Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Suspected heroin deaths push fear into the suburbs



By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mark DeMarrero, 19, overcame asthma to become a running back for the Campbell County Camels.

[photo] Charlotte Wethington of Morning View with a photo of her son Casey, 23, who died in August of a heroin overdose.
(Patrick Reddy photos)
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Adam Messmer, 18, of Alexandria still woke his mom to say he was home safe after staying out late on weekends.

Casey Wethington, 23, swore he would never use drugs after seeing people use needles on the streets of Dublin during a backpacking trip.

Three average kids in Campbell County. Now they're all dead. Heroin abuse is suspected in two of the deaths; it's certain in the third. Abuse of the powerful drug is causing mounting alarm in some Cincinnati suburbs.

Campbell County hospital and public safety officials can recall no heroin overdose deaths in the previous decade. But since August, this county of 35,000 households has been dealing with at least those three deaths in which heroin is suspected of playing a part.

"If you have people this young using this potent of a drug, it's a real concern," says Jim Paine, who leads Northern Kentucky's regional task force battling the illegal drug trade.

Complete data on Tristate heroin abuse do not exist. But evidence supports the worry that abuse is on the rise: A doctor who runs a Falmouth treatment center says he's concerned by the 160 addicted adults he's seen in the past six months.

Hamilton County counts 54 heroin overdose deaths in the past five years - compared to 10 in the five years before that.

Eight people died from heroin-related causes in 2000 and 2001 in Butler County, the coroner's office there says.

Heroin came into popular use in the 1990s with new techniques that allowed it to be inhaled, rather than just injected.

Pop culture further glamorized the drug, says Carol Falkowski, director of research communications for Hazelden, a substance abuse treatment and education foundation based in Minnesota.

The gaunt look of runway models, for example, was dubbed "heroin chic" because the look mirrored the wasted appearance of hard-core drug addicts.

[photo] Wethington visits the grave of her son Casey.
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"Adults really need to be aware of the fact it is not the same world when it comes to drug abuse as 20 to 25 years ago," Falkowski says. "Drugs are more affordable. There is a larger variety, and the drugs are more dangerous and unpredictable. There is a lot of information about drugs on the Internet that is wrong and downplays the risks."

The Campbell County community is so upset that nearly 400 people packed an Alexandria firehouse in early February to discuss what, if anything, can be done there.

"Casey had been clean for 20 days," his mother, Charlotte Wethington, says. "Then he overdosed a second time. He told me he used heroin to celebrate going 20 days without it. That's what the drug does to people."

Friends meet same fate

Teachers and parents say kids growing up in the Campbell County suburbs know where to buy the drug. They report a tale of addiction that leads from suburban shopping centers near home to corner drug markets in Over-the-Rhine to drug treatment, the ER and sometimes, the graveyard.

Mark DeMarrero worked in the kitchen at O'Charley's in Alexandria and still lived with his parents in Melbourne when he died on Oct. 20.

George DeMarrero Jr. knew his son was addicted to heroin eight to nine months before his death. Mark also would mix drugs, sometimes taking Xanax, a prescription sedative used to treat anxiety disorder and sometimes sold on the streets and abused, his father says.

His parents tried to limit their son's access to drugs by taking away his car. But on the night he died, his parents let him go out with someone they thought was a good influence.

The young addict got his hands on drugs and came home stumbling. His father put him to bed. He never woke up.

George DeMarrero Jr., says he will never forget the image of rolling his son over and realizing that he was dead. He hadn't realized the boy's life was in danger.

Mark DeMarrero had been in treatment programs twice, but since he was over age 18, he checked himself out of treatment.

George DeMarrero believes peer pressure and a chemical imbalance in his son's brain led to the addiction. It didn't help that drugs were usually present at the parties his son attended, he says.

Connie DeMarrero, Mark's mother, says experts have told her that heroin addicts must "hit bottom" before they can be helped. But she says "hitting bottom" for an unmarried young man, with no children or a mortgage to pay, is death.

By all accounts, Mark DeMarrero's death deeply depressed his best friend, Adam Messmer. The two first met in middle school, went through high school together and were inseparable.

Joan Messmer learned that her son, a student at Northern Kentucky University, had a heroin problem on Nov. 13. The Messmers got a call saying Adam was at St. Luke Hospital East in Fort Thomas after he was found unconscious in his car outside a shopping center.

Police said Adam Messmer had overdosed on heroin and that his body temperature was 94 degrees.

