THE DRAGON LIVES HERE
Heroin in the Capital Region
Their photographs started showing up in the Times Union obituaries, fresh-faced young men and women from the suburbs, just a few years out of high school, with wide smiles and bright futures.
These incongruous images of fallen youths in the obits became a steady stream of loss and grief that nobody seemed willing to talk about. It was in the beginning a shameful family secret, the cause of death unspoken in public.
It turned out that they had died of heroin overdoses, the human toll of a heroin epidemic that has swept across the Capital Region, New York State and the country.
No community – suburban, rural or urban and affluent or impoverished – was immune to the scourge of this cheap, plentiful, dangerous and deadly drug.
Now, people across the Capital Region have broken the taboo. Silence is no longer an option. They are speaking out about the wreckage that heroin has left in its wake. The scourge of heroin has overwhelmed hospital emergency departments, local police forces, county jails, treatment facilities and parents shattered after burying their young sons and daughters.
This multi-media collaboration between WMHT and the Times Union, “The Dragon Lives Here,” puts a human face on the heroin epidemic. In videos, photographs and articles, the impact of heroin addiction is told in their own words by recovering heroin addicts, medical staff, law enforcement, government officials and families who are battling this destructive drug.
We hope this collaboration raises awareness and advances a community conversation that has already begun.
Heroin is a powerful foe. It will take many, working together, to slay the dragon.
Andrew McKenna has written a tragicomic masterpiece, a cautionary tale about heroin addiction that is at turns heartbreaking and absurdist.
He chronicles a fall from grace, plummeting from federal prosecutor to federal prisoner after a crazed binge in which he robbed six banks and two supermarkets across five counties.
There was nothing he would not do to get high after “King Heroin,” as he described it, dug its hooks into him.
Hear McKenna describe his experience:
You will pretend that life without heroin is manageable, or even just OK. It will never be, “Now begins the greatest undertaking of your life. You have just purchased a ticket to hell and the train is slowly, methodically, leaving the station.”
Heroin does not read resumes. The arrest was the end of a robbery spree after he lost custody of his sons in family court and he channeled his anger and depression into a needle he stabbed into a vein in the crook of his forearm.
“My life spiraled out of control,” he said. ”But I’ve been remorseful and I’ve worked really hard to overcome addiction and my past. Heroin is a deadly serious drug and I saw it kill a lot of people.”
“His story reminds me how close we all are to going over the edge,” – Gene Primono, assistant federal public defender.
To learn more about McKenna, read A cautionary story of heroin addiction by Paul Grondahl of the Times Union.
Heroin’s on the rise in the Capital Region. And while it used to be a sort of glam drug associated with grungy junkies and gaunt rockstars, today it is increasingly the drug of choice for mainstream America.
In the late 1800s, pharmaceutical chemists were trying to find a substitute for morphine, which was used in legitimate medicine but was addictive.
In 1874 C.R. Alder Wright, a chemist working for St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, experimented by mixing morphine with various acids. The result was a more potent type of morphine, not what Wright wanted, and his discovery lay largely dormant. Some 20 years later, another scientist, Felix Hoffman, working for a German pharmaceutical company now known as Bayer Corp., re-synthesized the same substance and thought he had found a safe substitute for morphine.
The resulting pharmaceutical was named Heroin, for the German word heroisch, or heroic, because of its effect on the users.
Michelle, an ER nurse at Samaritan Hospital, talks through the everyday challenges medical professionals face.
In reality, heroin more quickly metabolized into morphine, making it a faster, more powerful type of morphine. Bottles of cough syrup and other medicines containing heroin flew off the shelves as everyone from housewives to workers and even small children consumed it.
Some sources say Albany’s own gangster, Jack “Legs” Diamond, who made his fortune in bootlegged liquor, worked with New York City criminal kingpin Arnold Rothstein in the heroin trade. Author William Kennedy, Albany’s authority on Legs Diamond, wonders how deeply Diamond was involved, although one story came to mind. Kennedy recalls that in 1925 or 1926, heroin was being smuggled into New York Harbor concealed inside bowling pins. Diamond was suspected of being one of a group who hijacked this shipment. This makes sense, Kennedy says, because Rothstein financed Diamond as a hijacker of bootleg liquor.
The heroin spike follows the crackdown on prescription opioid drugs, such as oxycodone and vicodin, whose abuse by teenagers and the general population reached a crisis in recent years. Once available by prescription from complicit doctors, from the family medicine cabinet or via the Internet, today’s new laws make them harder to get. Users need a readily available drug with the same opioid “kick” and heroin fits the bill.
Read the complete article Heroin: A Brief History of Unintended Consequences by Deborah Moore from the Times Union.
Camino Nuevo (literally, “New Path”) opened last year on a commercial block of Central Avenue with a focus on providing bilingual services to reach the Hispanic community. It launched with outpatient counseling, and a month ago, opened the area’s second methadone clinic, which provides medication assistance to people addicted to heroin.
Need for the methadone service has been apparent in the rapid enrollment of clients, said Micky Jimenez, who heads the Albany operation as regional director for Acacia Network, the Bronx-based organization that provides health, housing and economic development services.
Elizabeth recounts the journey that led her to treatment at Camino Nuevo.
The city’s only other methadone clinic, established in the late 1970s, has been run by the Whitney Young Health Center. It serves 350 clients, and in recent months has had close to 250 people on a waiting list for the medication; their wait can take months, said Lavonne Freeman, Whitney Young’s director of behavioral health.
