By: Paul Grondahl

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On the street, they say there are only three ways out of heroin addiction: death, prison or take a maintenance drug such as methadone for the rest of your life.

Emmanuel Donato is desperately searching for a fourth way out.

The 33-year-old former heroin addict, one-time narcotics dealer and ex-convict wonders why he is still alive after being rushed to the emergency room and nearly dying from an overdose and being robbed at gunpoint while he sold heroin to fuel a habit that had spiraled out of control.

Clean for five years, he believes he may have survived to serve a larger purpose. Now, he hopes to atone for his guilt over selling the viciously addictive and sometimes deadly opioid. He wants to inspire other recovering heroin addicts to combine psychological counseling with a rigorous regimen of eating raw, organic foods and intense physical workouts as therapy.

“I’m trying to fix all the mistakes I made,” said Donato, who was released from state prison in July 2013. He served two years for felony drug sale and possession and must complete three additional years of supervised parole.

His former drug addiction — like the recent spike in heroin use that some authorities have called an epidemic in the Capital Region — was hiding right in plain sight.

He lived with his parents in a semi-rural rustic farmhouse and managed to hide it from them. He used heroin while he worked and kept it a secret from employers. He did not share his clandestine life as a heroin dealer and an addict with his friends who were not in the drug scene.

He blended in with other twentysomethings: Tanned and well-muscled, clean-shaven, close-cropped sandy hair, Aeropostale baseball cap, tight Aero t-shirt, designer jeans and white Nike sneakers.

These days, his biceps are as stout as tree limbs and he is drug-free, although his gait still bears a hint of his past, a low-waisted slide and broad-shouldered roll, a former inmate’s don’t-mess-with-me strut.

Injecting heroin for Donato, who attended Guilderland public schools, was as much an everyday fixture of the suburban landscape where he lived as were ubiquitous fast-food drive-throughs, multiplex cinemas, strip malls and a car culture.

He shot up in his car in the parking lot of Crossgates Mall, or in the stall of a public restroom in Dunkin’ Donuts or Taco Bell or Price Chopper.

His drug kit did not attract attention. He carried a bottle of water and heroin in tiny clear plastic bags the size of a thumbnail. He poured two bags of the whitish powder into the bottle cap. He snapped off the cotton end of a Q-tip and with the bare end mixed the equivalent of half a sugar packet with a few drops of water and stirred it into a milky, watery slurry.

He pulled from his jeans pocket a syringe and needle he bought in bulk at CVS, used the snapped-off cotton to filter out impurities and drew the liquid narcotic into the syringe.

He clenched his right fist and found a prominent vein on the fleshy inside crook of his elbow. Toned and athletic, his veins stood out. He never needed a tourniquet.

He paused as he talked and rolled up his shirt sleeve. He’s been clean since 2009, but he still bears the telltale black-and-blue raised welt of a longtime intravenous drug user.

“Scarred for life,” he said with a shrug.

Unlike the other drugs he had abused to get high since middle school — alcohol, marijuna, cocaine, Oxycodone and other prescription opioid pills — heroin felt like swallowing a ball of fire.

“As soon as you touch that pin, wthin a millisecond you get the rush,” he said. “It starts as a warm, tingling sensation at your feet and then moves to your head and it’s like fire pouring through you and then you’re floating on top of the world. It’s just warm and you’re feeling no pain.”


“Chasing the dragon” is a street term for a heroin high.

While the fiery rush only lasted about five minutes, the pain-free, floating high stretched out languidly for three hours or more when Donato first started using heroin.

But it’s an addiction of diminishing returns. Soon, the rush got shorter and less intense for him. The fire did not burn as hot. The high did not last as long. It took more heroin — one bag fairly quickly ramped up to two and three and four bags — for Donato to reach that euphoric level of carefree buoyancy.

“You just keep chasing and chasing that rush and after awhile, you never get there,” Donato said.

It seemed as if he was trapped in the lyrics of Nine Inch Nail’s harrowing 1995 heroin song, “Hurt,” later a cover hit for Johnny Cash: “The needle tears a hole/The old familiar sting/Try to kill it all away/But I remember everything.”

Donato was locked in a vicious cycle of addiction. Within a matter of months, he increased the amount and frequency of his drug use, not so much to achieve a high but to manage the horrible side effects of withdrawal.

“Imagine the worst flu you’ve ever had and multiply that by 10,” Donato said.

Even when he managed to avoid hellish stomach pains and a plague of fever and chills, he said he felt “heavy and slow” when he came down. As the high faded, he showed an unwanted junkie’s profile, “the nodding off and drooling and not caring.”

His heroin addiction grew costly, too, and he was spending $500 a week and more chasing the rush. But the cash he made from sporadic, low-paying jobs as a construction laborer could not keep pace and he was sliding into the horrible sickness of withdrawal more often, always jonesing for another fix.


That’s when C.J. came into his life. Shadowy figures he shot up with or sold him drugs introduced Donato to C.J. He was a charismatic guy from New York City, African-American, a smooth talker, with an urban swagger and plenty of heroin at hand. It turned out he was a gang member and a major drug dealer who was expanding his enterprise up to the Capital Region.

He had a couple of tear drops tattooed around his eyes. He told Donato each tear drop represented a person he had murdered.

He started fronting heroin to Donato, who was happy to reach for the needle first and worry about paying later. Donato started running behind on his payments, which played into C.J.’s master plan.

“He was this gang-banger black dude from New York City who saw this dumb white kid from the country who had a habit. He had me,” Donato said.

Donato suffered pangs of guilt for peddling it, but the cravings for heroin were far stronger. “I didn’t want to sell that devastating drug, but I saw no other way,” he said.

C.J. gave Donato a TracFone, a cheap, pay-as-you-go cellphone favored by criminals because they are difficult to trace.

Immediately, the TracFone started ringing. There was no small talk when Donato answered. The addicts used street names, placed an order and said where and when to deliver the heroin.

There were 20 clients who called the TracFone constantly. Donato was busy making deliveries around the Capital Region. More than 90 percent of his clients were white, young and suburban.

C.J. tried to up the ante. “Let me give you another TracFone,” the dealer told his runner. “You’ll have 20 more clients and make more money.”

But Donato wasn’t selling drugs for cash. He sold four bundles — 10 small packets of heroin that sold for $150 in 2009, but now go for $100 or less — each day. His pay was one free bundle. It was a 4-for-1 arrangement.

“I told him I didn’t want another 20 clients. I just wanted to make my four, get my one and go get high,” he said.

Donato picked up his bundles at a drop site, an empty apartment in Schenectady that one of C.J.’s associates, also a gang member, used as a distribution center. Donato didn’t know how many other runners answering TracFones were involved in C.J.’s enterprise, but he glimpsed a lot of heroin and surmised they were doing some heavy trade.

It was a hazardous occupation.

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