Prosecutor’s personal story illustrates heroin’s devastation
By Ed Nadolski
Editor in Chief
Nick was your typical Racine County teenager. He played sports and got respectable grades in high school. During the summer he displayed a joyous, sometimes reckless, abandon as a member of the Browns Lake Aquaducks water ski show team.
But as promising as Nick’s future was, he never made it to his 30th birthday.
He died the ignominious death of a heroin addict – by overdose, in a group home, just days out of a stint in jail for violating his probation – on March 2.
It was the end of a 12-year spiral that began with Nick smoking pot as a teen, escalated when he became addicted to painkillers following a motorcycle crash, and eventually ended in the grim-reaper-like grip of heroin.
And nothing – not even the fact that Nick’s aunt is Racine County’s Deputy District Attorney with access to resources to help him – could break that grip.
“In 19 years prosecuting drug cases, I’ve never seen anything as deadly as heroin,” Patricia Hanson, Nick’s aunt, told the parents, students and others gathered May 5 at Burlington High School for the Racine County Heroin Summit.
Hanson, whose emotional and sometimes tearful testimony thrust her into the painfully ironic position of being one of the county’s top law enforcement officials with a direct link to the county’s drug culture, said Nick’s story illustrates just how pervasive and powerful heroin is. (Nick’s last name is not used in this story at Hanson’s request out of respect for his parents).
After watching her aunt and uncle grapple with the pain of losing their promising son – first to lies, deception and crime; and then to an overdose – she came to the same frustrating conclusion that many effected by the collateral damage of heroin realize:
“There are no words you can say to someone who’s addicted to heroin that’s going to get them to change,” she said. “…Until they want to change themselves.”
But there was nothing – not even the alienation of his parents, the loss of his wife and separation from his son – strong enough to reel Nick back from heroin’s hold.
Life of an addict
The pivotal point in Nick’s addiction and his relationship with his family came in February 2013 about a year before his death, Hanson said last week in a telephone interview.
Because he had a car, Nick drove his dealer to Waukegan, Ill., to make a heroin pick up. While watching the transaction, Nick took some heroin from the dealer and tucked it in the cast he was wearing to repair a broken arm.
It didn’t take long for the dealer and his associates to notice the missing heroin and turn on Nick as the possible thief.
The dealer used Nick’s cell phone to call his father in an attempt to extort the money for the drugs from his family. They threatened to beat and kill Nick.
Nick’s parents were torn between their concern for their son and the knowledge that he’d lied so many times in the past to get heroin and get high.
Hanson, who was advising her aunt and uncle, had previously asked them to take a tough-love approach to Nick’s addiction.
“He was so manipulative that we weren’t sure if this was legitimate,” Hanson said, adding that it was quite possible the whole episode was made up by Nick in an elaborate scheme to get more drugs.
“I think he thought his dad would pay for it and he’d get the drugs and get away,” Hanson said.
As it turned out, the dealers were very serious. They beat Nick within an inch of his life and left him to die – heaping lingering guilt upon his parents and aunt in the process.
Hanson said Nick was found at 3 a.m. with a broken arm, broken ribs and a punctured lung. He ended up in intensive care and spent weeks in the hospital before being released to a group home – the same place he resided following a prior stint in jail for addiction-related crimes.
Eventually, Nick got caught stealing in the group home. His probation was revoked and he was sent back to jail from July 2013 until February 2014.
He was released the last week of the month and by March 2 he was dead at the age of 29.
Hanson said that even with her knowledge of and access to the criminal justice and rehabilitation systems, she was powerless to break the cycle of dependency that gripped Nick.
At least in this instance, the addiction to heroin was too strong – stronger than the love of good parents and a caring aunt with the tools needed to get help.
“(People with heroin addictions) are very crafty,” Hanson said. “I don’t think he knew anymore whether he was telling the truth or not. It was just a demon that he couldn’t overcome – even though he wanted to.”
Hanson said she has done her best to help Nick’s parents and those close to him understand that they did all they could.
“There is no magic wand to wave and change this outcome,” she said. “Everyone did everything they could and nothing else they may have done would change it.”
But, for his parents, the pain of Nick’s heroin addiction will linger, Hanson said.
“It’s day-to-day for them. There’s always a sense of guilt in parents and I don’t think it will go away.”