting robbed of his money, his stash, or both.

section-break

Boise is a law and order city. Residents walk the streets at night without fear. Teenagers tend to dress in outdoor clothing, as if they are about to go rock climbing or skiing. Serb stood out in gold chains, basketball shorts that hung to his knees, and mismatched $200 Air Jordans.

In 2011, he rented a three-bedroom town house in southeast Boise with his girlfriend and his older brother and went on a shopping spree. He bought a 70-inch flat-screen television for the living room, a 60-inch flat-screen for his bedroom, and a 27-inch for the bathroom.

Serb hung a painting of a seaside Italian village in the bedroom and arranged his T-shirts by color in the walk-in closet. On the floor, he laid out 40 pairs of basketball shoes, mostly Nikes, in every color of the rainbow. He felt like he had made it.

It wasn't long before the Boise police began hearing about him.

Joe Andreoli, a plain-clothes detective in the Boise Police Department, first made contact with Serb in 2011. At home on a Monday evening, Andreoli received a call from another detective who'd received a text message from an unknown number advertising "dank buds" at $265 an ounce.

The next day, Andreoli, a recreational boxer who cultivates the scruffy look of a middle-aged drug dealer, used the detective's cell phone to make an appointment to buy 1.5 ounces of marijuana.

Then he tracked the phone number to Austin Serb. Andreoli knew about Serb from several anonymous tips called in to the department. He had heard rumors of the giant safe where Serb kept his money. Andreoli thought he might be an up-and-comer in the Boise drug scene, and this could be an easy chance to take him off the streets.

At around 10 p.m., Andreoli was waiting inside a Jack in the Box when surveillance officers saw Serb arrive in a maroon Pontiac. Andreoli watched as Serb entered, and another officer made the arrest.

Serb's career as a drug dealer might have ended there, but he didn't go to jail. In Serb's account of the night, he made a deal with Andreoli to work as an informant in exchange for having the charge dropped. (Andreoli declined to discuss why Serb wasn't charged that night.)

According to Serb, police interviewed him several times after the bust about a good friend who was also a dealer. Serb says he told them his friend had left the game. He assumed they believed him, and that the fake information he was giving police would keep him out of jail.

Less than a month later, Serb graduated from high school. His career as a drug dealer was about to explode.

section-break

To smoke oxycodone, roll up a dollar bill or pull out the insides of a pen to make a "tooter." Tear a rectangular piece of foil, hold it flat in one hand, and place a pill at the top edge. Put the tooter in your mouth. With your other hand, aim a lighter's flame under the pill and tilt the foil at a 45-degree angle.

Suck the smoke into your lungs as the pill slides down the foil leaving a black trail. Hold. Exhale. The first hit burns your throat, but the second will be better because the painkiller will have begun to take effect. Follow the pill up and down the foil until it is gone.

The high comes on fast, a euphoric feeling of life itself slowing down, a calm feeling of absolute contentment. But the feeling is fleeting. Thirty minutes later, an addict will be itching for more.

In Boise, they call them "dirty 30s," or just "dirts," a reference to the 30-milligram oxycodone tablets users prefer.

Prescribed by doctors to treat pain, oxycodone is a strong synthetic opioid, a factory-made version of heroin with an almost identical molecular structure. Medical sales of prescription opioids nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2014, and the explosion created an easy source for users, many of whom became addicts.

Like elsewhere, many of the earliest users in Boise sourced oxycodone pills from home medicine cabinets or stole them from grandparents.

Today, an opioid addiction epidemic is overwhelming law enforcement, addiction treatment centers, and social services providers across the country. From 1999 to 2015, the number of overdose deaths in the United States from prescription opioids and heroin more than quadrupled. Each year has been worse than the last, and public-health experts say there is no indication that the epidemic is slowing. It's one of the greatest public-health crises of our time.

Serb's personal policy on drug use was no meth, no crack, and no heroin. Everything else, he figured, wouldn't kill you, especially if it came from a prescription pill bottle.

The first time he smoked oxycodone, he didn't really like it. As he sucked the smoke into his lungs, he thought it tasted like burned sugar. Then it hit.