The next closest methadone clinics are in Amsterdam and Kingston. Conifer Park’s plans for a methadone clinic in Troy were shelved a couple of months ago after facing opposition from area business and property owners.
Methadone, like heroin itself, is an opioid. It satisfies an addict’s physical cravings and prevents withdrawal symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea and muscle aches from setting in while a person detoxifies from heroin. Some heroin addicts said they have found it critical in helping them pursue treatment for their substance abuse without relapsing. Others say they have preferred to quit opioids cold turkey, even if it means suffering through a grueling withdrawal.
Opponents of methadone say it is just another drug keeping users addicted; some 12-step programs don’t allow it for that reason.
Methadone supporters as a treatment option liken it to other drugs used to assist someone with an addiction — like a nicotine patch to wean a smoker off cigarettes.
Several clients said bilingual services have made all the difference in their recovery.
View the full article Albany counseling and methadone program targets Latinos by Claire Hughes of the Times Union.
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.
“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.
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.
Hear Emmanuel’s story in his own words:
“I stopped selling pot and switched to delivering heroin,” he said. “Heroin was a lot cheaper and easier to get than Oxys.”
He became a closet junkie and hid it from everyone he knew. He mostly shot up alone.
“I was so ashamed of myself,” he said. “I tried to stop, but withdrawals scared me. I got violently ill. It felt like death was knocking on my door.”
“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.
Donato said he puts his faith in a higher power, but he focuses his energies on health and fitness.
To learn more about Donato, read Surviving heroin addiction and rebuilding a young life by Paul Grondahl of the Times Union.
Tara wanted to make sure there was no heroin in her house, so she hired Willy and Stone, two drug-sniffing Labrador retrievers.
The dogs are owned by Dave Harrington, a retired Bethlehem police officer and a former D.A.R.E. instructor whose part-time venture, Specialized K9 Detection Service, can help parents, business owners or anyone else locate drugs on their property.
For Tara, who asked that her real name be withheld, making sure her home is clean could be a matter of life or death — and death is something with which she’s already too familiar.
Her eldest son was in his mid-30s when he died of a heroin overdose last spring. Her younger son discovered his body.
Watch Harrington explain why he started his business:
“He can’t get that scenario out of his head,” Tara said.
After that trauma, her surviving son, who is in his late 20s, started using heroin himself. He’s coming back from rehab soon, and she doesn’t want him to have an opportunity to use again because of a stash hidden somewhere in her house.
Harrington and his dogs went to Tara’s home in Colonie. He took Stone into the house first to search the basement, where Tara’s older son had been living and where she had found needles, bent spoons and empty plastic bags.
Since starting his business in 2012, Harrington said he and his dogs have been hired six times to go into residences at the request of parents, and four of those calls involved concerns about heroin.
“They are in a position where their hands are tied and they don’t know what else to do,” Harrington said.
Capital Region authorities say heroin use has surged, extending its grip into suburbs, and officials have blamed the drug for an increasing number of local arrests and overdoses.
On December 12, 2013, a 17-year-old Shenendehowa student was charged with allegedly injecting a 15-year-old schoolmate with heroin in the high school boys locker room.
“This is a huge problem,” said Colonie Police Chief Steven Heider, who testified in a public forum on heroin and opioid abuse across New York. The forum will be held in the Legislative Office Building in Albany.
He said he knows of situations where addicts kept a stash of their drug of choice. “It’s just like an alcoholic keeping bottles hidden around,” said Heider. “It sounds like what this mom is doing is taking a proactive stance.”
People who have Harrington search their homes are a small part of his client base. Most of his customers are businesses that want be sure employees aren’t keeping drugs at work. Harrington said the dogs rarely find anything in these situations.
“It serves as more of a deterrent than anything else.”
Most of his business comes through word of mouth and his connections in the law enforcement community, though Tara found out about the service through a television news story.
Harrington charges about $150 per hour, and the dogs have come across paraphernalia, marijuana and other drugs on their jobs in people’s homes. In those cases, the next step is up to the homeowner.
“It becomes their business at that point,” Harrington said. No parents have ever asked him to call the police.
Willy and Stone sniffed in every nook and cranny of Tara’s house and didn’t find any drugs. Her son told her from rehab that he had cleaned everything out, so the search “vindicated him,” she said, but after everything that’s happened, she feels that she can’t be too careful.
“At some point in time, I want to be able to trust him again.”
Read the full article, Their noses know the truth, by Alysia Santo of the Times Union.
Here’s one area in American life where the gender gap is narrowing: heroin abuse.
More men than women continue to use the highly addictive, deadly drug. But amid a heroin epidemic that has affected all segments of society — rich, poor, white, black, urban, suburban — use of the drug among women has risen markedly in the last decade, doubling between 2002 and 2014, according to federal data.
The trend can be seen at The Next Step, a long-term Albany addiction treatment center exclusively for women.
A decade ago, perhaps one out of 20 residents there were addicted to heroin and other opiates, like prescription painkillers, said Sherri Roff, the organization’s clinical director. Now, 70 percent fall into that category.
Watch Alison, Ashley and Monika talk about their path to The Next Step:
Residents there today are younger, too. A decade ago, Next Step residents hooked mostly on alcohol and crack cocaine were in their 30s and 40s. The heroin addicts in recovery are primarily in their 20s, often stuck in an adolescent mind-set that they’re invincible.
