Heroin leaves deadly mark on Will County
By Tony Graf firstname.lastname@example.org April 8, 2012 8:56PM
Brian Kirk (left) co-founded the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization with John Roberts, a former Chicago Police Department captain. Both lost a child to a heroin overdose. Bill Patrianakos (right), a former addict, is a member of the group’s board. | Ma
By Brian Stanley
Drug overdoses were the leading cause of unnatural deaths in Will County last year.
Coroner Patrick K. O’Neil said almost half (30 of 62) of those overdoses were from heroin.
If cocaine and prescription medications were listed in their own categories, only traffic accidents would still rank ahead of heroin.
“It’s an epidemic,” O’Neil said.
O’Neil has been coroner for 20 years and said a year with more than one heroin death was unusual until about a decade ago.
But six people overdosed in 1999, five people in their 40s, and a 19-year-old girl.
“I started talking with law enforcement to see it was making a comeback,” O’Neil said. “Years ago when there was a heroin overdose you could pick a particular street that would likely be where the victim was. Now it is found throughout the county.”
As the median age of a heroin victim has dropped, the number of fatal overdoses has risen. Five deaths in 2000. Fifteen in 2005. Twenty-six in 2010.
The first three months of 2012 have seen nine confirmed heroin deaths, and pending toxicology tests could increase that to 12, O’Neil said.
Fatal overdoses now seem to split evenly between users who inject heroin and those who snort or smoke it.
“The purity levels have increased that users don’t have to cook it into a liquid anymore. We’re not always seeing track marks in cases where someone has died from heroin,” O’Neil said.
While someone could be with other people when they overdose, deputy coroners have found most people are alone when they take that fatal hit.
Deputies ask family members if the person had a history of drug use. They’ll search through garbage cans looking for baggies or needles and hard surfaces like credit cards and tabletops near where a body is found.
“As with any death investigation, every family is devastated. Sometimes there is a drug history, but other times the relatives are completely blindsided when we get the toxicology results back four or five weeks later and find it’s a heroin overdose,” O’Neil said.
Almost every coroner who responded to a questionaire O’Neil sent to every county in the state reported an increase. Heroin has become a major topic of the regular meetings between the coroner and local police departments.
O’Neil believes constant reminders of the danger of starting to use heroin are the best way his office can help fight the problem on a local and international level.
A 2004 United Nations-sponsored study determined nearly 90 percent of the opium used to make heroin is produced in Afghanistan.
“This is a public health issue and the symposiums we’re attending show it’s the result of terrorism,” O’Neil said. “They don’t have to fly planes into buildings. More people are dying this way.”
Fatal heroin overdoses in Will County:
1999 — 6
2000 — 5
2001 — 13
2002 — 9
2004 — 11
2005 — 15
2007 — 15
2008 — 17
2009 — 29
2010 — 26
2011 — 30
2012 — 9 (Jan. to April)
Updated: May 10, 2012 8:07AM
HOMER GLEN — Billy Roberts had a work ethic and dreams, a watchful father and mother and a nice home in a spacious subdivision, but his life was being destroyed by drugs. He fought repeatedly to recover, but the urge kept returning, until a heroin overdose brought on the sleep of death.
Heroin is a killer and a liar. Under the appearance of sleep, it slowed down his system, it stopped his heart, it took his life at age 18.
The young Homer Glen resident thought he could control heroin, but heroin ended up controlling him. He sought euphoria, but heroin brought only disappointment.
Two years after Roberts’ death, heroin continues to kill and deceive. Many people think it is a problem that only happens somewhere else, but it is a problem in Will County.
You may look at a neatly platted subdivision, with homes of brick and stone near expanses of open space, and say that heroin cannot possibly be here. And yet, it is here, and it is killing people at an alarming rate.
In the first three months of this year, nine people have died of heroin overdoses in Will County. This year is on pace to exceed any year in recent memory in this category. After several years of disturbingly high numbers, some people are recognizing the heroin problem as an epidemic.
John Roberts, Billy’s father, vividly remembers the death of his son the night of Sept. 20, 2009.
“None of us fully appreciated how powerful, how terrible, this drug is,” said Roberts, a retired Chicago police captain who lives with his family in Homer Glen.
“When you look out in this beautiful community, do you see heroin? I didn’t. I saw heroin every day in my 30-some-year career in Chicago, but not here,” Roberts said. “So there are serious problems out here in our communities that I wasn’t fully aware of, and didn’t give enough attention to.”
Arrival in Homer
John Roberts retired from the Chicago Police Department in May 2005, and he had accepted a position teaching at Lewis University in Romeoville. He moved his wife and four teenage children to Homer Glen.
“It’s a very pretty community near my new location of work. So we settled down, and the plan was for me to teach,” Roberts said.
“The last thing I did before I bought the house was I went over and looked at the high school, and saw Lockport’s main campus. I said, ‘This is a really nice place to live.’ So we moved in,” he said, referring to the impressive, quarter-mile-long East Campus in Lockport.
