Thomas Schaefers seemed an unlikely drug kingpin.
The corporate chemist never had a traffic ticket or problems with police, never had moved out of his parents' Aspinwall home and seldom left the house.
So his elderly mother was shocked when federal drug agents raided their home in December 1988, charging her son, then in his 40s, in what remains Allegheny County's biggest epidemic of deaths from a single illegal source of the painkiller fentanyl. At least 20 people died after using 3-methyl-fentanyl, commonly known as China White, cooked up by Schaefers. Some victims thought they were injecting heroin.
"I was shocked," his mother, Anna Vera Schaefers, then 76, said at the time. "'What's the matter with you guys?' I said to (the federal agents). 'Tommy's getting ready for bed.'"
He actually was cooking methamphetamine in the basement. Investigators found highly explosive chemicals that, if moved improperly, could have blown up the neighborhood block, an investigator said at the time.
Schaefers, a Calgon Corp. chemist, was convicted in 1989 of 20 federal charges, including counts connected to two fatal overdoses. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Now 64, he is serving time at the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, N.J., with a projected release date of 2023.
The Pittsburgh area now is in the throes of the biggest spate of opiate deaths since then, this time from fentanyl-laced heroin.
Authorities still are searching for the source of the mixture blamed in at least six local deaths since June 2 and hundreds more from St. Louis to Philadelphia since spring. Pittsburgh police have said the drug is sold bearing the stamp "Get high or die trying."
The Associated Press reported last week that a Mexican drug lab, recently raided by Mexican authorities with aid from U.S. drug agents, might be the source of the deadly heroin, although it's not known if the fentanyl was added there or after the drug was smuggled into the U.S.
Schaefers' homemade China White was much more powerful than the fentanyl-laced heroin now circulating, but was believed to have been distributed only locally.
Unlike fentanyl, the 3-methyl-fentanyl Schaefers made had no medical use and was 2,000 times as strong as heroin and two to five times as powerful as the fentanyl-heroin now circulating, according to Edward P. Krenzelok, director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Oakland.
Jay Duschl, 38, of Oakmont, is believed to have been the first fatality of Schaefers' China White.
"A man had just shot up 3-methyl-fentanyl, what would later be called China White, and the people with him just dropped his body off on our doorstep," recalled Oakmont police Officer Erich Geppert III.
Geppert and other officers revived Duschl with CPR, but he died in the hospital six days later. …