The high wasn't an event, like cocaine or ecstasy. It was like pushing pause, a warm and mellow body high, a feeling the fidgety high-strung kid had never looked for and didn't particularly enjoy.

Oxycodone wasn't easy to come by in Boise. Serb's customers were asking for it, but he didn't have a source.

section-break

At a concert of the rapper The Game in Boise, he made the connection that changed everything: Ajellon Dedeaux, a California drug dealer who he called A.J. In the parking lot after the show, a friend of Serb's bought a half-pound of marijuana from A.J.

To Serb, A.J. was just another weed dealer. Maybe a source. But later, when Serb contacted him to ask if he could get prescription painkillers, A.J. mailed him 300 pills stuffed inside a teddy bear. Serb paid him $12 a pill.

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 2.32.44 PM

When Serb texted his buyers to let them know he had painkillers, his phone lit up. Serb drove from one side of Boise to the other, all day long and into the night, dropping off pills at $40 a pop. Within a week, they were gone. He walked away with more than $8,000. Nothing had ever sold that fast. He put in another order to A.J. and waited for the shipment. Again they sold out.

Within months, Serb was selling 1,000 pills a week, sometimes twice that, shipped inside teddy bears, or hidden inside glass-bowl candles that had been melted and repoured with pill bottles encased inside. Serb stored the pills in a hollowed-out broom handle he kept in his garage.

Selling painkillers was easier than pushing marijuana and other drugs, where strains are different and buyers are picky and always looking for the next best thing. With oxycodone there were never any complaints.

And because the drug is so addictive, Serb's buyers usually came back for more, often with friends. Each week was better than the last, and the money was piling up.

section-break

Serb didn't trust banks. He kept money in safes, shoe boxes, and with longtime friends who didn't use drugs—people he thought he could trust.

And he kept much of it in his wallet, a leather Tommy Hilfiger that flopped out of his back pocket, so thick it couldn't be folded. Serb started most days nearly empty. By nightfall, his wallet was packed with thousands of dollars, almost all of it in $20 bills.

His B.C. friends called it the Serb Wallet. It was the thing, but also a concept—the source of the group's fun. It paid for Serb's jewelry, giant televisions, fur coats, and basketball shoes. It paid for sushi dinners for a dozen friends, paintball outings, and endless laps at Fast Lane, an indoor go-kart track.

Serb was generous with his money. He never had much as a kid, and throwing it around felt good. His policy was money was for spending. It was everything for everyone, always on the Serb Wallet.

Not long after he met A.J., Serb rented adjoining rooms at a Holiday Inn and invited the entire Bro Council, as well as his new friends from the drug trade. They pulled the door connecting the rooms off its hinges, set it flat on two chairs in the open doorway, and played all-night beer pong tournaments. Serb set out a bag of cocaine for guests.

section-break

Austin Serb wasn't the only dealer in town, but he was the biggest, and the only dealer with consistent supply. By 2012, he had cornered the market for painkillers in Boise, a high-desert city of around 225,000. He employed 11 pushers, each with their own territory, armed them with iPhones, and paid bonuses to top sellers.

Together, they sold painkillers to thousands of customers, mostly men in their early 20s. But they also sold to women, and older people. Everyone, it seemed, had a taste for the drug. For every $9,000 they brought in, Serb's take was $3,000.

After setting up his crew, Serb did less selling. He managed shipments and sent wire transfers to A.J.—sometimes as much as $15,000, which he heard was the cutoff before people got suspicious—using the fake name Austin Knowles. If bankers asked, Serb told them he ran a business importing high-performance car parts from Japan. Usually, they didn't ask.

And he got high. Oxycodone, anticlimactic when he first tried it, quickly became like food—he needed it to get through the day. He didn't like the high, which sapped all his energy, but smoking oxy kept away the dope sickness, an intense nausea followed by a soul-wrenching depression like he had never experienced.

