Heroin battle draws spotlight; Local campaign against drug gains national exposure


The symbol of Carroll County's war on drugs -- a toe tag on a body -- is everywhere.

The toe tag reads "Heroin Kills" and appears on 10,000 bumper stickers, 30,000 refrigerator magnets and up to five billboards along county highways.

"Heroin Kills" is also a Web site; thousands of litter bags read "Heroin Kills"; and the graphic movie "Heroin Kills" is playing in Carroll County's eighth-grade classrooms and at schools and community forums throughout the state.

Three-thousand drug awareness booklets with the "Heroin Kills" logo are being distributed this year to schoolchildren and community groups.

Now -- almost two years into an anti-drug campaign that started with the heroin overdose death of a Westminster teen-ager -- Carroll's drug problem is pushing the rural county into the national spotlight.

A television network has broadcast a program about the effort and another is planning one, and a White House staffer has informally endorsed the campaign.

"These kinds of efforts from communities are the sorts of things that are going to turn this heroin problem around," said Joseph Peters, an aide with the White House Office on National Drug Policy, who came to a Westminster school during the summer to watch the film and listen to reactions.

The ABC News program "20-20" has sent film crews to Carroll County to interview drug counselors, addicts, teen-agers, parents and law enforcement officials. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey broadcast an interview last month with Michael O'Hara, a federal employee from Westminster whose son's death sparked the campaign.

Community activists and police say the focus on Carroll County should help combat a problem that began sweeping through Maryland's suburbs a few years ago. It is better to publicize the problem than deny it, they say.

"You can put your head in the sand and ignore it, or aggressively attack the problem, and that's what this community is doing," said state police Sgt. Michael College, supervisor of the drug task force at the Westminster barracks.

College said heroin is appealing to more middle-class youths because it is cheap, easy to get and potent enough to be snorted -- not injected with a needle.

"Once these kids get hooked, the things that they're willing to do to support their habit, the break-ins and thefts and prostitution, are things I hadn't seen with other drugs," said College, a drug investigator for more than 20 years.

Lynne Asher said she danced on the Block in Baltimore, shoplifted and lived on the streets to support the heroin habit that she developed as a student at Francis Scott Key High School in Uniontown.

"Heroin's a street drug. You risk your life and limb to get it, you'll do just about anything for it, and, man, it's all over the place," said Asher, 20, who left her parents' Westminster home two years ago and lives in Baltimore.

Addiction rooted in boredom

Asher, who is in recovery, said she turned to drugs in high school for the reason often mentioned by other recovering addicts: boredom.

"Unless you're into extracurricular activities, like sports, or you're a real bookworm, there's not a lot to occupy a kid's time," she said.

Numbers show that heroin has made inroads in Carroll and other suburban counties.

Carroll County had nine heroin deaths from January 1996 through June of this year. Baltimore County reported 94 heroin-related deaths for the same period; Anne Arundel had 41; Harford had 16; and Howard had 12, according to figures from the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research.

Since 1990, the number of heroin users in treatment has more than doubled in Carroll and has increased by more than 40 percent in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Harford County also has been hard hit. The number of heroin patients admitted to Harford hospitals has increased steadily, jumping from 89 in 1992 to 291 last year.

"The fact is that it's no worse here than a lot of other places in Maryland," said Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes.

Eric Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research, said that although Carroll's numbers are low, surveys show more county youths are getting hooked on heroin.

"The thing to keep in mind is that if you know even one child in your school who died of a heroin overdose, that's a heroin epidemic to you," Wish said.

In Carroll County -- a middle-class enclave where drug arrests and drug fatalities make headlines -- a number of the victims have been young.

Of the nine heroin deaths since 1996, two were teen-agers, one was 20 and one was 21, according to the state medical examiner's office.

The victims' ages, together with the county's small-town atmosphere, have created a siege mentality about heroin.

"It almost seems like we've just been infiltrated by heroin," said Linda Auerback, a mother of four whose daughter dated Michael O'Hara's 15-year-old son, Liam.

Barnes said he responded by working with police on several major drug busts, trying to lock up drug dealers, designing the "Heroin Kills" logo and contributing $2,800 to the campaign.

The bumper stickers, billboards and other materials have cost about $15,000; most of that money has come from individuals, businesses and civic groups, he said.

When the defendants charged with selling Liam O'Hara the heroin that killed him were released last year, Auerback was so angry that she organized a group of 50 people to confront Barnes in his office.

After the confrontation, she and some friends formed a nonprofit group, Residents Attacking Drugs, held a concert to raise funds and used the $7,000 they raised to make a 35-minute film.

'Killing our kids'

Auerback said she wanted to make a movie that would scare kids away from heroin because she knew about a dozen people whose lives have been ravaged by it. "It's killing our kids, and it's shattering people's lives," she said.

One is Lee Ziemski, a retired broadcast engineer whose heroin-addicted daughter, Kristi Lynn Ziemski, killed his estranged wife while he was filming the movie.

Kristi Lynn Ziemski, 20, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced Nov. 1 in Carroll County Circuit Court to life in prison.

Ziemski, who spent 22 years with Maryland Public Television, said his daughter's heroin habit broke up his marriage because he and his wife couldn't cope with the repeated thefts and lies that become part of life for heroin addicts. "Heroin is like a fire in your house that you can't put out," he said.

Ziemski, Auerback's former neighbor, offered to help her with the movie -- long before his wife was killed -- because he had hoped his daughter would join him as a volunteer in the "Heroin Kills" campaign.

"The movie was something I felt that I should get involved in," Ziemski said.

Auerback also showed a talent for recruiting others.

She persuaded her sister-in-law, Sharon Weaver, who had experience in community theater, to write and direct the movie.

She asked Bobby Hird, a high school classmate and a member of the popular '70s rock band Crack the Sky, to produce the music for it.

The result is a stark, painful-to-watch film about the addiction and death of Jonathan Miller, a fictional character who, like Liam O'Hara, is found dead in his bedroom by his father.

"It's scary," said Andrew Shaw, 12, a seventh-grader, after watching the movie at a Parent-Teacher Administration-sponsored gathering at Oklahoma Road Middle School.

Michael O'Hara, who near the end of the film discusses his son's death, often appears before community groups to emphasize the dangers of heroin.

"That story is my story. It's terribly painful to watch, but when I watch people as they watch the video, I can see that it's painful for them to watch as well, and that means it's hitting home," he said.

O'Hara's appearances, with the Oprah Winfrey interview, have made him an unlikely celebrity in Carroll County.

"I can't walk down Main Street in Westminster without someone recognizing me and coming up to me," said O'Hara, 45.

But he is convinced that his efforts and the "Heroin Kills" campaign will help save lives.

"I wouldn't be involved in all this if I didn't think it would help," O'Hara said. "One thing I've learned is that time is too precious."

About 1,200 copies of the film are circulating throughout the state, and it has been approved for use by 60 agencies, including PTAs, schools, drug awareness groups and the Maryland State Police. The video is available through the group's Web site: www.heroinkills.com.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad