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Heroin becomes drug of choice for teens

By Rich Cholodofsky and Richard Gazarik,
Sunday, April 30, 2006
 

Jamie Greene was a happy, well-behaved teenager from a good middle-class home. She was an A student with perfect attendance. She wanted to be a nurse and loved to ride horses.

Shortly after her 18th birthday, between her junior and senior years at Norwin High School, Greene tried heroin and quickly became addicted. Three years later, she was dead of an overdose.

"From the first day she snorted heroin, it robbed her of her life. It took a high-spirited, very pretty, outgoing, polite young woman and turned her into a dishrag," said Greene's mother, Diane Shields, of North Huntingdon.

"It robbed her brain from ever being normal again. It took her skin and turned it into scars. It turned her into a criminal. Spirituality, it robbed her of that."

Greene died in March 2005, leaving behind loving parents who repeatedly tried to wean her from the addiction and an infant daughter born into a world of drug abuse that left her addicted, too.

Heroin addiction among Westmoreland County teenagers has reached epidemic proportions, say police, judges, treatment specialists and educators.

Cheap and deadly

Heroin has become the drug of choice for teenagers in Westmoreland County.

Increasing numbers of teens are getting hooked on heroin because it's cheap -- as little as $10 a bag -- highly addictive and easy to use. Heroin used to be about 10 percent pure, requiring users to inject it. Because the heroin on the streets today has a purity as high as 90 percent, users can snort or smoke it.

They are as young as 14. A few are in the eighth grade; some are getting ready to graduate. Among them are class presidents, cheerleaders, athletes. Others are average students from good families. They have one thing in common.

They're junkies.

Since 2002, four teenagers have died of heroin overdoses in Westmoreland County, said Coroner Ken Bacha. The most recent was Jeremy Radziwon, 18, a senior at Hempfield Area High School, who overdosed on heroin last month.

No one knows exactly how many teens are using heroin because there is no way to track them. The state health department counts only the number of addicts entering treatment programs.

"There's no real way of knowing how many people have a heroin addiction in Westmoreland County," said health department spokesman Richard McGarvey.

Detective Tony Marcocci, the lead narcotics investigator for Westmoreland County, said heroin abuse among teens is at an all-time high. He believes there may be as many as a dozen students in rehabilitation from each of the county's 18 school districts.

Frank Salotti, regional director of Gateway Rehabilitation in Greensburg, said that at any given time there are six to 10 teenagers undergoing intensive treatment for heroin addiction.

"That's not reflective of the problem," he said. "We're all scratching our heads, because we know it's a more significant problem."

A teen in rehab was unusual a decade ago, he said.

"It wasn't until the end of the 1990s when I first put an adolescent, a 15-year-old, into a detox program," Salotti said. "Since then, it's risen."

"If we had a real handle on it, it would devastate us," said Dr. Thomas Whitten, who treats adult addicts at a clinic in Jeannette.

"We would be astonished to find out how really big the problem is. We don't have the vaguest idea. We're just scratching the surface. We're completely oblivious to how pandemic this really is."

Heroin hub

Law enforcement officials say the Latrobe-Derry area is the capital of heroin trade in the county.

Derry Police Chief Randy Glick said drug investigations have shown that teens from the Derry, Latrobe and Ligonier areas are making daily drives into Allegheny County to buy heroin, then returning and selling it to fellow junkies.

"You can set your clock by them," Glick said. "They'll leave 2, 3, 4 in the afternoon and are getting back at 6 or 7 in the evening."

Glick estimates there are about 50 teenage addicts in the borough and township.

"For adults, you can double or triple that number," Glick added.

Police say that while there are centers for the heroin trade in Westmoreland County, many teens drive to some Allegheny County communities -- Duquesne, Clairton, Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills, Pittsburgh's North Side -- to buy drugs.

Heroin shipments come to Western Pennsylvania from Philadelphia, where the small, heat-sealed plastic bags of white powder are stamped with logos containing names such as "Pure Hell," "Jackpot," "Brain Damage" and "2001." The logos create brand names that often reflect pop culture, such as musical styles and clothing lines.

The bags of heroin are sold in public places such as parking lots at shopping centers and convenience stores around the county.

The drug runs are fraught with danger.

Last year, Lucas Ellenberger, 19, of Mt. Pleasant Township, was found shot outside a convenience store in North Huntingdon after he and two friends drove to Duquesne to buy heroin, police said.

After a suspected heroin dealer fired on their car, striking Ellenberger in the back of the head, his friends abandoned him and the bullet-riddled car in North Huntingdon, police said. He later died at a hospital. The case remains unsolved.

'Get help or die'

Donna Kean, executive director of the St. Vincent College Prevention Projects, runs a drug education program in county schools.

Every school district along the Route 30 corridor from Ligonier to North Huntingdon Township has students using heroin, Kean said.

"Not one school district is exempt," Kean said.

Westmoreland County Juvenile Court Judge John Driscoll has seen a "significant number in usage by adolescents."

"I've had class presidents in high school who were users," Driscoll said. "We've had kids who looked great on paper, but their underlying life was in ruins."

Some juveniles have told Driscoll they started using heroin at 14.