The down, which came on fast, made Serb feel like he was starving, paired with the feelings you get when a girl breaks your heart: hurt, anxiety, and a loss of motivation and hope.

section-break

For years, Serb had raided magazine racks, looking for anything he could find on import tuner cars—the sports cars, mostly from Japan, that people modify heavily for optimum performance and style. He could quote the zero-to-60 times and horsepower ratings of a dizzying array of cars, but the closest he'd come to driving one was the racing games he played on his Xbox.

In the spring of 2012, Serb and his friend Devyn loaded a shoe box filled with $12,000 in the trunk of Devyn's Subaru and set out for Tacoma, Washington. Serb had found his dream car—a white RX-7—on Craigslist.

Devyn drove, with Serb smoking in the passenger seat. The old friends planned to buy the car, then drive to Seattle and check out the city. It would be a sort of victory lap for Serb. He packed a few dozen oxycodone pills for the trip.

They drove for eight hours, the length of Oregon and up through Washington, smoke from melting painkillers filling the car. When they arrived at a Walmart parking lot in Tacoma to meet the seller, Serb had already smoked through most of his stash. He was nervous. The seller was late.

Finally, a lowered silver Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution with wide wheels and a snarling exhaust note pulled up. A young Asian guy rolled down his window. But it wasn't the guy Serb talked to on the phone. The guy told Devyn to follow him to the Mazda. It felt weird, Serb thought, almost like a drug deal, as they followed the Evo through town and into a subdivision.

The guy in the Evo stopped in front of a house and waived them into a driveway. Just as Devyn turned off the Subaru, a dozen Asian guys piled out of the house. Something didn't feel right. Suddenly, a brand new Nismo 370Z pulled into the driveway, blocking them in.

"Shit," Serb said to Devyn. "It's a set-up."

He'd told the seller he would be paying in cash. Now they were stuck, two guys from Boise with $12,000 in drug money in the trunk.

Just then, the garage door started inching up in front of them, and Serb saw five-inch exhaust pipes poking out from under the ground effects of the RX-7. Then he saw the driver's door, which opened vertically, like on a Lamborghini. The seller hadn't told him about the Lambo doors.

The car was like a fantasy from one of his car magazines. Serb quickly handed over the shoe box of money to the guy who stepped out of the Nismo and signed the title. Twenty minutes later, they were gone.

Over the next two years, the Mazda would become Serb's calling card, a sign of his success. He treated it like a person, posting a series of photos on social media and dropping tens of thousands of dollars to make it faster and prettier.

But on the day he bought the car, Serb was unable to drive it. He didn't yet know how to operate a stage-5 racing clutch.

Serb's nerves were frayed, and he was nearly out of pills. Continuing on to Seattle was out of the question. The two friends caravanned back to Boise, Devyn driving the Mazda, Serb following in the Subaru, the sickness creeping up in his stomach.

section-break

Serb thought the Boise police had given up on the Jack in the Box charges. He was wrong. Almost a year and a half after his arrest, he was upstairs in his apartment when his girlfriend came up looking worried.

"Austin, there's cops downstairs," she said.

"You let them in?" he said, thinking about the $30,000 he had in the safe and hundreds of pills hidden in the house.

He went downstairs, and the police arrested him. Serb didn't even understand the charges. It was about drugs, but which drugs? The police didn't seem to be raiding the house. Instead, they led him to a police car and to jail. Later, when he learned that prosecutors had filed charges from the Jack in the Box bust, he was relieved. It was only a bit of weed—probation at the worst.

Out on bail, Serb hired a criminal defense attorney. And he began to reconsider his future. The charges were minor, but they could have been much worse. He took the bust as a sign.

Altogether, Serb had around $120,000, enough, he figured, to stop selling drugs, fight his charges, and figure out a new life. Over the next five months, he stopped selling and cut back on his drug use, instead spending his days playing the first-person shooter video game Call of Duty and preparing for his court appearance.

At the final hearing, Serb got off on a technicality. He remembers walking up to Andreoli with a cocky grin. "Keep doing what you're doing," Serb says he told the detective.

Andreoli doesn't remember the exchange, but he took the loss hard. It was a clean bust, easy even. Serb had come right to him. He was frustrated with a legal system that would put someone like Austin Serb back out on the street. He'd come to believe that Serb was behind the spike in oxycodone in the city, and the chance to take him out had failed.

