VOA-TV's "This Week" program looks at the drug war through the eyes of three parents who are fighting the battle inside their own homes; it's about children and heroin. It’s the war on the home front. Betty Van Etten takes us there.
Heroin Brings Tragedy to Small Community
Carroll County, Maryland. Just over 150,000 people call this area near Baltimore home. It is a mix of main street charm and economic growth, and where, not far from its main highway, its rural heritage is still evident.
But Carroll County has seen its serenity shattered by heroin.
Scott Payne, Kristi Ziemski and Liam O'Hara all tried heroin. Two would die from it. The third would struggle for years with addiction and end up in prison for murder.
They are casualties in the drug war and in a way, they could be anyone's children.
"Just a cute little boy that loved life [and] would do anything," remembers Scott Payne's mother Shirley Andrews. "He played soccer [football] at that time, he played in a band and he just had so much joy in him. Everything was a joke, and he was jovial, and everything was just fun."
And as he grew up, Ms. Andrews says her son Scott was a typical teenager. But along the way, his behavior began to change. "He became very, very depressed, extremely depressed, lacked motivation to do anything with the family," she recalls. "He kind of withdrew within himself. I took him to see a counselor. He was seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed an antidepressant for him. So those were the kind of things I was seeing and trying to doing everything I could.”
When the counseling and medication didn't seem to help, Ms. Andrews asked to have Scott screened for drugs. "At the time the psychiatrist just felt that I was just probably barking up a tree here and he really didn't think Scott was doing anything more than experimenting. So that kind of relieved me for a little bit. But then the second or third drug screen was positive for opiates and cocaine," she says.
Ms. Andrews says her insurance company authorized 48 hours of drug treatment in a hospital for Scott, followed by intensive outpatient treatments. "I kept saying to them - because even throughout the treatment we were getting positive [drug tests], 'are you sure this is enough? I think we really need to do more. I think he needs inpatient more'," Ms. Andrews says. "But they kept reassuring me that this was all that usually adolescents got the first time they were using drugs, would be just an intensive outpatient program. They thought he's really making great progress, he's really doing well according to what their schedule was.'
Eight weeks after he started the outpatient treatment and two weeks shy of his 17th birthday, Scott Payne was dead from a heroin overdose.
"I remember very vividly the day before he died," said his mother. "And it was kinda like as we were driving in the car, Scott began sharing his hopes and plans for his future. A lot of his friends that were seniors were graduating from high school and they were going through their senior week and he was kinda looking ahead to his own senior week and planning for graduation the following year. And I remember him saying in the car, 'You know, Mom, when I graduate off that stage, I'm gonna shout, We did it!' And I said, 'Yes Scott, that will be a we, won't it?"
Later that evening, Shirley Andrews dropped Scott off at this church for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and then they joined relatives for dinner. "And I can remember over the dinner table thinking how tired Scott looked," his mother says, "and actually he almost nodded off at the dinner table."
"But once we got home, he seemed to pull around again and seemed to be okay. And he needed to get a urine specimen for a drug screen he wasn’t able to get that afternoon," says Ms. Andrews. "And he brings the container out from the powder room and he puts in on the kitchen counter and he looks at me and says, 'Now do you love me?' And I looked at him and said 'Scott, I want you to know I love you no matter what this shows.'"
"And unfortunately that was the last time I got to tell my son I loved him," she says. "Because he kissed me goodnight and went up to bed and the next morning is when I went up to wake him and I found his dead, still, lifeless body. So its kinda like in less than 24 hours all the dreams that he shared with me became memories of his life.”
The death of her friend Scott Payne in June 1996 was the impetus for Kristi Ziemski to go into her first drug rehab program. According her father, Kristi had been a child full of adventure who had spent her early years in ballet, the Girl Scouts, and family activities. In an interview with The Washington Post, Kristi said she first tried heroin when she was 14. Though she was not aware what it was when some boys gave it to her to try. From that point on, Kristi's life and her family's would never be the same.
"I was always the disciplinarian of the two parents," says Kristi's father, Lee Ziemski. "Mom was the loving mom. At first, we confronted her together, mom and dad, saying 'Hey, what’s going on?' I, the dad, suspected earlier that it was drugs. Mom would not accept [that] for a while, for about a year. That's called enabling; you make your own excuses for your child's behavior."
