Over the past five months, Angie and Larry Courtney of Augusta have learned more about heroin than they ever wanted to know. At four o’clock in the morning on Oct. 26, 2013 two police officers and a chaplain knocked on their door. Angie thought it was her son Max coming home in the early morning hours, and stayed in bed while Larry answered. Just minutes later their world was crushed when they were told Max was dead.
“I will never know if he was scared, if he was sorry, did he want his mama?” said Angie as she wiped tears from her eyes.
It is a drug problem that is being called an American epidemic and it has trickled its way down to Butler County, ripping apart families and claiming lives.
The recent tragic deaths of actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith from heroin overdoses have shined a spotlight on the drug’s increasing popularity and prevalence throughout the nation. Experts say there is no typical heroin user. They come from rich and poor neighborhoods, all levels of education, and can be young, middle-aged or old. The regular heroin addict isn’t the guy on the street anymore who’s homeless, it could be your child, your neighbor or your best friend.
“Phillip Seymour Hoffman had it all. He was an Academy Award winner, an Oscar winner,” said Angie. “He had been sober for years and yet it was still calling his name. It has a pull that is impossible to say no to.”
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 4.2 million Americans have tried heroin at least once during their lives, and 23 percent of individuals who use heroin become dependent. Experts say heroin is one of the most addictive drugs available, and one of the easiest on which to overdose.
Local police on the
frontlines in an
An undercover Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent assigned to Butler County said just five years ago heroin was a drug that wasn’t found here.
“I had seen marijuana and meth, but that has changed over the last three years. We are now making heroin arrests and undercover buys and have dealt with overdoses in Butler County. In every instance we tracked the source back to Wichita,” said the undercover DEA agent who can’t be identified because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of his work.
This is presenting a new challenge for the police who are on the frontlines, fighting a war against an enemy that shows no mercy.
“Occasionally it is frustrating to know that we can make a dent somewhere only to have another problem pop up, but that also helps motivate us,” said Sgt. Chad McClusky, with the Augusta Police Department.
McClusky and K-9 officer “Rico” are called all over the county to handle drug cases. He has seen firsthand what heroin does to people. He has been that officer who has made the middle of the night knock on the door.
“One of the worst part of our jobs is telling any family they have lost a loved one,” said McClusky. “We have some families who have known the path their loved one was on and knew that death would be the outcome if they did not get off the drug and we have had families who have no idea that their loved one is involved in the drug.”
And while McClusky and “Rico” will keep fighting this plague that has descended upon their community, the Drug Enforcement Agency says it is a war they have no chance of winning or even slowing anytime soon.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates Mexican heroin production increased by 600 percent between 2005 and 2009. The heroin is being pushed into the United States by the Sinaloa Cartel which is the largest and most sophisticated drug syndicate, not just in Mexico, but also the world. Federal officials think the black-tar variety the cartel produces comes across the border in south Texas and up Interstate 35 through Kansas, on its way to Minneapolis and the East Coast.
While the police officials are right in that the increase in supply may be causing some of the difficulty, there is another nationwide trend that may be a culprit as well. Studies show opioid abuse and addiction is skyrocketing with painkillers known to produce a similar high to heroin.
“It often starts with people taking prescription medication such as OxyContin. They switch over to heroin because it is easier and cheaper to buy,” said the undercover DEA agent.
Because of this, painkillers have become gateway drugs to heroin, and have caused an increase in heroin abuse nationwide and in Butler County.
Addiction experts from Washington University in St. Louis say there is another reason why there was a spike in heroin use around the middle of 2010 corrolating to the appearance of heroin in Butler County. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed the reformulation of OxyContin aimed at making it harder to crush and dissolve in water for a quick high, seems to have prompted many users to switch to heroin.
“The most unexpected, and probably detrimental, effect of the abuse-deterrent formulation was that it contributed to a huge surge in the use of heroin, which is like OxyContin in that it also is inhaled or injected,” said Dr. Theodore J. Cicero, principal investigator on the study. “We’re now seeing reports from across the country of large quantities of heroin appearing in suburbs and rural areas.”
That includes Butler County where Angie and Larry Courtney grieve for their son and look for answers to questions that may never come.
A mother’s anguish
“I just want to lay in bed and cry and scream, but I have three other children and I have grandchildren who need their granny,” said Angie. “How would my other kids feel if I quit living because I love Max so much?”
Angie said she didn’t even know Max was doing heroin until 11 months before his death. They were in Kansas City Christmas shopping with their youngest daughter when they received a call Max’s friend had died in their home of a heroin overdose.
“Max had tried to give him CPR. That was the first time we had ever heard of Max doing heroin,” said Angie. “He said he saw his best friend die and it broke his heart. Max told us he would never do heroin again. I have no idea how long he kept that promise to himself, but I don’t think it was long.”
Angie described her son as funny, loving and kind hearted. She said he made people laugh and people were drawn to him.
“One of Max’s friends said he didn’t even have to have money to do drugs because people wanted him around,” said Angie. “He was the favorite of his teachers and his friends’ parents. Everyone always say how polite and kind he was.”
Angie said the flood that destroyed their home, and many others in Augusta, in 1998 was the beginning of anxiety problems for Max.
“We literally left with the clothes on our backs and it was traumatic,” said Angie. “At that point I started getting letters from Max’s teachers saying he was sleeping in class. They attributed it to stress from the flood.”
This was hard for Angie because her son had always excelled in school. He scored in the 99 percentile in school assessment tests and even passed a college entrance exam in the seventh grade.
“In high school we put him in the alternative school thinking he would have more one-on-one help and that maybe they could spark an interest in him that the regular teachers could not,” said Angie. “What happened is he fell in with a group of kids who were doing drugs.”
At first it was marijuana. Then trouble with the police when Max stole a car from the school, took a joy ride, then left the car parked across the street from Larry and Angie’s house. He was sent to Kings Camp as punishment where he got his GED from Wichita Technical College at age 17. He ended up graduating a year ahead of his old classmates at Augusta, passing the test the first time he took it.
“Our thought process was tough love. We told him if he couldn’t be sober he couldn’t come to our house and he didn’t. He had friends who would let him sleep on the floor,” said Angie. “He would say that he would be over ‘tomorrow’ and never show up. We knew he was using because he was lying to us.”
Two months before Max died, Larry and Angie tried a new approach. They asked him to come home and let them help him, with no conditions attached. It meant giving up access to their grandson, whose mother didn’t want him to be around a drug addict, even the one who had father him. But while Max may have been clean for the first time in years, the demon was still on his back. Like many heroin addicts, Max couldn’t resist the call. This time was his last time. The autopsy report showed there was only one needle mark in Max’s arm.
“The detective told me that heroin users have to increase their dose every time they do the drug because their tolerance for it increases,” said Angie. “When a user stops for a while, then goes back, they have lost that tolerance for the higher dose and end up killing themselves.”
The police report shows Max wasn’t alone. There were at least four other people in the apartment, one of which went to the hospital. Still, it is estimated Max lay on a bedroom floor for hours before anyone called for help. The coroner’s report said he was cold to the touch and rigor mortis was setting in by the time the police arrived on the scene. Despite these facts, no one is charged in Max’s death, however there are drug charges pending in the case.
“It was like putting a gun to your head and hoping there are no bullets in it. Every time it was like Russian roulette and he did it anyway,” said Angie. “Not long before he died I took his face in my hands and I said ‘Max if you don’t stop this lifestyle you are going to die.’ I never dreamed it would be so soon.”