Heroin deaths among young puzzle affluent Plano Apex of suburbia has seen 11 fatal overdoses since '96


PLANO, Texas -- This is a great place to raise children. Except when they die. The golden buckle of the Sun Belt, its subdivisions and business parks swelling with white-collar migrants, Plano is by almost every measure the apex of educated suburbia -- clean streets, big houses, 113 lighted ball fields.

With just two or three murders annually, this Dallas-area boom town of nearly 200,000 is Texas' safest city -- and one of America's Top 10. The Children's Environmental Index calls it the nation's fourth most child-friendly community, based on socioeconomic data such as dropout rates and household incomes. Its high school boasts an Academic Decathlon championship, a prize that earned the team a White House visit with President Clinton.

Then there is this measure: 11 young people dead of heroin overdoses since last year.

Almost all of them were students, mostly popular, athletic and affluent -- "nice, preppie, middle-class children," in the words of one drug abuse expert. They ranged in age from 15 to 22, a football player, a philosophy major, a former altar boy, a Marine home for the holidays. Four died last year, seven so far this year. And still the emergency room at Columbia Medical Center reports an average of three to five overdoses a week -- unconscious, vomit-stained teen-agers, often dumped at the hospital doors by friends in brand-new Wranglers and Range Rovers and Expeditions.

One now lies in a coma, his family searching for some sign of life to keep him from becoming No. 12.

"How's this for a clean-cut, all-American-looking young man?" said Lowell Hill, pulling out a wallet-size photo of his blond-haired, square-jawed son, Robert, a 1997 graduate of Plano East Senior High.

On Aug. 20, he found Rob slumped over in bed. When doctors pronounced him dead of an overdose -- at the same hospital that welcomed him into the world 18 years earlier -- his father was incredulous.

"How do you know?" the former life insurance executive asked.

"He was a happy boy," said his mother, Andrea, a special-education teacher. "The last thing on my mind was to talk to my son about heroin."

The culprit, which has enjoyed a startling resurgence from the depths of the 1960s to the heights of trendiness in the 1990s, is widely available in Plano and conveniently packaged -- usually in antihistamine capsules that can be broken open and snorted, avoiding the stigma of needles and syringes. Sold for $10 to $20 a hit, the powder is marketed here under heroin's Spanish nickname "chiva," which to Plano's predominantly white youths sounds a lot more like a designer drug than old-fashioned smack.

"I didn't even know what it was the first time I tried it, but I liked it and I wasn't really interested in finding out," said Donald Jason Smith, 19, a recovering addict who has spent the past five months in county jail for heroin possession.

He described himself as someone with "good morals" who was "brought up not to do drugs." But once you cross that line, no matter how naively, "the drug grabs ahold of you and doesn't let go," Smith said.

"I've taken friends to the hospital after they've overdosed and then gone right back to where we were and kept on using."

What makes the tally in Plano so troubling is not just that this is a bastion of privilege, although that undoubtedly has helped propel it into the news. What so rattles Plano is that it already has been through an epidemic like this, making headlines in the early 1980s when eight teen-agers committed suicide, and a dozen others attempted it, in one nine-month spurt.

In two decades, Plano has gone from a quiet hamlet of 3,000 nestled in the cotton and soya fields 20 miles north of Dallas to a high-achieving bedroom community of 100,000, its growth fueled by Eastern professionals chasing the Southwest's newfound prosperity.

"If you drive through Plano, there are miles upon miles of huge, brand-new houses -- enormous houses, 12 feet apart -- and there's nobody there all day long," said Sabina Stern, coordinator for the Collin County Substance Abuse Program, a local referral agency.

"Dad works. Mom works. Long hours," she said. "Frequently one TC of them travels. Nobody eats dinner together any more. When do they talk? In the car? While they're chauffeuring their kids from one activity to another, from school to ballet to soccer? It's insane."

Many of Plano's young addicts were given their own $20,000 cars as soon as they turned 16. Some have credit cards and $100-a-week allowances. "A lot of the parents have said that they saw no sign of drugs," added Stern, who starts every day by scanning the obituaries. "You don't want to be cruel. But sometimes you wonder how hard they looked."

Pub Date: 12/01/97

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