Scott Sheldon was about to be arrested on burglary charges. He had totaled his car, and he was jobless and broke. A friend had recently died in Sheldon's bathtub under suspicious circumstances.
And these were the least of his problems. Sheldon, then 20, was a heroin addict.
Desperate to quit, to interrupt the chaos of mistakes that defined his life, he called the Howard County Health Department. "I'm addicted to heroin, and I need help," Sheldon told the county's answering machine. Then he called again. And again. And again.
He finally got help - at an expensive facility in New Jersey - but his odyssey illustrates how hard it can be to find help in Howard County.
For the past decade, heroin has steadily made its way from city to suburbs. But Howard County, which has the highest median income in the state, has failed to address the problem, officials say.
Compared with other counties in the metropolitan area, Howard is among the least equipped to offer drug treatment on demand - a must for addicts, whose window for seeking help is often small and fleeting. As the number of heroin users here rises, the county lacks basic treatment, such as detoxification and inpatient care.
"Especially in Columbia, which a lot of people envisioned as a utopia, heroin use is incongruous," said State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon. "It's kind of hard to rally support for."
Despite many parents' ignorance of the problem, investigators and addicts say heroin use is no longer unusual here. One 19-year-old girl spent $70,000 on heroin in a year. High school kids use ATM cards - provided by their parents - to buy drugs. Sheldon recalls making drug sales while waiting tables at a restaurant in Columbia.
Unlike addicts in Carroll, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, more than half of Howard residents seeking public services for heroin addiction must leave the county to find them.
Only 164 Howard County residents seeking treatment found it in the county last year, according to the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, while 212 went elsewhere.
That's what Sheldon did. He was one of the lucky ones - his family could afford to send him for five months to a $185-a-day private addiction treatment center in Blairstown, N.J.
To pay for it, Sheldon's mother had to sell her house. Two weeks ago, Sheldon was acquitted of various charges - including second-degree murder - in connection with the 1999 heroin overdose of Morgan Manca-Wells, 21, who lay dying in Sheldon's bathtub as paramedics knocked on the front door. Sheldon and a friend later abandoned Manca-Wells' body next to a Dumpster in Southwest Baltimore.
Problems in Howard
The trial unearthed a disturbing underside to the orderly homes and crisp lawns that exemplify Columbia: Heroin, a drug once associated with homeless junkies and hopeless prostitutes, is now the drug of choice for rising numbers of suburban, middle-class and upper middle-class youths here.
In 1994, 138 addicts sought treatment in Howard County, according to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. Five years later, there were 376.
Sheldon could be their poster child. Driving his parents' station wagon to make drug pickups in Baltimore, he sold to local kids - some of whom paid him using bank cards provided by their parents.
More young addicts
George Potter, one of two addiction intake workers at the Howard County Health Department, is seeing more young people coming in because of heroin abuse. Especially striking to him are the girls he describes as cheerleader types.
"These are angelic-looking little girls who look like they could be on the cover of Seventeen magazine," he said.
He said he is frustrated that he cannot provide them what is known as a continuum of care - from initial detoxification to inpatient treatment to long-term counseling.
Howard County has only certain pieces, such as counseling and referral.
"It's a problem of money," he said. "The citizens don't know this is something they should care about. They say, 'willpower, willpower, willpower.' We say, 'disease, disease, disease.' That's where we butt heads."
The county offers no drug detoxification program. It runs no in-patient treatment centers, no 28-day programs and no halfway houses. It has no free or low-cost methadone clinics and no hospital beds for addicts in distress.
And it provides no transportation to help addicts reach these services.
"It's really a matter of the community taking care of its own," said Frank McGloin, director of addictions for the county Health Department from 1976 until June. "We've been content to let our people struggle with finding a way to get these services."
McGloin blames public ignorance and apathy, which he said translates into minimal governmental initiative.
"People don't want services, because then we have to admit we have a significant problem," he said. "There's a lot of denial in Howard County."
While Carroll County launched an anti-heroin campaign in response to teen-age overdoses in 1998, McGloin watched in dismay as Howard County lost a $700,000 grant for a residential treatment program for female addicts and their children.
The 18-bed program was housed in motels, but when it came time to find a permanent location, potential neighbors balked, and the program died.
"Do we need more programs? The answer is probably yes. Who's going to pay for them? That's a harder question," said Michael Gimbel, director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse in Baltimore County, which also has seen a significant rise in heroin use among young people.
Now, for the first time, a group of criminal justice and drug prevention and treatment professionals is examining the scope of Howard County's drug problem and what services it lacks.
Funded by the Horizon Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy, Delta Project researchers plan to report to the county executive by year's end.
To teen-agers, heroin has slowly become more acceptable, even chic.
Daniel Cabrera, 22, smoked a lot of marijuana at Wilde Lake High School, he said last week, but he hung back as his close friend Morgan Manca-Wells got into other drugs.
"It has always been a big surprise to me that [heroin] has become cool," he said. "I remember I asked this one kid what he was up to, and he said he was going to Baltimore to get dope. I couldn't believe it. He said it like he was going to play video games or something."