Joseph Boggio, a juvenile probation officer for Westmoreland County, said at any given time about 10 teen heroin addicts are housed at the Juvenile Detention Center. His work with young heroin addicts has included cheerleaders, hockey players, wrestlers and academically successful students.

"Some realize if they don't get help with their heroin addiction, they're going to die," Boggio said. "Either get help or die. That's pretty dire."

Crime surge

The heroin problem has translated into other crimes.

"Ninety-five percent of our crimes against people, thefts, burglaries, thefts from motor vehicles, are all related to heroin use," said Glick, Derry's police chief.

His department recently investigated the break-ins of 18 vehicles in the borough and another seven in Derry Township. Two teens who were arrested told the chief they needed money to feed their heroin addictions.

District Judge Mark Bilik, of Derry Township, said he's handling more heroin-related crimes and sees more teenagers facing theft charges.

"I see a lot of cases," he said. "It's not so much being caught with heroin but crimes where kids are seeking money to pay for their heroin addiction."

Teens will steal anything that can be converted quickly into cash so they can buy heroin, Bilik said.

Guns are as good as cash, he said. He said teenagers have stolen guns from their parents to barter with dealers or to sell to gun dealers for cash.

Bilik also sees more parents turning in their children out of desperation because the teens are stealing from them to support a habit.

"Basically, it's parents having their kids arrested because they've been ripped off so many times," he said.

Not every parent follows through on prosecution. Bilik said their resolve evaporates when they see their son or daughter handcuffed and taken to the county jail.

"Anyone's a prospective user now," Bilik said. "Athletes. Cheerleaders. Anyone can get into heroin."

Bilik said many of the teenage heroin users once brought before him now are young adults -- and still addicted.

"These were bright, young kids that I just literally saw go down the tubes. You can't get off heroin like a lot of these other drugs. Heroin doesn't let you grow up," Bilik said.

"After 14 years, I've seen of lot of teenagers who are now adults. Their faces are caved in. Their eyes are darkened. They're pathological liars.

"Their families are so disgusted with them. The rest of the family takes on the addiction. This is the generation we're dealing with. Parents aren't proud of the fact they have a heroin addict in the family."

The end of hope

Greene was addicted through the end of high school; by that time, she also had graduated from snorting heroin to injecting it. She stole thousands of dollars from her parents. She tried to kick her habit through rehabilitation but failed. Even a pregnancy couldn't keep her sober.

Alyssa Diane, whom Greene said was fathered by her drug supplier, was born in August 2004. But Greene continued to use heroin. By December, she was using 20 bags a day. In six months, she spent about $20,000 on heroin, her mother estimated.

In January 2005, Greene again agreed to enter rehab. She was forced out after just 14 days when her state-supplied insurance ran out. She took off for Minnesota, then Texas.

She returned home in March.

After spending a night out with friends, Greene went home to her parents' house where her daughter was in the care of a baby-sitter. She went into the bathroom and injected herself with heroin.

Thirty minutes later, she was dead.

"If Jamie could come back to me today, I'd be here for her. If I had to go to the ends of the earth to help her, I would. Once they overdose and die, all your hopes are gone," Shields said.

Schools face problem

The statistics don't account for the students who haven't been caught.

Shields said her daughter fell in that category. Once she fell into the grips of heroin she started missing school for the first time. Her grades dropped, and she hung out with a different group of friends.

School district officials disagree on the extent of the heroin problem. While some discussed the problem candidly, others did not respond to requests for comment.

Principals at Hempfield Area and Greensburg Salem high schools are candid about teen heroin use.

"The problem is pretty severe," said Lisa Mason, principal at Greensburg Salem High School. "We try to educate everybody -- parents, teachers, students, but heroin is so addictive.

"It's as dire as can be. When you have a number of young people dying in a community, it is pretty much a problem."

Hempfield Principal Kathy Charlton said heroin is a growing problem in her school.

After student Jeremy Radziwon's overdose death last month after he returned from a heroin-buying trip to Allegheny County, Charlton quickly reached out to other students she suspected of using heroin.

"I talked to a number of his friends, and most denied they used," Charlton said. "I was pretty frank with them about what happened. I hoped it was an opportunity to make an impact, and I tried to impress upon them that this can happen to you."

Kean worries about how little fear teen users show, especially after one of their peers dies from an overdose.

"The fear level of is these kids is so different than from kids 20 to 30 years ago," she said. "They don't have that fear. You go to these funerals and see these young people, and it doesn't even faze them. They know exactly what happened."

Vince Aiello, superintendent of Jeannette City Schools, said heroin addiction is more a problem for wealthier school districts. Jeannette is a former industrial center for glass-making that has fallen on hard financial times as plants closed.

"Nothing would surprise me," Aiello said. "I've been in this business for a long time. I don't disagree with what's being said. Wealthier school districts, that's really where the money is. If those wealthier districts say they don't have a problem, they're kidding themselves."

Additional Information:

Details

Heroin facts

  • 3.1 million Americans age 12 or older tried heroin in 2004.

  • 398,000 Americans said they used heroin in 2003.

  • 1.5 percent of eighth, 10th and 12th graders reported lifetime use of heroin.

    Source: 2004 survey by the National Institute of Drug Abuse

  • 3.3 percent of students in the U.S. in 2003 tried heroin at least once.

    Source: Centers for Disease Control, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

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