In fall 2005, Billy began his freshman year at the Central Campus in downtown Lockport. A short time later, he began to hang out with students who made his father suspicious.
“He got in with a bad crowd,” Roberts said. “He was being displaced from his old neighborhood. He had to meet all new friends. And that became a part of the problem.”
Billy began to get into trouble with drugs.
During his freshman year, Billy was caught with Dramamine, and the school notified the family.
“I didn’t even know, as a police officer, that you can get high on Dramamine, but the kids did,” Roberts said.
Roberts suspects that Billy had tried marijuana and beer by his sophomore year.
“You find evidence. In my case: behind the shed,” Roberts said. “One of my neighbors pointed it out. ‘Can I show you something?’ And he brought me behind my shed, and I found several empty beer cans. The kids were out there having a pit,” he said of a previous bonfire party involving Billy and his friends.
“We stopped out there a few times to check on them,” Roberts said of the party. He found nothing suspicious during these checks.
“But right under our very nose, on my own property, they were out there, at the far end of the yard, having a fire pit, and they’re drinking beer,” he said.
“You can’t watch your kids 24 hours a day. Parents may think that they’re watching their kids carefully. But we all grew up, and we were all teenagers at one time. So parents should think about that,” Roberts said.
During his sophomore or junior year, Billy was caught with marijuana at the high school’s East Campus. Lockport police arrested him. After this second offense, the high school referred Billy to an alternative school — a move his father opposed.
“It’s called the labeling theory. Once a child is labeled, and then ostracized or removed from the society, you may be saying, ‘Here, live up to the label we’re giving you. You’re a bad guy, you’re a drug guy.’ ”
On Thursday, high school officials said they could not discuss Billy Roberts’ case because of student privacy laws. They spoke generally, however, about the drug problem facing communities and schools in America.
“We are not in denial that these issues are there, that some of our students make bad choices,” said Brett Gould, assistant superintendent.
“We’ve always been upfront and forward with addressing issues that we face in our schools,” Gould said. “We ask people that when they hear of things, or see things, or know of things, to bring it to our attention immediately. We act on it very thoroughly.”
Gould showed The Herald-News numerous posters and other literature, made available throughout the school, directing students to resources for help.
“We know that there are issues out there. Kids need help. Parents need help,” he said.
Lockport Township High School formed a student assistance program a few years ago, and also is a partner with Rosecrans, a hospital that deals with mental-health and drug issues, Gould said.
The high school also has created a partnership among area public and parochial schools — centered at Lockport. Rosecrans leads the consortium meetings, Gould said.
The Lockport Police Department has school resource officers at East and Central campuses. Speakers address students on the dangers of drug abuse.
The Porter Planner book outlines the school’s drug policy. Students and parents are required to sign the document the first week a student is in school. They have to read it again every year, said Kimberly Brehm, school spokeswoman.
The Porter Planner outlines drug- and alcohol-abuse policies for school and for co-curricular activities. The school immediately disciplines all students who violate the policy. There are no breaks. However, the school technically does not have a hard “zero-tolerance” policy, in which a first offense leads to automatic expulsion.
Upon the first offense, the parents are contacted for a conference. The student is suspended. Also, the student must complete a school-approved assessment program. The student must follow through with the program’s recommendations, and the student is back in school in 10 days.
“We mandate the student has to get help,” Gould said.
The policy for the second offense is similar: The student is suspended and must get another assessment.
At this point, the school may refer the student to an alternative school.
“The idea of an alternative school is: Take them out of the setting where maybe they’re not having success, because they keep violating the code,” Gould said. “You put them in an alternative setting. They can continue with their education, and still graduate with a diploma from Lockport, or Joliet, or Plainfield, or Lincoln-Way.”
“We’re not about to stick a label on someone and pass them along,” Brehm said.
John Roberts remained uncomfortable sending Billy to an alternative school. So Billy began working at jobs and showed a good work ethic and good initiative. Billy wanted to start his own business one day.
However, in the days after he left high school, Billy was introduced to cocaine, and then heroin.
Billy’s father is hesitant to use the term “gateway drugs.” He is hesitant to state outright that if a person tries one drug, he then goes on to something harder.
However, there is no doubt Billy used more intense drugs as time went on.
“Kids at that age — teenagers — they test everything they’ve learned. They’re about to embark on their own adult life. Mom and Dad have told them, ‘Don’t smoke marijuana, or you’ll grow a third eye.’ They tell you some dread story that can happen.”
So if the teens do use marijuana, and some awful event does not happen that first time, the parents’ warnings might be questioned.
“Now all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘If that’s not true, how much of the other things that Mom and Dad tell me are not true?’ ” Roberts said.
Billy Roberts moved from marijuana to cocaine and heroin.
Heroin can and does kill on the first use — even though it kills some users slowly, over time.
Billy sometimes hid his drug use. Sometimes he admitted it and fought boldly against it. He eventually succumbed to a deceptive and seductive drug.
It was a deadly progression that began with a bad decision.
Coming Tuesday: Billy’s struggles with heroin.