Design by Andrew J. Nilsen
Shortly after 9 on a windy night in March 2010, 25-year-old Rick S. was desperate for a fix. The all-too-familiar symptoms of OxyContin withdrawal were setting in: the nausea, the heart palpitations, the panicked realization that if he didn't get his hands on some pills, he would soon have hell inside him. Fortunately, the prescription painkiller was easy to score in suburban San Rafael, thanks to a Marin man known to some as Mr. C.
Or C-Note. Or White Money.
Or, to Rick, simply Cody — the drug kingpin with the personal touch.
Through the shadows Rick spotted Cody's SUV. As he approached it, he was vaguely aware of men lurking in the darkness. Were they watching him? Maybe, but the itch in his blood compelled him forward.
Little did he know that he was about to help the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force finally nail the elusive Cody Lee Wisecarver, one of the Bay Area's highest-volume pill peddlers.
At just 25 years old, Wisecarver had become the area's go-to source for young adults looking to abuse prescription painkillers for a high. The cops estimated that he was selling up to 1,000 OxyContin pills per week for between $30 and $50 apiece. Wisecarver's lifestyle seemed to corroborate that success: sports cars, expensive clothes, strippers, champagne, and VIP treatment in nightclubs. Such tastes didn't necessarily distinguish him from other trustfunders from the San Francisco suburbs; indeed, Wisecarver is a child of privilege, the son of American Canyon councilwoman and 2010 mayoral candidate Cindy Coffey. (Coffey has declined to comment on the story.) But above all else, he was a businessman, and right now, he was in the business of dealing Oxy, sometimes called the synthetic version of heroin.
"Everyone I knew was addicted to Oxy," says one of Wisecarver's former customers from Novato. "There were all these yuppie-type kids from Marin County, people with the right upbringing, and all of them were becoming addicts."
Wisecarver himself told prosecutors he had just been providing a "public service" — keeping his Marin clientele off the mean streets of the Tenderloin. "People think I've destroyed lives, but I don't believe that," he says. "The parents who hate me say I'm the one who corrupted their kids, but I wasn't force-feeding anybody. They were already hooked, and they were going to do drugs no matter what. With me, they were safe."
Back in San Rafael, Rick S. paid for his pills and stuffed them in his wallet. He then hurried back to the car he had borrowed from his mother and left to get high.
But just as he hit the freeway, flashes of red and blue lit up his rearview mirror.
He pulled over.
The cops had detained Wisecarver, too. It didn't take long for them to unearth the evidence: $2,000 in cash, pay/owe sheets, burned tinfoil, pipes, and of course, OxyContin. This time for Wisecarver, there was no way out.
It's late 2011, and I have driven six hours north of San Francisco to meet inmate AE8274 — aka Cody Wisecarver — at the California state prison in Susanville, a rural community near Nevada. It's a year and a half after the arrest that brought him down, and two and a half years after my own brother, an OxyContin addict, died of a heroin overdose at the age of 20.
Between 2009 and 2010, 25 percent of accidental drug-related deaths in San Francisco involved oxycodone, the ingredient of OxyContin, says Dr. Nikolas Lemos, chief forensic toxicologist at the Office of the San Francisco Medical Examiner. Oxycodone was detected in 53 of the total 209 drug-related deaths, up from 41 the year prior. By contrast, there were just 29 deaths due to motor vehicle accidents.
Wisecarver's face is childlike in its roundness, and he is dutiful and polite with the prison guard who leads him to the plexiglass viewing booth. But there's a swagger in his voice, apparent even through the muffled prison telephone. He boasts that in his glory days as an OxyContin dealer, he was "known beyond belief."
In Wisecarver's point of view, there is no shame in success. He says he bought 30 cars: a Porsche, several Mercedes, a Cobra, a California edition 5.0 Mustang. He bought a gold and diamond-encrusted watch from Jacob & Co. ("Rolex is for the over-40 crowd," he explains), and invested in top-of-the-line golf clubs and a GSR 750 race bike. He spent his 25th birthday at the Little Darlings strip club in North Beach with a group of girls "who looked like Holly from The Girls Next Door." He treated his friends to lap dances.
He also developed a taste for expensive suits, and instituted the tradition of "Suit Fridays" to showcase them. "Since I was in Marin, I needed to look the part," he says. "It's all about presentation." He had had his clothes dry-cleaned, and now washes his prison scrubs by hand.
Wisecarver's resembles many American success stories — but with a nefarious twist. Raised for much of his childhood by his grandparents in Texas, he says he was sent back to California to live with his mom in his early teens. ("All the women I have had in my life have left me," he claims. "I guess it's hard to love a gangster.") By the time he was 15, he often faced suspensions for fights and truancy. Uninspired by the thought of college, he tried his hand at a series of entry-level jobs. He didn't mind working, he says, but he was restless. He needed a challenge; something more entrepreneurial. And then, around 2008, OxyContin entered his world, and Wisecarver got to work.
"Cody was the most prolific OxyContin dealer Marin County has ever seen," says Sgt. Fred Marziano of the Marin County Sheriff's Office. "Almost overnight it became the most prominent epidemic in Marin County. Literally every single case we had was about Oxy."
After several hours with Wisecarver, I ask, "What is your response to the parents who are angry at you for keeping their kids supplied with Oxy?"