Adam recovered but was charged with possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia. His parents left him in the Campbell County jail for two days so he would experience the consequences of his substance abuse.

Then they signed him into the same 32-day, inpatient drug treatment program that Mark DeMarrero had attended.

At the end of Adam'sfirst week there, the family's insurance company recommended that he be transferred to an outpatient program that met for three hours a day three days a week.

They followed the recommendation, but heroin proved too tough.

Obeying his mom's orders, Adam Messmer woke Joan Messmer at 2 a.m. on Jan. 4 to say he was home safe and heading for bed. His mother went to wake him later that morning but found him unconscious. He died later that day at St. Luke East.

Campbell County Coroner Mark Schweitzer suspects opiates caused the deaths of Adam Messmer and Mark DeMarrero. But he won't know for sure until toxicology tests are complete. That could take months.

The problem, Schweitzer explains, is that heroin begins to break down in the body after only 10 minutes, leaving scant traces for a toxicologist to identify. The state lab doesn't even test for heroin, but can sometimes narrow a finding to probable heroin use after eliminating other drugs, Schweitzer says.

Officials with the Hamilton County Coroner's Office say tracking heroin deaths is a difficult task for any agency. Terry Daly, office spokesman, says heroin breaks down into morphine, making it virtually indistinguishable from similar drugs.

Law change unlikely

Charlotte Wethington of Morning View has been traveling the Tristate telling anyone who will listen how her son's life spiraled out of control.

In early December she pleaded with Cincinnati officials to crack down on heroin dealers feeding suburban habits.

City Hall passed an anti-loitering ordinance that gave police greater ability to prosecute obvious drug dealing.

In Kentucky, Wethington is pushing for a state law that would allow parents of adult addicts to force their children - against their will, if necessary - into locked drug treatment or rehab programs. Concerns about cost and civil liberties likely will keep such a law from being passed by the legislature this year.

Wethington found out that her son, Casey, was addicted to heroin in February 2002. He went to a treatment center in Falmouth but left after six days.

In May, he overdosed and stopped breathing.

St. Elizabeth North in Covington released Casey after he told doctors he wasn't trying to commit suicide, his mother says. After he was released, Casey told his mom he "had a love affair with heroin."

On June 25, he overdosed a second time. The next week he was arrested in Noblesville, Ind., on a charge of marijuana possession. Despite Charlotte Wethington's pleas to police that he be kept in jail for his own protection, he was released on his own recognizance.

On Aug. 9, Casey Wethington overdosed for a third and final time in Cincinnati, where he had moved after high school to attend the University of Cincinnati. He died after spending 10 days unconscious at University Hospital. The official cause of death was a heroin overdose.

Campbell County High School senior Tony Schilling says he was a friend of Adam Messmer and Mark DeMarrero. He says that he, too, once used heroin, although he doesn't anymore.

"My mom never caught me," he says. "I think she let a lot of stuff slide."

Parents `too nice'

He told his neighbors at the community forum last month that parents have to watch their kids. "You got to get in their faces," he said. "Too many of you are being too nice to your kids."

Campbell County Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Anthony Bracke says heroin addicts tend to become acquainted with each other, then seek each other out. He says the bravest, or sometimes just the addict having the worst withdrawals, will collect money from the group and drive through Cincinnati's inner-city neighborhoods to purchase heroin.

Charlotte Wethington said her son's dealer was named "Sweets" and sold drugs from a lawn chair on Republic Street.

Cincinnati police do not keep statistics of suburban drug buyers, but neighborhood watch groups are keeping track by reading license plates, says Kathy Atkinson of the Walnut Hills Area Council.

Police have targeted the intersection of Clarion and Trimble avenues in Evanston for drug deals. Officers say the corner is favored by dealers and suburban buyers because of its proximity to Interstate 71, less than a mile away.

Dr. Mike Kalfas, medical director of the St. Luke Hospital Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Falmouth, says when he began working there in 1997, he saw only sporadic cases of heroin addiction. But in the past six months, he says, 160 adults have checked into the center with heroin addictions. Half were between 18 and 25.

He thinks the drug made inroads into Northern Kentucky because officials, from police to health-care workers, just were not looking for signs of heroin use.

"No one was thinking of heroin here," Kalfas says. "They thought: `You see heroin on Miami Vice, not Northern Kentucky.' "

E-mail jhannah@enquirer.com




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