Though the impact of Serb's dealing on Boise is difficult to quantify with precision, Andreoli says his caseload as a narcotics detective was consumed by opioids during the years Serb sold oxycodone. And uniformed police (the ones who respond to suspicious deaths) noticed a marked rise of young, seemingly healthy men and women overdosing from painkillers.

Serb didn't immediately go back to selling drugs after beating the charges, but attorney fees and his own drug use, which was once again spiking, quickly burned through his savings. Plus, he was bored sitting in his apartment, often by himself. His phone was silent. The Serb Wallet was gone.

Within a few months, he was selling again, and as business ramped up, so did his paranoia.

In late 2012, Serb moved in with Devyn and set up a system of surveillance cameras outside the house. He bought a handheld metal detector and swiped visitors to make sure they weren't wearing a wire. On the telephone, he insisted buyers call him Brody in case the cops were listening in.

He was right to be concerned. After losing in court, Andreoli opened a narcotics-unit investigation into Serb's network, and agents quickly began to learn the scope of Serb's operation. They collected trash outside Devyn's house and found broken candles with voids the size of pill bottles and squares of tinfoil with the telltale tracks of melting oxycodone pills. They knew the pills were coming from out of town, but they didn't know where, or who was sending them.

But before Andreoli could present a search-warrant request to a judge, Serb moved again, holing up in an apartment across town. It would be months before Andreoli could locate him.

section-break

On the day after Christmas, 2013, Serb walked through the food court and out the doors of the Towne Square Mall to pass some pills off to a friend who was parked outside. Before he'd left his apartment, he'd hid his stash in his secret spot inside a baseball hat, and packed dozens of painkillers in the pocket of his black fur coat.

Since high school, Serb had grown to over six feet, but he was down to 140 pounds, with deep black circles around his eyes and pasty skin. To offset the oxycodone pills he smoked—as many as 30 a day now—he snorted a gram a day of high-quality flaky cocaine dealers called "fish scale." All his pushers were also addicted by now, and they were making stupid mistakes—taking the drugs they were supposed to sell, losing money.

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.09.56 PM

Serb knew Andreoli was watching him, but he had a more immediate problem. It had been a year since he'd nearly sped past the police car at more than 100 miles per hour on his way to a drug test. (He hadn't gotten the job, and he and his girlfriend had since broken up.)

Boise Police Sergeant Matthew Bryngelson had not missed the speeding white RX-7 in his driver's side mirror. The car was going so fast—perhaps 120 miles per hour, or more, Bryngelson wrote in a police report—that the officer had thought a police car might already be in pursuit. None was.

When Serb slammed on the brakes, Bryngelson saw smoke billow up under the front and rear wheel wells. The officer thought for a moment that the RX-7 might slam into his cruiser.

Bryngelson didn't pull Serb over that day because he had two prisoners in the back seat. But he did record Serb's plate number and called it in to dispatch before exiting the interstate.

Later that day, Bryngelson received a call from Ted Arnold, a Boise Police officer who worked as a school resource officer at Timberline High School, where Serb graduated. Arnold recognized the description of the Mazda, and he helped Bryngelson find Serb's Facebook page.

"Mobbing 130 mph," the officer read. "And blow past a cop. Hahahaha."

When Serb's wanted picture turned up on the Boise Police website a few days later, he turned himself in. But Serb's attorney won continuance after continuance, and the case dragged on for more than a year. Serb put the charges out of his mind. By Christmas, he'd already missed a couple of court dates on the reckless driving charge and had two warrants out for his arrest.

Two plainclothes officers were following him that day as he walked past the Cheesecake Factory, exited the mall, and handed pills to his friend. He lit a Parliament. Someone yelled his name.

Serb turned and saw the officers. He turned away, reached into his coat, and jammed the pill bottle deep in the compression underwear he wore for exactly this purpose.

