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Faces of heroin: Kane County impacted by scourge of addiction

Turning pain of heroin loss into action for changeHeroin Hits Home: 8 photosVideo: Chris' Walk

Three days before her 28th birthday, Ruby Garcia lost her brother William Szczesny to heroin.

Instead of a birthday celebration, the family had a funeral.

“He got released from drug court and pretty shortly after that, he fell back into the drugs,” said Garcia, who grew up in St. Charles and now lives in Elmwood Park.

“Will had been out the night before and came home that morning,” Garcia recalled of Aug. 19, 2005. “He said he was tired and went to lie down.”

When her dad came home about 7:30 p.m., his 24-year-old son was dead from an overdose.

“He was on a waiting list for a bed at a rehab center. He knew he was downward spiraling again. He died on a Friday night. He had a counseling appointment set up the following Wednesday,” Garcia said. “It really is a disease. When he wanted to stop, he couldn’t.”

Heroin addiction and overdoses are not problems elsewhere: Law enforcement and prevention advocates say they are issues everywhere, including local communities like St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia and Elburn.

The Chicago metropolitan area, including Kane County, is grappling with what law enforcement and prevention advocates call an “epidemic” of heroin use. And it’s bringing devastation to individuals, families and communities.

The Kane County Coroner’s Office recorded 27 heroin overdose deaths in 2012, up from 11 in 2011, seven in 2010 and 10 in 2009. There have been 12 so far this year.

A 10-year analysis from 1998 to 2008 based on national data, including emergency department and jail monitoring programs, found that “the Chicago metropolitan area has one of the worst – if not the worst – heroin problems in the country,” according to researchers at Roosevelt University.

Among the statistics Roosevelt researchers studied were the 320 percent increase in public treatment admissions for heroin use in the Chicago metro area, from 4,150 admissions in 1998 to 17,411 in 2008.

Garcia said heroin is an equal-opportunity addiction, a truth that can be hard to accept in the highly educated and affluent local communities.

“The drug doesn’t care who you are, how much money you make, what family you come from,” Kane County Sheriff Perez said. “And we need to get people to understand, we can stop this – but it’s going to take an effort by all of us.”

In response to the growing crisis, Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation this month to create a task force to fight the increase of heroin use in Illinois.

It came too late for Garcia’s brother. She once asked Will what his addiction was like.

“’It’s like breathing,’” he responded. “’You just have to do it.’”

• • •

Stephanie Schmitz, associate director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, said heroin’s low cost is part of its allure. A bag of heroin in Chicago can be found for $10, she said.

A bag is a single dose, a fraction of a gram. As tolerance grows, more of the drug is needed to get that same initial effect.

Schmitz said more recent research points to a connection between prescription painkillers and heroin use: That heroin users first use painkillers, and when their supply is cut off, it results in an increase in heroin use.

“Young people who transition from pills to heroin said pills were not scary [because] it’s something a doctor gives you,” Schmitz said. “At some point, pills and heroin were the same thing, and heroin was not very scary.”

And so it was with Matt Salis, who developed a heroin habit at age 23 after years of using painkillers. In just eight to nine months, he lost his house, truck, fiancee and job, he said.

He said yes to heroin the third time he was offered it. He snorted it and liked it. It was a better high than Oxycontin, longer-lasting and cheaper. He started injecting it, and as his tolerance grew, so did his need – not to get high, just to not get sick.

Homeless and broke, Salis moved in with family members sharing a house in St. Charles. He stole his cousin’s guns to trade to his dealer for heroin. The cousin called police, and Salis was arrested, he said.

“The next day, I started feeling bad, but not as bad as I had anticipated,” Salis said. “It was kind of like ‘Scared Straight’ for me. It was the first time I’d been in jail.”

Salis graduated from the Kane County Drug Court last fall, a program for non-violent drug offenders that allows them to get treatment and get regular drug testing while holding charges until the program is completed.

The cousin who turned him in was at graduation, and they hugged.

• • •

Others don’t get the chance to start over. Such was the case when Michael Fairbanks of St. Charles died of an accidental heroin/cocaine overdose Feb. 26 at an Elburn home.

Fairbanks was Youth Leader of the Year in 2009 for his work with the Youth Outlook organization; he was in the National Honor Society, the honors French club and honors music classes. He graduated early in January 2012 from St. Charles East High School and was attending Elgin Community College.

His friend Paolo Mazza, now working in Florida, said Fairbanks stood against bullying, was president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and was involved in local theater.

“He was not afraid to stand up,” Mazza said. “If a teacher was saying something wrong or a student … he had the words not to get them mad but to get them to stop or change their mind. … He was a really good role model.”

But Mazza had no idea his friend was using heroin. Fairbanks’ family declined to be interviewed about his death.

Prevention advocates said that while Fairbanks’ accomplishments seemed to fly in the face of a heroin user, that’s not really the case.

“You can’t say it won’t happen to my kid. ... All families are at risk,” said Lea Minalga, founder of Hearts of Hope, a local advocacy nonprofit that provides resources and support for addicts and their families. Her son is a recovering heroin addict.

“Because of that underdeveloped teen brain, they are notorious for making choices that are not right,” Minalga said. “Heroin is available; it’s cheap, cheaper than alcohol and cheaper than pot. They know heroin is not good for them, but they also believe they would never get addicted.”

There are those who beat the addiction, like Salis. Now 28, he works as a cook. He volunteers with youth at Big Life Community Church, a non-denominational Christian church that rents space at various Oswego schools.

“They can relate when I tell them that I had this battle with addiction. It gives them hope and encouragement,” Salis said. 

When the church rented space in a school with a swimming pool, a baptism was held, and Salis was re-baptized as an adult.

It was held the Sunday before Thanksgiving last year — four years to the day since the last time Salis said he put a needle in his arm. He took it as a sign of God’s redemptive power.

“It was no accident,” Salis said. “I didn’t pick the day.”

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