Roff and Executive Director Marsha Penrose believe in single-gender addiction treatment. Recovery from drug abuse requires a reckoning with past behavior, a brutal honesty with oneself and others. As Roff points out, that doesn’t work if a resident is trying to flirt and impress. (The single-gender model is messier for lesbian women, as Ashley, a current resident, points out.)
And female addicts often get introduced to drugs by a romantic partner. Part of what they must learn in recovery is how to be alone.
Women’s recovery also involves different issues than men’s, they said. Girlfriends and wives are more likely to stay with a man struggling to get clean; boyfriends and husbands are more likely to bolt. Women are more likely to be devastated by the loss of children and be working to regain custody.
Watch as the women reflect on how heroin changed them:
Roff is frank about using access to kids as bait to persuade women to stay clean. For recovery to stick, however, women have to want it for themselves, she said.
There are just 20 residents at The Next Step, hailing from all over upstate New York. The small size is essential, Penrose said. She’s trying to create a new family for people who might not have grown up with a functional one. There are rules and penalties, warmth and acceptance.
“You belong here,” says the sign at the front entrance.
The center offers long-term treatment, from nine to 15 months, to instill new habits and ways of dealing with life’s stress. People get to The Next Step by various routes, but many come through drug court or referrals from shorter-term programs.
Penrose could not answer a question about the program’s success rate. Residents don’t all stay in touch after they leave. Relapse is common in addiction treatment. Forty percent to 60 percent of those treated for drug addiction relapse, according to a 2011 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Watch as the women share their hopes for the future:
Male or female, no two routes to addiction are the same. No two people forge the same way out.
Read Alison, Ashley,and Monika’s stories and Outrunning a heroin addiction by Claire Hughes of the Times Union.
The spike in heroin use that has surged across the Capital Region in the past year or two has caused scores of deaths from lethal overdoses, strained emergency rooms and treatment facilities, challenged law enforcement to try to cut into its shadowy supply line and sowed widespread panic in affluent suburban areas where it is hitting hardest. Some have even labeled heroin a public health “epidemic.”
But there is widespread consensus that heroin has exploded in the past two years, deadlier than earlier editions because of its increased potency and the fact that it is being cut with dangerous compounds such as fentanyl that contribute to its lethality.
Lieutenant DiRienzo talks about the efforts New York state troopers are making to get heroin off the streets:
There is no denying that the obituary pages in recent months have presented heroin addiction’s steady death toll in a hushed, elegaic and rarely explicitly named family heartbreak that has cut down dozens of young lives from teens to late-20s.
“Heroin is no different from other drugs and we’ll never be able to choke off the supply of drugs in this country,” said Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff, a 22-year veteran. “We may disrupt the supply briefly, but that’s not as effective as attacking both the supply and demand side. Those dual strategies that also focus on increasing treatment resources are far more effective.”
“Heroin was around when I started in 1973 and it’s back with a vengeance,” said Colonie Police Chief Steve Heider, a 41-year veteran of the force. “The difference is that it’s not being dealt to men in their 30s and 40s on a few urban street corners. This time around, it’s all over suburbia and it’s killing teenagers. I consider it an epidemic.”
Local law enforcement suggest that a strong, measured regionally coordinated approach to the heroin problem is required.
“We’ve never had an epidemic drug problem like we’re seeing with heroin. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen because it’s now one of the cheapest and most available drugs out there,” said Guilderland Police Chief Carol Lawlor, a 36-year veteran. “Part of the problem is that parents don’t want to admit their children might be addicted to heroin. Everyone has to work together and take responsibility for the problem. Heroin addiction knows no boundaries.”
Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, a 27-year veteran, recalled working at the Albany County jail during the height of the crack epidemic. “The jail was overflowing and so overcrowded, we cobbled new tiers together with plywood, chains and a padlock,” he said. “That was real bad. But young people weren’t dying then. We didn’t have overdose deaths with crack like we’re seeing with heroin. They’re cutting heroin with fentanyl now and that’s an ultimate recipe for death.”
Read the complete article, Current heroin surge has historic precedent, by Paul Grondahl of the Times Union.
When Patty Farrell discovered the lifeless body of her 18-year-old daughter, Laree, on that terrible spring morning, dead of a heroin overdose in her upstairs bedroom in the tidy bungalow they shared, shock turned to grief and gave way to a flood of emotions.
“I was so sad at first, and then I got angry because I felt betrayed,” Farrell said. “I trusted her and believed she had stopped using and she played me. That’s how powerful heroin is. If it killed my daughter, who was really strong, it can kill anyone.”
Farrell, 51, who is divorced and raised her daughter as a single parent, retired in 2008 after 20 years as an Albany police officer, including a decade as a detective. She now works for the state. Her law enforcement career made Farrell streetwise and savvy about the drug culture and criminal activity. It did not matter against an insidious, deadly drug.
“My heart just breaks when I hear about kids using heroin,” she said. “It’s poison and it only takes once. And there’s no happy ending with heroin.”
Her daughter had injected heroin for just four months, bracketed around one month of residential treatment at an out-of-state rehabilitation facility. Counselors, family and friends thought the rehab was successful.
The same day she returned home, however, Laree relapsed, shot up that night in her bedroom and never woke up. She died March 16, 2013, five days before her 19th birthday.
A framed poem she wrote in rehab hangs on her bedroom wall; it’s titled “Free Your Demons.”
It concludes: “Once the demons are gone,/They won’t be missed./Time heals everything./You can come back from this.”