"Maybe [the clothes] she got for Christmas would not be in her room anymore. When we would inquire about what happened to those things, well, she had loaned them to a friend and the friend hadn't returned them," remembers Mr. Ziemski. "In hindsight, or the truth was, she was selling the stuff. The [compact discs], the normal teen has a CD, a tape player, and all that stuff, a lot of her tapes had been disappearing, a lot of our tapes, a lot of their tapes would be disappearing. When the [amplifier] disappeared, you really suspected something and you knew something was wrong. Just kinda crept up on you as a parent."
"What was it like for a family of a drug abuser? She turned into ... an absolutely different person," says Kristi's father. "You didn't know the person who she had become. It was constant turmoil in the household. You could never get the answer to yesterday's lie because today's lie was another conflict within the house and tomorrow's lie will lead to the next day's lie. It's just constant lying, cheating, stealing. She turned into a monster, a monster that there was no control of."
Liam O'Hara, according to his father, Michael, was creative, kindhearted, and at the same time wanted to be like no one else. In 1997, he was 15 years old.
"He was typical teenage boy," remembers Liam's father. "His use of pot [marijuana] was so obvious, because like dirty socks, or toys or anything else, young boys tend to leave things laying around, and are not careful covering up their behaviors and things like that. So he was pretty easy to see and I would find that he had made some kind of pipe or I showed up one night and there was a bong in the house. So he really wasn't trying to hide, he was trying to be a little bit defiant with his claim to use pot. And of course it just meant we had to punish and take things away from him."
Like Shirley Andrews and Lee Ziemski, Michael O'Hara noticed a change in his child's behavior. He had Liam tested for drugs, the test came back negative. "Then the behaviors started changing again around October of his 15th year and I decided to take him back in immediately to have him evaluated," recalls Mr. O'Hara. "I took him in for that appointment and I really wanted just to get an assessment. 'Can you help me understand what is going on here cause I am not really sure what it is or if there is something different that I need to be aware of'." his father asked.
"At that time, of course, was the first time I became aware that you can't actually get the results of a test if you do drug test on your child if you don't have permission from the child," Liam's father says. "That was a major struggle for us. The results didn't come back at that time, at that meeting, but I did try to get a feel from the counselor if they could give me an indication of what might be going on with Liam. And the counselor at that time, said I don't have anything to worry about. And that was December 19 and by January 9 he was dead."
On that last night, Mr. O'Hara had picked Liam up from his job at a fast food restaurant. They played music and computer games together before heading to bed. "I started following him up because he was having trouble with his cable on his TV, so I adjusted that and told him I loved him and he said, 'Good night,' remembers Liam's father. "And after I said good night to him I guess he snorted the heroin. He snorted using a pen, the bottom part of a ballpoint pen, just has a little opening on it. I found that later, so he must have put the heroin on something and snorted it through this ink pen. It was only about $5 worth of street value of heroin, but it was so pure, that it just killed him."
Throughout the latter part of 1997, Lee Ziemski believes Kristi stayed off heroin. But in 1998, she began using again. He says she tried outpatient therapy and suicide. Her addiction had torn Lee and Doris Ziemski's marriage apart.
"I think Mom didn't realize the strength of the drug, Kristi's father says. "Mom felt that love will endure and love will conquer this. 'Kristi I will hug you and it will go away.' In fact, I did the same I think for at least the first year. However, the power of drug is overwhelming, I can’t believe it."
"The addict will do whatever they have to do to get the drug," Mr. Ziemski says. "And to manipulate mom and dad becomes [the addict's] first priority. It's easily done for people who love you. So within the house it became a triangle, mom against dad, against Kristi and then, Kristi against mom and dad, the triangle of bad communication between the three of us."
In March 1999, Kristi called her mother from a Baltimore jail. She had been arrested for prostitution. "Doris and I had promised each other we would allow Kristi to find her bottom," recalls her father, Lee. "We had to allow Kristi to find her bottom, not save her again, not take her in. And that's very difficult as a parent. But Doris bailed Kristi out of jail. It was March 22. Kristi is living with mom, and detoxing with mom and I think Kristi decided to use again and Kristi and Mom got in a fight, the argument got larger and larger. It was a Sunday night, something happened. Something happened that Kristi got a knife."
According to the police report, Kristi stated she was high on heroin. She stabbed her mother once in the chest. As Doris Ziemski tried to leave, Kristi pushed her away from the front door. Doris fell. "And Kristi stabbed her, and stabbed her mother to death," said Mr. Ziemski.
Kristi Ziemski was convicted of murder. She is serving a life sentence in a prison near Carroll County. "What do we talk about?" says Lee Ziemski. "She needs her mom to talk girl stuff, I can't. I can't do that. It's not that I can't, I try."