Parents' bank accounts
Sgt. Mark Joyce of the Howard County police narcotics division pointed to a recent case involving a 19-year-old girl and her boyfriend who spent $70,000 of her father's money on heroin in one year. "They snort it or smoke it, and there's this misconception that they can't get addicted that way." he said.
Joyce, too, has found it difficult to raise parents' interest; at the Howard County Fair last month, he scrapped a drug presentation when no one showed up. (He said he even considered using karaoke to lure people to the tent.)
The modest official numbers do not help his case; for the first six months of this year, 12 people under age 18 have sought heroin treatment with the county.
But treatment numbers do not show the extent of drug use among young people.
Sheldon knows that as well as any researcher. "Drugs in Howard County are so rampant. In any high school, you can get marijuana, cocaine, heroin, crack, acid, Ecstasy," he said. "It amazes me how totally clueless adults are about it. Even at proms and homecoming dances, kids rent hotel rooms and do all kinds of drugs."
The youngest of four children, Sheldon said he grew up surrounded by people who loved him. All of his siblings went to college. He had to earn his spending money, but his parents gave him the family station wagon.
He was bright and had a particular interest in electronics; he was the kid who annoyed the family by taking the phone apart to see how it worked. But his grades did not reflect his intellect.
"I knew I was screwing up in school, and I knew I was capable of doing better," Sheldon said. "In Howard County, there's tons of kids not doing well in school. But the ideal you're brought up with is that you're supposed to get good grades and go to college and get a good job.
"So if you're not doing that, taking drugs provides a chance to give yourself this phony feeling that you're above the standards."
Sheldon says he never had a bad relationship with his parents, but neither they nor his siblings knew what he was up to.
His room, the former master bedroom, was set apart from the rest of the house, and he could have a dozen friends over without his parents knowing.
By age 16 he was buying and selling marijuana. "I got intro- duced to the corners here in Baltimore," said Sheldon, who now lives in a halfway house near Charles Village.
He learned which neighborhoods sell what, and at precisely what time.
At the height of his dealing he was sometimes transporting as much as 8 pounds of marijuana, hiding it behind the door panel of his station wagon.
He first tried hallucinogens at rave parties in Baltimore. Acid led to Ecstasy, which led to ketamine, a veterinary anesthetic - and eventually to heroin, which he first sniffed, then injected.
He met some people who manufactured acid in Pasadena and started to sell it - and "anything I could get my hands on," he said. "I was a businessman."
His clients were kids like himself - and richer. "Some kids from Centennial [High School], their parents fill their bank accounts with money and give them bank cards." he said.
During his junior year, he dropped out of Oakland Mills High School. To explain to his parents his new clothes, compact discs and stereo equipment, he held a series of jobs, usually in restaurants. As a daytime waiter at Friendly's, he would arrange for friends to come in, passing them drugs while they ate.
His surly attitude and late-night schedule caused Sheldon's mother to ask him to live elsewhere when he was 17, he said. After floundering a bit, he moved in with his father, on a cul-de-sac complete with communal basketball net.
As he got more involved with heroin, Sheldon said, his circle of friends narrowed to include only other heroin users.
By then, he had quit dealing. "My other friends would call every once in a while, just to see if I was alive," he said.
He saw his mother infrequently. Although she said they had argued about marijuana, heroin never entered her mind. His father worked long hours as a store manager, so he and Sheldon rarely crossed paths.
He did not know his son had gotten involved in burglaries, or that stolen goods were sometimes stored at his brick, split-foyer house with the pretty fan window on the front door.
Several months after Manca-Wells died, Sheldon - broke and sick - called the Howard County Health Department and left three or four messages on the machine of George Potter, a man so busy he sometimes seems unable to finish a sentence.
Potter offered acupuncture sessions to lessen the heroin cravings while he tried to place Sheldon in a nonmedical 28-day program in Montgomery County. But because of Sheldon's dental problems - a common ailment for heroin addicts - the treatment center refused to take him immediately and he gave up.
A couple of weeks later, he was arrested on burglary charges. He said he was able to sneak heroin into the Howard County Detention Center in his shoe but began to withdraw from the drug after several days.
Friends bailed him out.
On his release, Sheldon said, he finally told his father he needed help.
His sister found a strict, long-term treatment center in New Jersey, and a week later, Sheldon was checked in.
Now, a year and a half later, Sheldon, 22, is clean and studying to be a computer technician. He goes to therapy, has a steady girlfriend and sees his parents regularly.
"They never tell you in school how you can go about getting straightened out. All you ever hear about are the stereotypes - that drugs are bad and people who do them are bad. And that isolates those who use even more," he said.
Sheldon said he thinks that because there is no open drug market in Howard County, and because lives ruined by heroin are hidden from public view, suburban kids do not understand how dangerous drugs can be.
Asked if he looked back on the night of Manca-Wells' death with disbelief at his own behavior, Sheldon was philosophical.
"There are a thousand would-haves and could-haves from that night," he said. "But my whole life up to now has been like that. I can't change what's happened. All I can do is try to control what happens today."