This winter, a killer has been preying on tourists in the Dutch capital. A man – who police describe as 35 to 40 years old – has been cycling around Amsterdam doling out death. So far, he's killed three young British men and poisoned another 14 unsuspecting people. The bizarre thing about him, however, is that detectives believe he has no idea of the trail of destruction he's leaving in his wake.
With New Year's Eve fast approaching, along with thousands of Brits in search of dizzy nights full of orange wigs, drugs and Oranjeboom, investigators are scouring the city's streets for the man locals are calling the "Coke Killer". The elusive figure is selling tourists cocaine that, it turns out, is actually deadly white heroin.
Last week, two young men from Plymouth took a trip to Amsterdam to celebrate their 21st birthdays. On Tuesday, both Brits – 21-year-old Shaun Brotherston and Bradley Price, who would have turned 21 today – were found dead in their hotel room next to a bag of powder, later found to be white heroin.
Yesterday, I spoke to Shaun's friend of 15 years, Steve Courage. He told me Shaun was not an experienced drug user – that he thought he might "smoke a bit of marijuana in Amsterdam, but never anything harder".
Forensic tests have led the police to believe that the same dealer who sold Shaun and Bradley that bag of white powder has poisoned at least 14 people in Amsterdam over the last two months, most of them British tourists. One man, 22-year-old Joel McDevitt from Burnley, died in October after being found semi-conscious with his friend next to a canal. His friend was resuscitated and survived.
As you'll know from watching Pulp Fiction or Queer as Folk, when snorted in cocaine-sized lines white heroin can be highly lethal – especially if consumed alongside alcohol.
"White heroin looks like cocaine, is sold as cocaine and people think they are snorting cocaine. The result is respiratory failure," said Amsterdam police spokesman Rob van der Veen. "It's a big problem and we are trying to solve it. A lot of undercover police officers are on the streets to find out who is responsible."
The threat of the Coke Killer has prompted police to set up illuminated English-language warning signs that read: "Extremely dangerous cocaine is sold to tourists." They've also been issuing leaflets in the main squares and at Amsterdam's Centraal railway station, appealing for people to ignore street dealers because of the deaths.
There are clues as to who the killer may be. The police suspect the culprit is one dealer acting alone, otherwise – they say – there would be more poisonings. After interviewing the surviving victims, police have also come to the conclusion that, despite the high value of white heroin (which is harder to come by in Europe than brown heroin), the killer is selling the drug at the same price as cocaine, i.e. almost three times less than you'd usually pay for it.
Like any trader, it's unlikely a drug dealer would knowingly sell an expensive product under the guise of a cheaper one – unless they have no idea what they're selling or are actually out to kill people.
Either the Coke Killer is, as the police suspect, just an idiot, or, more ominously, a "death dealer", deliberately trying to murder people by conning them into an overdose. Dr Adam Winstock, a UK addictions specialist and founder of the Global Drug Survey, says that because of the high price of white heroin, it's unlikely a dealer in Amsterdam's "sophisticated" drug market would have got their batches mixed up.
"Given the fact that most dealers are unlikely to be stupid enough not to have checked what they are selling, we are left with the uncomfortable possibility that someone is wilfully knocking out white heroin as cocaine, and it's leading people to die," he told the BBC.
Floor van Bakkum of the Jellinek Clinic, an addiction treatment centre in Amsterdam, says huge publicity over the poisonings means the death dealer theory remains an option.
"It's a real puzzle. It is a totally atypical case for us," she told me. "Selling white heroin for the price of cheap cocaine is obviously not good economics. We can only speculate about what he's really doing or thinking. But there have been very public warnings about this for a month now – you'd expect that if he didn't know he was selling heroin, he should have heard by now. I have no real answers about this."
If there really is a "death dealer" stalking the streets of Amsterdam, intentionally poisoning British tourists, he would be one of the first of his kind in history. There are plenty of stories about drug sellers spiking a batch to murder its intended recipient, but little evidence to prove these are anything but urban myths.
I spoke to Professor Ross Coomber, author of Pusher Myths: Re-situating the Drug Dealer, a book that consigned a load of hoary old tales about "evil drug peddlers" to the dustbin when it was published in 2006.
"I am unaware of a real-life example of purposive death dealing," says Coomber, who's been researching the drug trade since the 1990s. "In the UK, the police tend to be the source of sensationalist assumptions around drug market activities, so it's refreshing to see that what the Dutch police are saying here – that the dealer doesn't know what he is selling – makes sense."
Coomber is a believer in the "coke chancer" theory.
"Not all drug dealers operate on a rational, economic level," he told me. "Some who end up selling drugs are opportunists who don't know what they're doing. I could see a scenario where someone unfamiliar with the drug trade obtains the heroin, by either stealing or finding it, presumes it's cocaine and tentatively sells some of it on at clubs, cafes or bars – hence the fact tourists are the victims – and continues to do so, unaware of what is going on."
Coomber thinks the notion that tourists are being targeted by a homicidal sociopath – one whose weapon of choice happens to be white heroin disguised as cocaine – or a career dealer who's decided to deliver "hot-shots" with the intention of killing an individual or a group of individuals, is fanciful.
"If a 'death dealer' wanted to kill purposively, this is an inefficient scatter gun approach," he said. "If he wanted to use drugs, he would be more likely to simply add something toxic to actual cocaine, the stuff people wanted, rather than try to trick them with a completely different substance, which a 'taste' would reveal straight away. Also, why not use a gun, which is more efficient, reliable, predictable and, perhaps more importantly, sends a clearer symbolic message?"
Deaths of tourists who take white heroin sold as cocaine have occurred in countries such as Cambodia, where the purer form of heroin is cheaper than cocaine. In 2009, two British tourists in their thirties – businessman Mark Ganley and sports journalist David Hunt – died in their hotel room after snorting white heroin through a bank note. In 2012, another journalist, 27-year-old Kristy Cadman-Jones, died on her honeymoon in Phnom Penh after snorting white heroin she thought was cocaine.
In all those cases, it seems far more likely that the culprits were coke-chancers as opposed to death dealers. And the same can be said for Amsterdam – that the Coke Killer is simply a first-time drug seller with little or no criminal connections who's somehow come across a valuable stash of heroin that he believes is cocaine.
The only hope now is that this man gains a sense of the fear that has gripped the city where he sleeps.
"Shaun was fun-loving, athletic and a good lad," Steve Courage told me. "I hope the person selling the drugs that put [Shaun and Bradley] in such a mess realises what he's doing and understands the pain he's causing. People dealing drugs should at least know what they're selling.
"It won't bring Shaun or Bradley back, but at least this tragedy is an eye-opener for people who are buying drugs from people they don't know, in cities they don't know."
To take part in Adam Winstock's Global Drug Survey, which strongly supports harm reduction and is aiming to gather information from drug users around the world, visit globaldrugsurvey.com.
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