Next thing Serb knew, he was on the ground in handcuffs, the cops hammering him with questions. He played it cool. Later, in jail, police found 72 pills in his underwear.

section-break

Serb woke up the next morning dope-sick in the Ada County Jail. He faced multiple felony drug charges. He downed a large plate of spaghetti at lunchtime, and headed back to a shared cell with an exposed toilet in the center.

He climbed to his top bunk and lay down. Soon he was sweating through his clothes, then freezing, his guts twisted up tight. It was a feeling he knew well. He got himself down off the bed, but didn't make it to the toilet. He barfed the spaghetti right onto the floor.

Serb couldn't stand up. On his hands and knees, he felt like he would black out. A cellmate called to a guard, and they moved Serb to a medical cell.

As he went through withdrawal over the next three days, Serb felt starved. But every time he ate, he threw up. He was sick of being an addict, he thought. When he got out of jail, he planned to take buprenorphine to kill the cravings and try to get clean.

Serb made bail again, and a bondsman drove him to the second-story condo with a view of a lake, where he had moved a year earlier. As they navigated through the streets of Boise, Serb had a bad feeling. Everything seemed wrong, and being off drugs made it worse.

He opened the door to his condo and hit the light.

The spot on the floor where his 70-inch flat-screen sat was empty. Then he saw the balcony door, kicked off its hinges. His favorite oil painting—the one with the Italian ocean view—wasn't on the wall.

Serb ran to his room and shuffled through his hat rack for his pills. Gone. So were his Rolex and gold chains.

Surely it was someone in his crew, he thought. Only someone who knew he had been arrested and knew where he kept his pills could have done it.

He called a dealer friend. He needed pills. But everyone in Boise was seemingly out of everything except heroin. That evening, he tied off a vein in his arm and shot up for the first time.

section-break

Serb was out of money. Other dealers were moving in on his business, and he was losing his source. Several months earlier, A.J. had driven to Boise and beat Serb up for smoking though $12,000 worth of pills he'd fronted him. A.J. was now relying on others in Serb's network to push pills in Boise.

Serb had one thing left. He drove his Mazda to the auto shop that had done his engine work and put the car down on an $8,000 loan to buy a shipment of painkillers. He never was able to buy back the car.

Over the next few months, Serb stayed in his condo, often with Andrew Colwell, an expert in manufacturing hash oil, the waxy concentrated cannabis extracted with butane and other solvents. The two dealers smoked and played Xbox Forza, often nodding off on the racetrack, leaving only when they had to pick up shipments.

He didn't know it, but the end was already in sight. Two months before Serb's arrest at the mall, Andreoli appealed to the Drug Enforcement Administration for a federal wiretap investigation into Serb's network. By November of 2013, Andreoli, a DEA agent, and members of the Boise Police narcotics unit were listening through the night as Serb set up buys and talked with his pushers. The DEA dubbed the investigation Operation Candle Wax.

Late one evening, as Andreoli sat in the DEA's office with his headphones on, he heard Serb tell a buyer that a girl at a party was overdosing. It was a pivotal moment for the investigation. If the police forced their way into the apartment, they would tip Serb off. If they didn't, the girl could die.

The investigators dispatched a patrol officer to the apartment and waited. By the time the officer arrived, Serb had performed CPR on the girl and she was breathing. Hearing the police radio at the door, Serb snuck to the garage, squeezed through a tiny window, and ran. Later, on the wire, Andreoli heard Serb conclude that someone at the party must have called the police.

That night, Andreoli knew the investigation had to end soon, before more people became addicted, or somebody died. He worried that Serb himself, now 20, couldn’t sustain the damage of the drugs he was taking.

By January, less than two months after the wire went live, the DEA operation identified A.J. in Sacramento as the source of the painkillers flooding the valley. They had gathered what they thought was solid evidence on Serb and his network of pushers. They were almost ready to move.

In January, Andrew Colwell traveled to Sacramento to teach A.J. how to make hash oil. While in California, Colwell sent several packages back to Boise. DEA agents followed him to the post office and snagged several of the packages, finding hundreds of oxycodone pills packed inside teddy bears.

