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Crime & Courts

DeKalb County officials take new approaches to curb heroin overdose deaths

Mourning mother encourages antidote, awareness programs

MALTA – Longtime friends Kurt Hudson and Geoffrey Seymore didn’t plan to buy heroin when they went clubbing in Rockford last September.

It was just like old times for the pair, who had known each other for about 13 years and even shared a DeKalb County Jail cell for about eight months, Seymore said. The pair bought a $10 bag of heroin near the club, ended up in DeKalb and had Hudson’s mother pick them up and drive them back to Malta early on Sept. 29.

“It just happened,” said Seymore, 41, of Rockford. “After some drinks and old times, it just happened. We never left the house with that being the intention.”

Hudson had been released from Shawnee Correctional Center two days before and had moved in with his mother, Brenda Jergens, in Malta. So the two men – both previous heroin users – headed to Hudson’s room to get high. Heroin gives users an euphoric rush capped with falling asleep when you’ve done “too much,” Seymore said.

Seymore emerged from his high when he heard Hudson snoring, but Hudson, 28, never woke up. Hudson doesn’t normally snore, so Seymore said he began shouting for Jergens, as he knew people overdosing on heroin often snore or have trouble breathing.

Hudson was pronounced dead later that morning at Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb, leaving behind a 3-year-old daughter and a grieving mother determined to take action. The official investigation confirmed soon enough what Seymore and Jergens suspected that night: After a 13-year struggle with substance abuse, Hudson had overdosed on heroin.

“In the back of my mind, I thought this might happen,” Jergens said. “I know in my heart he’s in a better place. He’s safe now. No more demons. No more drug use.

“It’s coming up on a year now. I miss him a lot.”

Since then, Jergens has been encouraging DeKalb County authorities to increase awareness of the dangers of heroin and to arm police officers with Narcan, a heroin antidote that can revive an overdosing patient.

The problem itself isn’t new. Heroin fatalities, as well as fatal drug overdoses in general, rose in DeKalb County and several of its neighboring
counties between 2010 and 2012, with no clear regional
pattern emerging after that. Three of DeKalb County’s seven fatal drug overdoses in 2013 were attributed to heroin, with two of the six drug overdoses this year coming from heroin, according to records from DeKalb County Coroner Dennis Miller’s office.

For years, DeKalb County authorities have gone after heroin dealers and those who help them, charging 11 people with drug-induced homicide in connection with heroin deaths since 2010, but now, leaders say they plan to implement heroin awareness and Narcan programs in the next six months or so.

Human toll

In DeKalb County, young men are most likely to die from heroin overdoses, if history is any indication. Twelve of the 17 fatal heroin overdoses here since 2010 have occurred in men age 35 or younger, according to a Daily Chronicle review of DeKalb County Coroner’s Office records.

One of those was David Joshua Edward Pierce, known to friends and family as Josh. Pierce was found April 30 near the Northern Public Radio building at 801 N. First St. in DeKalb, authorities have said.

Pierce’s mother, Cathi McDannel of Holiday Hills, said his substance abuse issues started at age 12, when he was hospitalized for depression after he started huffing canned air.

Pierce’s father was an alcoholic who died in 2010, McDannel said. Pierce himself started drinking when he was in high school and smoked marijuana and huffed gasoline. His first of multiple stints in a treatment center came when he was 15.

McDannel doesn’t know when her son started using heroin. In mid-February, he moved from Holiday Hills to Sycamore with a woman who McDannel had heard was a recovering heroin addict.

“I heard he wanted to help this woman because everyone deserves a second chance,” McDannel said. “That’s the kind of guy he was. He was loving. He was caring. He believed in second chances.”

About two months later, a McHenry County Sheriff’s deputy knocked on McDannel’s door to tell her that her son was dead. At first, she was in denial. Now, she thinks her son’s death could have been prevented if authorities were equipped with Narcan.

“I wish somebody had it fast enough that day,” she said.

Narcan, also known as naloxone, can be injected intravenously or taken by using a nasal spray. A report from Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showed Narcan had a 95 percent success rate for police officers in Quincy, Massachusetts, last year. For one type of device, the injection should be administered immediately after calling 911 and, if symptoms return, every two to three minutes before medical help arrives, according to MedLinePlus, a service of the National Institute for Health.

Narcan’s possible side effects include heroin withdrawal symptoms, seizures and hallucination.

McDannel also has been involved with awareness efforts since her son’s death. She has two kits of Narcan in her home in case visiting addicts need help. She is a member of the McHenry County Heroin Awareness Initiative and manages the Facebook page, “I am Josh P.” Both groups work closely with other awareness groups such as Live4Lali and Ja2Soon.

“That’s a blessing to see what we’re doing, it’s working,” McDannel said. “One person at a time, we’re meeting a need our own community has failed to meet.”

Official efforts

Other Illinois communities already are equipping authorities with Narcan. Announced in February, DuPage County became the first in Illinois to supply first responders with Narcan using funds from the DuPage County Coroner’s Office, the sheriff’s office, County Board and health department. The health department bought the initial supply of Narcan, said DuPage County Health Department spokesman Dave Hass.

In a community not far from McDannel’s, Crystal Lake police officers were equipped with the drug in May. The program cost Crystal Lake about $1,500 to start, money they’re using from the department’s asset forfeitures.

Last month, Kane County started to train first responders to administer a nasal spray of Narcan to heroin users who are overdosing, Kane County Undersheriff Pat Gengler said. Kane County officers are working with the Kane County Health Department to have all officers patrol with Narcan in their vehicles within the month, Gengler said.

“With the unfortunate increase of heroin in the area and overdoses, especially in rural areas, it just came together,” Gengler said. “A lot of times, police are beating the fire department [to a scene]. It’s a matter of minutes sometimes with these things.”

Meanwhile, DeKalb County Board Chairman Jeff Metzger (R-Sandwich) has been working with local police agencies for about five months to launch a pilot Narcan program here. Under the program, all first responders in larger agencies, including the DeKalb, Sycamore and Northern Illinois University police, would be trained to administer the drug. Metzger said they are still working on funding sources.

Metzger wanted to launch the pilot program after attending a roundtable discussion on drug awareness earlier this year with U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Winfield Republican.

“The biggest thing is accessibility to opiate drugs, how cheap they are and what an epidemic it is in DuPage County,” Metzger said. “I knew how bad it was there, and the Chicago news was talking about [overdose] death.”

In addition to preventing heroin overdose deaths, DeKalb police also are expecting to launch an awareness program at the end of the year or early 2015 called Project Hope to dissuade youth from trying heroin to begin with. DeKalb police Chief Gene Lowery said Project Hope would rely on partners for funding, similar to how University Village’s Camp Power was funded.

Project Hope would be available to children in middle school through college. Much of the stigma surrounding heroin has fallen away in recent years, and it is now attractive to younger people because it’s relatively cheap and readily available, Lowery said. Heroin can be injected, snorted or smoked.

“As a police officer, we try to get the right message at the right time to the right audience,” Lowery said. “In that message, we hope to convey some fragment of information that gets to them ... to make the right choice.”

Struggles with addiction

Seymore understands the dangers of heroin all too well. He said he has overdosed three times and said he will probably be addicted for the rest of his life. Seymore’s landscaping job and three children keep him busy and distracted.

Since Hudson’s death, Seymore says he has tried to stay clean. He began using heroin in 2008 or 2009 when a friend introduced him to methadone, a narcotic pain reliever. When his friend died about five months later, Seymore would hitchhike or hop trains to Chicago to buy heroin because he heard it would not make you feel sick the way methadone did.

“It’s not hard to find,” Seymore said. “You step on the corner. They can see you. They can tell you’re not from that area. They know what you’re doing. ... Sometimes there’ll be a line [of cars] like you’re going to McDonald’s.”

Occasionally, Seymore gets phone calls from old friends who are struggling with heroin addiction, which he said can be a trigger.

“They always want to talk about the past, like the one time when we did this or that,” Seymore said. “That’s when you say, ‘OK bye. See you later.’ I tell them I’ve got to do laundry or go to work.”

A mother’s undertaking

Jergens said she tried her best to raise her son, who she described as a jokester who made friends easily. Even when Hudson became an adult, Jergens obtained legal guardianship of him and wrote letters to judges when Hudson got into legal trouble.

Jergens has organized a vigil at 7 p.m. today at the DeKalb County Courthouse, 133 W. State St., Sycamore. Speakers include Presiding Judge Robbin Stuckert, DeKalb County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Gary Dumdie and Metzger.

Jergens’ goal is to spread awareness of heroin abuse, in hopes of helping even just one person.

“It’s a passion. It’s a part of my healing process,” she said. “Instead of dwelling on the loss of my son, it’s helped me to get through it.”

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