The Parents Fight Back
How would any of us cope with such tragedy? Out of all of this came a grassroots organization to fight back in this drug war. It's called "RAD" - Residents Attacking Drugs.
When Scott Payne died in 1996 from a heroin overdose, it was considered an isolated incident and was not widely reported. But in 1997, there was another heroin-related death in Carroll County and more signs that heroin had made its way from the streets of nearby Baltimore to this landscape.
"At the tail end of 1997, we conducted an investigation where we found an individual from Baltimore distributing to a number of kids in Carroll County," said Michael College, who spent 20 years in narcotics law enforcement and undercover work with the Maryland State Police. "At that point, we realized how severe the problem was."
A press conference in November of 1997 let residents know about heroin coming into the county. Shirley Andrews spoke of her son Scott's death. But according to Mr. College the response from the community was minimal. "Two months later, we lost Liam O'Hara, 15-year-old boy that died of a heroin overdose of heroin. That is what got everybody angry," Mr. College says.
“The community was in shock, everybody was talking about it," remembers Linda Auerback who's daughter was one of Liam’s friends. "How could this happen out here?”
And the outrage intensified, according to Liam’s father, because two of the three alleged drug dealers were students who returned to school. “The kids who were arrested were released immediately and were back in school and they were ridiculing Liam’s friends as if this was a big funny thing,” says Michael O'Hara.
“My daughter had come home crying saying the day after Liam’s death how they were making fun at school, ‘Did you have a good weekend?’ knowing that they sold the drugs to the boy who had died,” says Linda Auerback.
“There was a lot of tension in school the very next day and it created a lot of anxiety on the part of the parents too and that’s really, part of the birth of RAD was based on just the absolute anger with how this could possibly be,” says Mr. O'Hara.
RAD, which stands for Residents Attacking Drugs, began to take shape under the leadership of Linda Auerback. She organized a protest at the State’s Attorney’s office. Parents and children were angry that the alleged drug dealers were allowed back in school.
“He actually challenged us," recalls Ms. Auerback. "He said to form a committee and he would meet with us in one week. Well, we took the challenge and the outcome was, instead of a group of angry parents, we became a group of productive activists."
RAD gathered signatures to lobby for a state law that would allow the superintendent of schools to be notified if a student were arrested for the distribution of drugs. The principal of the school could then decide if the student should return to school. The law passed.
RAD continues its public awareness campaign at county events. And through talks in the community about drug use.
To reach more kids and parents RAD made an educational video, Heroin Kills.
Lee Ziemski was the video's cameraman. At the time, his daughter Kristi was struggling with heroin addiction.
"Right before we went to final editing," recalls Ms. Auerback, "I got a telephone call at 12:30 am. And I was told something horrible had happened. At first I thought it was that Kristi had overdosed, and in reality it was that Doris was dead and they suspected that Kristi had done it."
Kristi had killed her mother Doris Ziemski.
"This inspired me so much to quickly, as quick as possible," says Kristi's father, "get the word out to other parents and other young adults to stop drugs 'look what has happened not only in my family, look what has happened in this movie.' Maybe it would affect them in some way, in a positive way."
"When the film was finished a month later," says Ms. Auerback, "people wanted to come see it whether it was for curiosity purposes or whether it was because they were truly afraid then. After we showed it publicly for the first time, the Maryland State Police had told me they had five parents contact them to tell them about their kids doing drugs and that had never happened before."
Lee Ziemski often speaks to audiences after the video is shown. "Does anyone know my story," he asks a group who's just seen the video. "Are familiar with my story? A little bit, some? Okay. I have a daughter who is- was an addict. I think once you're an addict you're always an addict. Their moral, their corruption, their stealing, their lies, their deceit get lower and lower. It will not matter to them. I think she would have sold me if she could of, or mom, to get the drug, just that desperate."
Like Mr. Ziemski, Michael O'Hara and Shirley Andrews find their work with RAD has given meaning to their tragedies.
Linda Auerback reads a letter from a Canadian woman whose son was involved in drugs and saw the Heroin Kills video at school. "Yesterday was like a miracle," the letter reads. "He came home from school early. He usually comes home in the late hours. He walked in and he hugged me. He talked about the video and he could see his dad and I standing at the casket. But it was the stories of the parents who lost their kids and pictures that got to him. Right now I am writing this crying. My son stayed home last night and talked all night. We are going to get him help."
"And I still cry every time I read this even though," says Ms. Auerback. "I have read it probably 100 times, cause I know it is working."
RAD hopes to reach even more children and parents with a music video version of Heroin Kills.