August 21, 2005
RALPH E. "Casey" Kloetzli died in an alley behind an abandoned house on a
short side street I had neither heard of nor visited in my 27 years in
Baltimore. Until two weeks ago, he had lived a tormented life in the "other
Baltimore," the subculture of addiction and distress that so many of us know
only from a distance.
Members of Kloetzli's family ran Werner's, the landmark downtown restaurant. A few years ago, in an effort to make households of Carroll County safer, Kloetzli's mother staged a successful Beanie Baby-for-guns swap at her Route 140 toy store, and received quite a bit of attention for it.
But I knew none of this until the other day.
Casey Kloetzli's life -- 41 years, at least half of them scarred by mental illness and drug addiction -- transpired in the "other Baltimore," without public exposure but with a ton of private pain. Such is the story of thousands of families in our city and its suburbs. So I come into this story too late.
"You've got to do a story," his mother said Aug. 12, her voice melting into sobs on the telephone. "The state trooper showed up at my door this morning. My son OD'd downtown; I'm out in Westminster. I begged the hospital to put him in [residential treatment]. ... I need to change the system. It's broken."
Long story, condensed for the purposes of a newspaper column: A boy grows up in a suburb of Baltimore, attends the public schools. The rabbi at his bar mitzvah remembers him as a "cute, spunky, spirited" boy. His parents divorce when he's 14. As a teenager, he experiments with drugs, and by the time he's in his 20s, it's clear that he suffers from depression. To relieve his pain, he experiments with heroin and becomes addicted; he starts living on the fringes, selling dope, abusing painkilling medication. He goes into the Baltimore County Detention Center on a drug charge. At another point, he's employed stringing tennis rackets, engaged in bodybuilding and living with roommates in a townhouse. Then he slides deeper into addiction and moves into a house in Hampden. Then he manages to purge the heroin from his body. But he continues to abuse painkillers.
His mother, Sydney Shure, is the source of most of this information, but even she has a hard time filling in all the gaps and providing an exact chronology. There were long periods when Kloetzli was fully out of his family's loop.
The rabbi who eulogized him last week, Mark Loeb of Beth El Congregation, recalled meeting Kloetzli several years ago outside a downtown cafe. "He told me quite honestly of some of the problems that he had been dealing with, and I felt a sinking feeling in my heart," Loeb said. "I asked him to call me if I could be of help. We said goodbye. Not to my surprise, he did not call, probably due to embarrassment."
Embarrassment was a huge issue with Kloetzli, says his mother, who believes one of the prescribed medications he took contributed to her son's striking weight gains.
Shure has been a businesswoman for a long time, and these days you can find her behind the counter of a bright, fun store called Toys Etc. Ideas Etc. Ltd. in Westminster.
It was in this store that her son overdosed from painkillers in July. He was admitted to Carroll Hospital Center. That, says Shure, was Casey Kloetzli's fourth hospitalization this year -- three of them related in some way to his addictions, one after an attempted suicide.
For a time this year, he had moved into his mother's unit in an apartment complex for senior citizens in Westminster, and he seemed to be doing well. But they both knew Kloetzli could not stay there for long.
What this man really needed was something still not readily attainable for the uninsured or underinsured -- intensive treatment in a residential drug rehabilitation center. Kloetzli was ready for it, his mother says, but he didn't get it. As her son's last hospital stay was coming to an end, Shure says, "I begged [doctors and hospital officials] to send him to Shoemaker [rehabilitation center in Sykesville]. I told them if they let him out of the hospital, he was going downtown."
He did exactly that. His mother picked Kloetzli up from the hospital at 2 p.m. Aug. 8. By 5 p.m. that day he was in a cab and headed for a house near 25th Street in Baltimore. He paid $65 for the cab ride. Somehow, he ended up in the alley behind the 600 block of Gutman Ave., a side street lined with abandoned rowhouses. By 11:25 a.m. the next day, he was dead. Police found his body in the alley. They suspect a drug overdose, but the cause of death is still listed as pending.
Shure insists that her son was at risk when he left the hospital and should not have been released without an arrangement for residential treatment.
The hospital, pointing to patient confidentiality laws, would not comment on the Kloetzli case but said this in a prepared statement: "At Carroll Hospital Center's Behavioral Health Unit, treatment is always individualized to meet the unique healthcare needs of the patient. After comprehensive inpatient evaluation and therapeutic treatment, every patient is discharged with a detailed after-care plan that is developed with the patient and his or her family, as appropriate. ... We extend our sincere sympathy to the Kloetzli family."
Should Casey Kloetzli have been ordered to residential treatment? Given the track record of the last six months of his life, it seems clear that that's what he needed. Would he have gone there willingly? His mother says he would have. The $65 he paid to a cabdriver indicates otherwise.
I'm not a board-certified psychiatrist, but I know this much: When treatment is not available on demand, some addicts quickly lose their desire to get well. And they relapse. And they go out looking for something to take away the pain.
Casey Kloetzli was looking for something in the alley behind Gutman Avenue.
"We all know that life is often anything but fair," Rabbi Loeb said at the graveside last Sunday. "For Casey, it was not fair at all. He deserved better from life, and we all grieve that he only knew its cruelty. The tragedy of his death is an inexplicable reality, and there is no comfort to wipe away our tears. A young man and a good but troubled soul deserved so much more. May God now take him under his wing."
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