Farrell hopes to educate and raise awareness by sharing her daughter’s heartbreaking story. She has spoken at legislative hearings and public forums on the recent scourge of heroin addiction in the Capital Region. She pleaded for expanded treatment for addicts, tougher penalties for dealers, increased investigations and heightened vigilance by overly trusting parents.
Farrell said the package of legislation signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June was a good start in combating the surge in heroin and opioid use — including requiring insurance companies to cover “medically necessary” treatment and a $25 million investment from the state — but it did not go far enough.
Farrell was disappointed that “Laree’s Law,” a bill sponsored by Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Bethlehem, that would have increased penalties for drug dealers when a particular sale leads to a fatal overdose, was left out and failed to win passage.
Farrell vowed to keep fighting for Laree’s Law.
“I feel Laree pushing me to do more,” Farrell said. “Someone dies of an unintentional drug overdose in this country every 19 minutes. I refuse to give up on this.”
Laree Farrell-Lincoln was a golden girl, with wavy blond hair, wide green eyes, a dazzling smile and a carefree spirit that radiated confidence. She grew up just off Central Avenue, near Colonie Center. “You could hear her laugh a block away,” her mother said.
She was a cheerleader, played softball and had an inner brightness that illuminated the halls at Colonie Central High School. She was a straight-A student who started kindergarten at 4, vaulted ahead a grade and graduated from high school at 16 with an advanced Regents diploma.
“Laree (pronounced luh-REE) was the most intelligent girl I ever knew,” said Jessie Kowalski, her best friend since seventh grade. “We just clicked. She was like my other half. I lost my heart and soul when she died.”
Kowalski had her friend’s name and the date of her birth and death tattooed on her back.
The details of Laree’s addiction — when she started using heroin, where she got her drugs and how she supported her habit — remain shrouded in mystery.
“She got involved with the wrong people,” Kowalski said. “Heroin is all over Colonie. She was ashamed of it and hid it from me. She didn’t want to let me see that part of her.”
Farrell said her daughter was a natural leader who had a wide circle of friends at Roessleville Elementary School, Sand Creek Middle School and Colonie High. “She always stuck up for the underdog,” her mother said.
She graduated with honors and enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College, but lost interest in academics and for the first time in her life seemed adrift and uncertain of her future.
She worked at a sandwich shop and ice cream parlor. Her father, Herb Lincoln, bought her a VW Jetta, her first car. She paid for insurance and gas. She chafed at the strict rules laid down by her mom.
“We butted heads quite often,” Farrell said.
In October 2012, Laree told her mother that she had been using heroin for about a week and she was sick, scared and desperate. Farrell was shocked. She knew her daughter had abused alcohol and smoked marijuana, but not in the extreme. Their pediatrician had no experience treating heroin addiction and her daughter ended up in the detox unit of St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany. She was treated with Suboxone, a drug that suppresses withdrawal symptoms and cravings for heroin. She checked herself out of detox the following day. “I can do it on my own,” she said.
But it became clear she was not kicking her addiction. She lost 30 pounds over the next three months, looked strung out, stopped showering and keeping up her appearance and had the glazed, nodding look of a heroin high. “I was begging her to get into an inpatient rehab and she was fighting me,” Farrell said.
In January 2013, Laree said she wanted to get clean for real this time and asked for her mother’s help once more. Farrell’s health insurance covered just two nights at St. Peter’s detox, but a staff member successfully argued for a third night. Two doctors lobbied on her daughter’s behalf and got her admitted to Mountainside, a private treatment facility in Canaan, Conn. Farrell’s insurance covered 80 percent of the 28-day residential program.
“She had a horrible withdrawal, but she really seemed to turn a corner and she said it had saved her life,” Farrell said. She found comfort in the facility’s strict regimen of work assignments, group therapy sessions, meditation, exercise and counseling.
Farrell visited her daughter and saw improvements. Her counselor said she had progressed to the point where she could be transferred to a less restrictive halfway house in Connecticut, a “sober house” that she would share with three other young women battling drug addiction.
Her mother picked her up on Valentine’s Day, they drove back to Colonie, visited her grandparents and packed up her car with bedding and household supplies. Her daughter planned to get a job and would need a car. Farrell waved goodbye as Laree drove her Mazda away from their house, supposedly headed for Connecticut.
“She never got there,” Farrell said. “I got a call from a staff member who said she never showed up. She bought some heroin in Colonie and got high.”
She was disqualified from the halfway house and arrived home a few days later. “She was a mess,” Farrell said. “She hated herself, but the addiction was stronger than she was. We were back in hell.”
Since Farrell worked during the day, she had her daughter stay with Farrell’s parents, who provided around-the-clock supervision. The arrangement seemed to work. She attended 12-step meetings daily, gained weight, took care of her appearance again and seemed to turn a corner.
After several weeks, Farrell allowed her daughter to return home. The two made plans to go to the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a happy tradition.
That afternoon, somebody dropped off Laree at the workplace of her best friend, Kowalski. She planned to spend the night at Kowalski’s house in Latham, but told her friend she was too tired and asked to be dropped off at her mother’s house.
Mother and daughter talked and had a bowl of ice cream. It seemed almost like old times with the daughter she knew before heroin. “Be sure you get me up early in the morning,” she told her mom. “I want to do my hair and makeup.”
She kissed her mother good night.