On March 7th, one of Serb's pushers picked Serb up in a Toyota Celica. They got high on the last of Serb's pills and drove to an associate's house to pick up the package from Colwell. The package was late. Serb was anxious. A lot of packages had been turning up late, or not at all. His dealers were smoking their stashes. Everything was falling apart.

Serb called Colwell's cell phone to ask for the tracking number, but Colwell wasn't answering. It didn't take a genius to figure it out. Serb had been ripped off again. Someone had made off with the package.

Serb was coming down and he needed to smoke. One of his pushers set up a meeting to buy some pills in the parking lot of a bookstore. Serb hunkered down in the back seat of the Celica as they drove through town.

Both cars pulled into the bookstore parking lot, but before Serb could get out of the Celica, men in ski masks and sunglasses carrying assault rifles swarmed the car.

Serb thought he was getting robbed. Somebody knew he was supposed to make a pick-up today. He laughed, thinking about how the guys in ski masks would go away empty-handed. Then he heard it.

"DEA! Get the fuck on the ground!"

section-break

In the visitation room of a low-security federal prison outside Denver, inmates sit in rows of plastic chairs anchored to the floor.

It is a warm afternoon in April of 2017. Serb, now 24, wears khaki pants, a work shirt, and fashionable plastic-frame eyeglasses. His light brown hair is cropped close on the sides and slicked over in an aggressive part. Gone are the sunken, dark-rimmed eyes and pasty skin. He is up to 195 pounds, thanks to the days spent leading workouts in the prison gym. He is off drugs, which he says are widely available inside the prison, and his fidgety cooped-up energy is back.

In 2016, Serb was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. A.J. also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years. Ten of Serb's associates were given lesser prison sentences.

As visitors carry plastic bags filled with quarters toward vending machines to buy snacks for prisoners, Serb considers the events that turned him from a homeschooled middle school kid into a major drug dealer. By his own accounting, Serb pushed 5,000 oxycodone pills a month into southwestern Idaho's Treasure Valley. In three years, he made millions of dollars.

Maybe selling drugs made him feel important, he says. He was the plug, as they put it in the drug trade, the guy everyone needed to know—or at least everyone who liked to get high.

He insists he has no money or anything else left from his days of crime.

"You know, even if I had some kind of millions of dollars stashed away somewhere, it still wouldn't be worth it," he says. "I have thought of it. Even if I had a million dollars stashed, I would probably pay that just to get out for a year."

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

Some of his associates are already out of prison. Some, like Andrew Colwell, have kicked their addictions and are getting their lives back on track. Others have many years yet to serve.

Meanwhile, opioid addiction continues to ravage Boise. Asked about his role in that, Serb fidgets in his seat and stammers. His face turns red.

"I've thought about that a lot," he says. "And...."

It's not something he can put words to. There's not really anything to say.

Later, in an email from prison, he revisits the topic.

"You asked me a few times about how I feel about the damage I caused to people.... I can't tell you the level of guilt and sorry I feel. I wish there was more I can do. But once given the chance, I will do what I can to help, specifically addicts."

In Boise, the oxycodone epidemic has come and gone, replaced by heroin.

That's the irony of taking down Austin Serb, Andreoli says as he looks through binders of evidence from the case. Putting Serb and his network in prison slowed the flow of oxycodone into the valley. Addicts were forced to adapt.

Like elsewhere in America, they moved from synthetic heroin to the real thing, which is easier to find and less expensive. In 2014, the year Serb was arrested, there were 33 heroin arrests in Boise. In 2016, that number jumped to 178.

Andreoli is conflicted about the dealer he tracked for so long. He knows addiction is a big part of what led Serb into trouble. That, and the hopeless disregard for consequences that is a part of being a teenager.

But the damage he caused is hard to ignore.

"In this valley, I blame Austin Serb and that crew for creating so many opiate addicts to the point that now heroin has such a stronghold," he says.

Serb reads the Bible every day now. He is studying social psychology in college classes at the prison and tutors other prisoners who are studying for their GEDs.

He knows that getting caught saved him. A few months earlier, a good friend in Boise had died of a painkiller overdose. If Serb hadn't ended up in prison on federal drug charges, he says, he'd probably be dead too.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.

Related