One year ago yesterday, a Westminster father found his 15-year-old son at home in bed, dead of a heroin overdose. Carroll County hasn't been the same since.
In the wake of that tragedy, police, prosecutors and politicians joined concerned parents, students, teachers and substance abuse professionals to forge an anti-drug coalition.
The cooperative effort led to significant changes, including: The formation of Residents Attacking Drugs (RAD), a grass-roots citizens group dedicated to public awareness and prevention.
"Public awareness is the major accomplishment in the last year," says Linda Auerback, a Westminster mother who rallied those who would become the charter members of RAD.
The institution of the "Heroin Kills" program, using billboards, bumper stickers and 40,000 refrigerator magnets carried home by students to spread the message.
The introduction of Reality Program, offering young first-time offenders the choice of avoiding juvenile prosecution by voluntarily enrolling and receiving an in-your-face look at the perils of substance abuse, its effect on community and family, and the finality of death.
Public forums were used to explain and carry out a four-prong attack -- education, prevention, treatment and law enforcement.
State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes used grant money to hire George Butler as a special investigator for drug prosecutions. Butler, a former state trooper, also has gone into county classrooms to warn students about drug abuse.
The changes afford small consolation for Michael O'Hara, whose son, Liam, a sophomore at Westminster High, bought the lethal dose of heroin on the parking lot of a popular fast-food restaurant, went home and later used it.
Nor is it a comfort to four other county families who lost sons to drug overdoses during the first nine months of 1998.
All but one were younger than 21, according to the Maryland Drug Early Warning System, an initiative of the Cabinet Council on Criminal and Juvenile Justice chaired by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and supported by a grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
Three died in the county and two died outside the county, but Liam O'Hara's death came first and has had a high-profile impact.
"Education and awareness are the most important tools we can use to reach children and teen-agers about heroin use and abuse and its lethal qualities," Barnes said.
The RAD group marched on Barnes' office in late January last year, upset that school officials were unable to prevent those who had sold the heroin to O'Hara from returning to class while being investigated by juvenile authorities because no offenses occurred on school property.
Rather than ducking the issue -- Barnes could not dictate school policy -- Barnes enlisted state and local police to join him in taking advantage of community concern, helping channel that concern into positive action.
Still, officials at Carroll County General Hospital reported a monthly average of 13 drug overdoses in 1998.
In 1996, six patients were treated for overdoses at the hospital.
The pattern surprises Sgt. Mike College, a county resident and parent who heads the state police drug task force in Carroll County.
"From our perspective, we are seeing the same names over and over, meaning many of the addicts are continuing to use, but it could be that there are fewer new users," College said.
"We can only hope that the education campaigns and active community support are paying off," he said. "We've often said you can't arrest this problem away."
College praised the efforts of Mike O'Hara and Shirley Andrews, who also lost a son to an overdose. Both have helped spread the anti-drug message by speaking at public forums.
College warned, however, that signs of improvement should not lead county residents to begin thinking the war on drugs has been won. He said signs do indicate "we may be maintaining [the battle] and that means we're making headway."
Barnes believes the combination of education and prevention will work.
Meanwhile, he will continue aggressively prosecuting all drug cases, seeking enhanced penalties for repeat offenders, he said. His office is handling about 400 drug cases a year, 25 percent of which are felony cases, he said.
Barnes plans to continue cooperating with law enforcement in using police dogs to search for drugs in cars on high school parking lots. He said it is an effective deterrent.
More public forums are planned to keep drug awareness in the public eye, and Auerback is promoting a "Heroin Kills" video already in production.
"A funeral scene will be shot Sunday at Pritts Funeral Home in Westminster," she said.
The video is aimed at making an impact on middle school pupils, Auerback said. If the Board of Education approves it after a preview, the video may be used in the schools, she said.
O'Hara and Andrews will play themselves, as parents, and the video will depict an All-American boy who becomes addicted and dies of an overdose, Auerback said.
Pub Date: 1/10/99