Her mother yelled up the stairway to her daughter’s bedroom at 7:15 the next morning to wake her up. There was no answer. Farrell climbed the narrow stairway, stepped through the open doorway and found her daughter cold and unresponsive in bed. She called 911. Paramedics worked on Laree for about 90 minutes, but she was gone.
“In a way I feel it was my fault because I should have been with her that night and instead she somehow bought heroin and shot up at home,” Kowalski said.
She told Kowalski heroin gave her “a state of euphoria,” she said. “I never knew her to have depression. I don’t know why she needed heroin, but it’s a disease and no matter how much she wanted to stop, she couldn’t,” Kowalski said.
Laree told her best friend and mother that she started using heroin because her boyfriend was a recovering heroin addict who spoke about the drug in terrifying tones and how much it had once controlled his life. “She was a very stubborn person and she always had the inner strength to quit things when she decided it was time,” Farrell said. She had quit drinking and smoking cigarettes cold turkey. She thought she could do the same thing after trying heroin, her mother said.
Even a street-smart former cop was clueless about heroin’s reach. “There’s a whole heroin world out there none of us knows about,” she said. “It’s a tight-knit community of users. Laree knew where to get it in Colonie, but she never told me where. She kept that secret. She went to the nearby CVS to buy her syringes.”
Farrell later discovered her daughter had stolen a rarely worn emerald ring and pawned it, cashed in U.S. Savings Bonds given to her as a child and sold off a video game system and games to get cash to buy heroin.
“It was four months of hell after she started using heroin,” Farrell said. “She wanted to get clean. We all tried to help her quit, but the drug was too powerful.”
For the past 19 months, Farrell has channeled her grief into action, speaking out against heroin and creating a memorial garden in the backyard. Laree’s father, family and friends helped install an angel fountain, stone retaining walls and a bench, along with figurines of Laree’s beloved peacocks and a heart-shaped granite marker with a picture of mother and daughter.
Farrell placed a dozen pictures of Laree around her living room. She commissioned jewelry that incorporated some of her daughter’s ashes. She got a tattoo on her forearm of a peacock and the words, “For all eternity.”
It has not filled the hole in her heart. Farrell is comforted, though, by the companionship of the cat her daughter loved, Maxi.
“No matter how painful it is, I’ll keep talking about heroin and how my daughter died,” Farrell said. “We can’t turn away from it and try to sweep it under the rug. We have to remove the stigma.”
Farrell saved a final Mother’s Day card her daughter gave her. When she is feeling low, she reads what her daughter wrote:
“The rest of my life will consist of proving to you how much I appreciate you and show you I can be an amazing daughter. I love you with all my heart. For all eternity. Love, Laree.”
Read How heroin claimed the life of a cop’s daughter by Paul Grondahl of the Times Union.
Tim Murdick couldn’t sleep. He heard a car drive up in the predawn hours to their Cape Cod-style house along a quiet, suburban road.
There had been many sleepless nights for him and his wife, Kim, during the hellish months that their 21-year-old son, Sean, had spiraled down into heroin addiction.
Something didn’t seem right about the sound of the car in the darkness, so the father crept down the staircase and peered out a front window.
He watched as the car driver stopped, pushed something into their mailbox and sped off.
A father’s nagging fear was now a horrible truth: his son had relapsed.
A primal anger at the drug dealer surged through his body, catapulting him down the walkway toward the mailbox.
Sean had been waiting for the delivery and stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. His dad passed him in a blur and the son, too, sprinted toward the mailbox, wide-eyed and crazed, a few steps behind.
His father got to the mailbox first. He grabbed the small plastic packets filled with heroin and squeezed them tightly inside his fist.
He roughly shoved past his son, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound former co-captain of the Averill Park High School football team.
His son made a grab for his father’s clenched fist. They argued. There was a struggle.
His wife heard the commotion and rushed downstairs. Her husband pressed the packets into her palm and yelled at her to flush the drugs down the toilet.
There were raised voices now, the muffled keen of a young man who was sick with withdrawal symptoms, craving the warm, numbing rush of heroin through a needle into a vein.
Their other son, Tim Jr., two years older than Sean, was awakened. He and his father wrapped up Sean with their arms and braced themselves against the door frame outside the bathroom. The sound of a toilet flushing and Sean’s guttural, wounded weeping echoed in the narrow hallway.
A family’s tableau of sorrow
The scene crystallized in one horrible moment the scourge of heroin that plagues the Capital Region: a young man in the grip of addiction, an overwhelmed detox and treatment network that turned him away, failed attempts at rehab and the desperation of parents who didn’t know where to turn.
After being rebuffed or washing out at a half-dozen hospital detox units and treatment centers stretching from Albany to Rhinebeck to Vermont, Sean was accepted at The Treatment Center in Lake Worth, Fla. He had been clean for nearly six months in the residential treatment program there. He was drug-tested daily and graduated to a sober living apartment with three other roommates who were also recovering heroin addicts.
Sean seemed to be flourishing. He was working out at the gym every day and bench pressed 400 pounds. He regained lost weight and took long walks on the beach. His shattered self-esteem was repairing itself in a program that tended to his mind, body and spirit. He talked about joining the military.
“It was finally starting to feel like the old Sean was back again,” his mother said.
He had a setback in early September and began to crave heroin again. He checked back into the residential program for a week of stabilization. “He said he felt like he was getting shaky,” his mother said. After a week of the rigorous regimen — which did not include a maintenance drug such as methadone or Suboxone — he felt his recovery was solid once more.
On Sept. 28, Sean called his mother, which he did most days.
