After arrest, heroin addict vows to repay and reclaim his life

— Photo from the Altamont Police

"I'm not a bad person," said James F. Wallingford, shown here on surveillance video from a Rotterdam laundry that was burglarized, which led to his identification and arrest. He said the arrest has made him turn his life around.

A middle-aged, middle-class mason says painkillers from work-related injuries led him to heroin and that his first-ever arrest has caused him to turn his life around.

James Wallingford, 40, of Schenectady, charged in January for breaking into laundries in Altamont and Rotterdam, credits the cops who investigated his case, Officer Christopher Laurenzo of the Altamont Police and Detective Claude Sawyer of the Rotterdam Police, with helping him get his life back on track.

“They’re both good men,” Wallingford said recently. “And I’m glad they’re the ones that came to get me.”

Wallingford has told Altamont Police that being arrested was the best thing that could have happened to him. He spent almost a week in Albany County’s jail before his mother posted bail for him.

Soon after his release, Wallingford phoned Laurenzo to thank him for giving him the motivation to stop taking drugs. He told Laurenzo that he planned to use the experience of being arrested for the first time to turn his life around.

Wallingford told The Enterprise that he became addicted to prescription opiate painkillers and then shifted over to heroin use, but has been clean since his Jan. 20 arrest. He now has a full-time job, he said, and he plans to make full restitution.

“I’m not a bad person,” Wallingford said. “I have no criminal record. I’m not a criminal. I made a terrible, terrible mistake, and I’m going to do whatever I have to do to make it right.”

When he spoke of a “terrible mistake,” Wallingford was referring to the day in January when he and an acquaintance tried unsuccessfully to break into the bill-changing machine at the laundry in Altamont in the early morning, destroying the machine in the process, and then went on that same night to steal money from machines at a laundry in Rotterdam.

Each man was charged with second-degree criminal mischief, a felony; and fourth-degree attempted grand larceny, a misdemeanor. They each appeared before Altamont Village Court Judge Rebecca Hout on March 4 on these charges. Additionally, Justice Hout also heard charges against Jason Murray-Craig in a separate case, of aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle.  

Wallingford, a mason by trade who grew up in Rotterdam, told a story that is becoming increasingly common, of a gradual slide from chronic use of narcotic pain relievers to heroin.

“I work hard for a living, and I’ve injured myself numerous times,” Wallingford said. “Every time I had a surgery, I was prescribed painkillers. The doctors prescribed so many pills. I kept taking them and taking them and taking them, to the point where I couldn’t stop taking them. I know the laws have changed now, but this was during the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. They would give you whatever you needed.”

Wallingford insisted that there is really no difference between a narcotic pain reliever and heroin. “They’re both opiates,” he said. “They’re the same drug.”           

He added that many people do not realize that opiate addiction is not about getting a high. “You don’t get high,” he said. “Not after the first time.” Instead, the addict keeps taking heroin simply to try to “be well” and to “be able to function,” he said.

Regardless of whether the addiction is to heroin or painkillers, Wallingford said, the addict’s only concern is trying to avoid the feeling that comes when the drugs wear off, which he described this way: “When you wake up in the morning, you feel so ill you can’t move.” He spoke of very painful muscle cramps and said, “The only thing you can think about is making it so it doesn’t hurt.”

Anyone taking prescription painkillers for even just a couple of weeks can easily become addicted, he said. He never expected to become addicted to drugs himself. “I’m not somebody that came from the gutter. I came from a good family,” said Wallingford. “I was raised right. Neither of my parents were addicts or alcoholics.”

Research now confirms that abuse of prescription narcotics may lead to heroin use, according to the website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which states, “Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in three recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin. Some individuals reported switching to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids.”

Laurenzo said that, today, “Heroin is cheaper than prescription drugs on the street. It’s even cheaper than marijuana.”

Altamont Police Chief Todd Pucci, shown here at Tuesday night's village board meeting, has, with Officer Christopher Laurenzo, been investigating a series of related crimes they believe were perpetrated by heroin addicts. The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

 

Wallingford takes pride in himself and the job that he does. His many on-the-job injuries have included an amputated finger. His treatment has included having his left knee replaced with “all cadaver parts.” He needs the same kind of surgery on his right knee as well, he says, but doesn’t know how he’s going to manage it without any pain relievers, which at this point he does not want to take. As he put it, “I can’t take any of that stuff any more.”

Wallingford said that he has no criminal record and that what he needs is for the court to allow him to get treatment for his the drug addiction that is his underlying problem.

Altamont Police Chief Pucci agreed. “He’s not a hardened criminal. We’re looking to talk to the district attorney and hopefully get him some rehab instead of jail time.”

The assistant district attorney covering the village of Altamont was not available on March 4, so there was no resolution of Wallingford’s case, which was adjourned until the next village court date, of April 1. Wallingford remained hopeful that the court would be proactive rather than strictly punitive in its treatment of him. 

“They’re offering me outpatient treatment,” Wallingford said. “If I screw that up, I’m going in-patient. And, if I screw that up, then I go to prison.”

More Guilderland News

  • Elliot and Nancy Greene, the across-the-street neighbors of Bernard Radtke, were before Guilderland’s zoning board on Sept. 7 looking to appeal a determination made by the town’s zoning administrator, which said Radtke was allowed to keep more than one large commercial dumpster on his property. 

  • “We went down this pathway, as a team, of figuring out: How do we honor those that came before us and were the original stewards of this land?”

  • The district was “very active” in the nine weeks over the summer getting work done on capital projects  — one passed in 2019 and the other in 2021 — said Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders.

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