They spoke briefly. He sounded good to her.
“Mom, I’ve gotta go. My steak’s ready,” he said. “Love you, mom.”
“Love you, too, bud,” she said.
A video surveillance camera in the apartment recorded Sean as he walked into the bathroom and disappeared from view.
His roommates returned and found him dead on the bathroom floor, a syringe and empty heroin packet nearby. He was 22.
“Sean was doing very well in our program and was well-liked. Losing a patient to the disease is very heartbreaking,” said Bill Russell, CEO of The Treatment Center. He said Sean was the first fatal overdose of a patient in the 144-bed program since it opened in 2009.
A Mass of Christian Burial was held on Oct. 6 at St. Henry’s Church in Averill Park. Several hundred mourners packed the church, including many of Sean’s fellow alumni from the Class of 2011 at Averill Park High and former teammates.
Why had heroin addiction claimed the life of this golden boy, the gentle giant who seemed to be everybody’s friend in their small town, the son his dad called “a big goof.”
And why had heroin killed more than a dozen other young people over the past three years in the town of Sand Lake, population 10,000, which includes Averill Park and West Sand Lake.
The Murdicks have many questions, but few answers. They’ve been lost in a fog of grief since their son’s death two months ago.
They want to speak out in Sean’s memory, to reclaim what heroin stole from them in the hope that it might help other parents struggling with a child’s addiction.
“Sean did not die in vain,” his father said, choking back tears.
“We tried our best to save him. It wasn’t enough,” his older brother said, his voice cracking. He leaned against the refrigerator where his parents had poured out their heartache for more than two hours at the kitchen table.
His mother walked over, embraced her son and spoke soothing words into his ear. The father buried his head in his hands. It was a tableau of sorrow.
A cry for help
Their sons enjoyed a comfortable life in the suburbs of Rensselaer County, raised by two loving parents with good jobs — she at a local college, he in communications for the government. The couple’s lives revolved around their sons and sports. They installed a pool in the backyard where the boys and friends spent summer days. The brothers rode go-karts and dirt bikes around the farmland behind their house. Their dad coached his sons in Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, lacrosse and basketball. Their mom ran the concession stand. Their lovable yellow Labrador retriever, Nicky, was at the center of it all.
Sean suffered from migraine headaches as a preschooler, caused by sinus problems treated with medication. He had a certain level of anxiety, but nothing that was crippling. He was a solid B student, very social in school, with a wide smile and a goofy laugh.
After graduating from high school, Sean took classes at Morrisville State College and Hudson Valley Community College, but lost interest in academics. He worked at an auto body shop and as a cook. He was good with his hands. He landed a construction job, but fell and broke his arm on a job site. A doctor prescribed oxycodone, an opioid painkiller. He ran through his prescription and started buying oxy on the street, but the pills became scarce and expensive. He found a readily available, cheap substitute: heroin.
His parents could see something was wrong with Sean. He lost a lot of weight and seemed distant and fidgety. He nodded off at the dinner table.
His father found a syringe in the bathroom and confronted Sean.
“Dad, I’m sick. I need help,” he said. “This is not me. I don’t want to be like this.”
Their journey through the nightmare world of the disease of addiction began a year ago. They made the rounds of detox units, from St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany to St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy. They were turned away more than once, told that Sean didn’t meet “the criteria” or insurance didn’t cover it. He eventually was admitted for three-day detox stays, but relapsed each time. They tried Conifer Park in Glenville three different times, but Sean was limited to five days of treatment because that’s all their insurance covered.
He tried Cornerstone rehab in Rhinebeck a couple times, but none of the five-day treatments stuck. He went twice to Maple Leaf Treatment Center in Underhill, Vt.
It was a revolving door of failure: detox, intensive outpatient care, relapse. He did not qualify for the most intensive and costliest level of care, inpatient residential treatment. They denied him because he was not homicidal or suicidal and had a stable home environment. “It was a never-ending battle with the insurance companies,” his mother said. “They treated him like the scum of the earth.”
His parents spent tens of thousands of dollars on failed treatments and exhausted their savings.
“We didn’t know where to turn. We were so desperate,” his mother said.
Sean tried to detox at home over the course of days of sweating, shaking, vomiting and diarrhea.
“It was a horrible thing to watch,” his mother said.
Trying to beat the demon
Sean kept trying to get clean and found the Florida treatment center after a long Internet search. His parents liked the place and its focus on mind, body and spirit. They did not rush his detox, which continued for 30 days. They were relieved the focus finally was not on gaps in insurance coverage. They sent a check for $500 once as a thank you, but never saw another bill.
Meanwhile, his parents are angry and frustrated at the system of heroin treatment in New York.
“Sean was sick, he had a disease and he asked for help,” his father said. “If he had diabetes or heart disease, they would not have turned him away and treated him like a criminal.”
Sean described his addiction as “this demon inside me.”
“He tried everything he could to beat it,” his mother said. “He was a big man with a little boy inside, scared of what heroin was doing to him. And he kept getting pushed away around here. If he didn’t meet the criteria, who does?”
The addiction drove the brothers apart. “He was ashamed of heroin and did it in secret,” his brother said. “He never told me any of the details.”
Sean left his parents a final solace. Not long before he died, he thanked them for their unconditional love and how they supported him through the long road of misery.
“You did everything right,” he told them.
And then he was gone.
Read Heroin’s harrowing addiction, heartbreaking death of 22-year-old West Sand Lake man by Paul Grondahl of the Times Union.
Most of the news about the heroin epidemic has been bad: fatal overdoses of young people, shortages of treatment options, gaps in insurance coverage, desperation and frustration among parents.
It’s refreshing to find a glimmer of hope on the heroin front, a love story that grew from the wreckage of addiction and the jagged trajectory of long-term recovery.
Their sobriety is still a work-in-progress, earned one day at a time, but Bryan Prinz, 25, and his girlfriend, Elise Ainsworth, 20, who met in a 12-step support group in Troy, are both taking classes at Hudson Valley Community College and repairing the damage their addictions inflicted.
“Heroin addiction is very lonely,” said Prinz, of Red Hook, Dutchess County. “I usually shot up by myself. I was the master of manipulation. I was only interested in other people if I could get something out of them that would help me get high.”
“Recovery only works if you really want it,” said Ainsworth, of East Greenbush, a 2013 graduate of Columbia High School. “I had to learn to respect myself and to change from being that person who only wanted to get drunk and high all the time.”
The two speak the language of recovery and seem mature beyond their years. They share their personal stories with high school students and at public forums as members of the Albany chapter of Young People in Recovery. The national grass-roots advocacy organization is based in Denver and campaigns for public policy that assists youth in long-term recovery.
“We’re trying to bring heroin out of the shadows,” Prinz said.
Although they appear healthy and happy now, the two don’t spare the ugly parts of their addiction narratives.
Prinz’s years at Red Hook High School were focused on smoking pot and getting drunk. “I was the party guy,” he said. “That’s all I did. I got my diploma by the skin of my teeth.”
At his mom’s insistence, he reluctantly attended SUNY-Cobleskill and flunked out after the first semester. He moved back in with his parents, drank a lot and ingested any opioid pills he or his friends could steal from medicine cabinets. He drove drunk, crashed his car and was airlifted to St. Francis Hospital in Dutchess County, where he was treated for a neck fracture and broken ribs.
“It woke me up a bit, but didn’t stop me,” he said.
He took more painkillers, washed down with booze. He wallowed in depression. A friend offered him heroin at his house. He snorted it.
“I loved it the first time,” he said. “It started once a week, then twice a week, then every day and then crazy amounts.”
He was told he could get a faster, stronger high using less heroin with a needle. He started injecting heroin. He was 19.
“And then everything fell apart,” he said.
His use surged to 15 bags a day. “I had to use more and more so I wouldn’t be sick,” he said.
He lost his job as his heroin use spiraled out of control. He stole a computer to support his $125-a-day habit and was busted. He lied to his parents and stole from them, too.
“I didn’t want to live like that, but I didn’t know how to stop, either,” he said.
Trips to Poughkeepsie to buy more heroin became an almost daily routine.
Desperate, his mom reported him to the Dutchess County sheriff for violating his probation. Prinz was arrested and taken to jail. He became violently ill as he detoxed in a cell.
A judge ordered him to Drug Court, where he was sent to a 28-day rehab program, successfully completed it and met the requirements of Drug Court. He returned to live with his parents in Red Hook. He felt changed, but being back with old friends and old habits led to a relapse.
Prinz relapsed four times after rehabs in Rhinebeck, Saranac Lake, Hudson and Troy. Finally, a seven-month, residential program in Utica, Insight House, a state-funded program that accepted him as a Medicaid patient, helped Prinz achieve a sobriety that took root.
“The 28-day programs never worked for me. I needed long-term residential, which gave me the time to make real and lasting inner changes,” he said. Methadone helped him detox in the hospital, but he tapered off and does not take any anti-addiction medication currently.
Prinz has been clean for the past 18 months. He credits his sobriety to several factors: unconditional love and support of his parents, older sister and younger brother; the spiritual principles of a 12-step recovery program; and being sent to jail.
“I was really mad at my mom at first for turning me in,” he said. “Jail actually saved me. It put me in a safe place where I couldn’t get high and could detox. One of my friends died of a heroin overdose while I was in jail. I hit bottom.”
A critical factor in maintaining his sobriety was meeting Ainsworth, his girlfriend. “The only thing I loved before was heroin,” he said. “I was never in a healthy, honest relationship until I met Elise.”
Ainsworth was going through her own version of hitting bottom and climbing back out of the depths of addiction. When she wasn’t blacking out from alcohol abuse, she was smoking pot incessantly. She was high most mornings by the time she showed up for classes at high school and her job. She was arrested for shoplifting while she was drunk.
She picked from handfuls of prescription pills offered at parties by teens who swiped them from home. She bought a popular, over-the-counter cold remedy, Dextromethorphan, or DXM. Teens call it “Triple C” and it produces a potent, hallucinogenic high. It is also extremely addictive and can lead to memory loss and other health problems with lengthy abuse.
In her senior year, addiction swamped her. There was turmoil at home. She fell into a severe depression. “My life was out of control. I was in a really dark place. All I wanted was to not feel the pain anymore,” she said.
A suicide attempt landed her at Four Winds Hospital in Saratoga for nine days. She turned 18.
She managed to graduate from Columbia High and set her sights on attending Hudson Valley Community College, where she planned to play soccer and apply for a study abroad program.
Instead, the summer after graduation was another blur of booze, pills and Triple C. “It was the only way I knew how to live,” she said. She stole from friends and family to buy drugs.
She ended up in Conifer Park in Glenville, but the 14-day stay was too short to take hold. “They told me good luck and stay sober,” she said.
Her first semester at HVCC was a disaster. She rarely attended classes, flunked out and hit the depths of her addiction. “I was constantly chasing the high. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I had no hope,” she said. She made a plan to overdose on her mom’s prescription pills, but never followed through.
A therapist ordered her to the mental health unit at Samaritan Hospital in Troy. She was transferred to rehab at St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy. She was 19.
After two more relapses, she ended up at Hudson Mohawk Recovery Center’s Elizabeth House in Troy, a 14-bed, all-women’s long-term residential treatment program. She lived there for seven months and participated in therapy, support groups and a 12-step program.
“It was the fresh start I needed,” she said. “It changed my life. I learned to live in the moment and in a healthy way.”
Ainsworth has been clean and sober for six months. She and Prinz began dating in April 2014.
As they walked across the HVCC campus, they held hands and talked about a successful first semester. She is a liberal arts major and he’s working toward certification as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor. He just presented a paper on prevention. She works part-time at a Rite-Aid. They go to self-help meetings together and attended UNITE to Face Addiction, a large rally in October in Washington, D.C.
She lives with her grandmother in Troy, he with his parents in Red Hook.
“She’s my No. 1 support,” he said, squeezing her hand.
“I can be the person I always wanted to be with Bryan,” said Ainsworth, who plans to try out for the soccer team next fall.
They understand their recovery is a fragile, day-to-day thing.
In the glove compartment of his car, Prinz carries a kit with naloxone, also known as Narcan. The nasal spray can reverse a heroin overdose.
“I hope I never have to use it,” he said.
Producer and Editor
Nicole Van Slyke
Nicole Van Slyke
WMHT Vice President, Finance & Accounting
WMHT Executive Vice President
WMHT President & CEO
Times Union Executive Producer
Times Union Associate Editor
Michael V. Spain
Times Union Editor & Vice President
Special Thank You to the organizations and individuals who have made this project possible:
Camino Nuevo and Samaritan Hospital
Times Union journalist Paul Grondahl and WMHT producer Nicole Van Slyke discuss ‘The Dragon Lives Here: Heroin in the Capital District’ with New York NOW’s Matt Ryan.
IN THE COMMUNITY
Acacia Network | Camino Nuevo Network of Latino based agencies that offer a unique constellation of services in the area of health, housing, and economic development.
The Albany Damien Center’s mission is to enhance the lives of people affected by HIV/AIDS in an affirming environment and to reduce new infections in the communities we serve.
The Addictions Care Center of Albany, Inc. Since 1967, ACCA has been a part of the community, strengthening the lives and improving the futures of thousands of individuals.
View Training and Professional Development Programs
Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers of New York State Supports organizations, groups and individuals who prevent and alleviate personal, social and economic consequences of addiction.
Alliance for Positive Health The mission of the Alliance for Positive Health is to reduce the impact and incidence of HIV/AIDS and other serious medical and social conditions.
Catholic Charities | Project Safe Point Prepares and assists clients for entry into drug rehabilitation programs and facilitates entry into the other services of Catholic Charities and Catholic Charities AIDS Services.
ON DECEMBER 1 Join Project Safe Point and the Albany County Department of Health for free training on Heroin/Opioid Overdose Prevention. Learn more and register: email@example.com or visit HIVTrainingNY.org
Combat Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse Under historic legislation signed by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the Combat Heroin website was developed to fight the growing heroin and prescription opioid epidemic in New York State.
Friends of Recovery, New York Dedicated to promoting policies and practices supporting a vision of recovery from addiction.
Harm Reduction Coalition Founded in 1993 and incorporated in 1994 by a working group of needle exchange providers, advocates and drug users.
The Next Step, Inc. A unique program that empowers women with alcohol and other drug addictions to begin and sustain a life-long process of recovery through an individualized continuum of residential treatment and supportive living services.
The Prevention Council The Prevention Council has worked for more than 30 years to give young people the skills to choose healthy behaviors, provide families with the tools to foster positive child development, help communities build family-friendly environments, and help schools build supportive climates for students.
RAIS-OurVoice! Recovery advocacy in Saratoga where people and families can connect to resources for addiction recovery.
ON NOVEMBER 10 Join RAIS-OurVoice! for a screening and discussion of ‘The Anonymous People’ at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. Click here for more information.
Specialized K9 Detection Services Specialized K9 is a unique business utilizing “drug dogs” to seek out illegal narcotics in private homes, businesses, schools, and drug treatment facilities
Young People in Recovery, New York Young People in Recovery changes the world so all young people in or seeking recovery are given the opportunity to become empowered.
AROUND THE REGION
Heroin at Home An in-depth look at the heroin epidemic from WXXI in Rochester.
Mountain Lake Journal | Heroin Segments from Mountain Lake PBS exploring the heroin crisis. Watch Lifelong Addiction, Daily Stigma, Heroin Epidemic in Plattsburgh, Heroin Crisis in the Village of Malone, and the New Face of Heroin.
FRONTLINE | The Opium Kings Learn about heroin in the brain, its chemistry and effects.
It’s My Life From PBS Kids, this teen-focused resource deals with drug abuse, including heroin, in Chapter 8.
Tragedy and Hope: Stories of Painkiller Addiction PBS LearningMedia resource that contains helpful guides for educators and families.
When Something Scary Happens PBS Kids resource for talking with kids about scary things in their lives.
PBS NewsHour | America Addicted A resource on how the opioid crisis is devastating communities across the nation.