CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
23 OCTOBER 2002
Heroin. Siblings, parents and children have been seared by Willimantic's scourge. It doesn't matter whether they're middle class or poor, brown or white.
A Killer of Families
Luke Rector is just 20 and already his parents have asked him what kind of funeral he wants when his heroin habit kills him.
Heroin has robbed Sue and James Rector of the person who was once their shy, well-behaved little boy, the one who excelled in geography and never gave them any trouble.
"He's gone, he's lost," says Sue Rector, an elementary school teacher in Marlborough, tears streaming down her face. "I'm sure if he keeps going the way he is now, he'll be dead."
Luke is in prison now, serving a two-year sentence for violating his probation on a robbery conviction. It's a lot safer than living on the streets of Willimantic, selling his body to men for enough money to support his heroin habit. "Honestly, when I heard he was in jail, I was relieved because he was off the streets," his mother says softly. Sue Rector used to see him on the street, less than a mile from their comfortable home in Willimantic. Sometimes she would buy him a sandwich so he wouldn't go hungry.
Luke's older brother, Larry, used to shoot heroin, but he's been clean since spring. Larry hopes to start some college courses. He's frustrated that his brother doesn't want a future. "I ask him all the time, `What are your goals, what are you trying to shoot for?' And he says, `I don't know. Nothing.' That's what scares me the most," Larry says. "We were supposed to grow up as two average kids in a middle-class family, and look at us now."
Before Luke's arrest in early June, he wandered the streets of Willimantic, sometimes sleeping outside. He seemed to be the only male prostitute on the street, so he had little trouble finding dates. On cooler nights, he'd shiver in a T-shirt. Bulky coats aren't good for business. Which is why on an unusually cool night he was huddled on a bench in Jillson Square, eyeballing every passing car for any sign of interest. To a casual passerby, Luke looks like a handsome young man with scruffy James Dean looks.
If he trusts you, he may talk about the time some thugs at a downtown bar taunted him, then raped him. He may talk about how he started drinking at age 14, then began snorting heroin at 16 after someone told him he should try it because it was " a million times better" than alcohol or pot. "I need to score bad tonight," Luke says, rubbing his cold hands together. "I don't want to get dope sick."
When he buys heroin, he often shoots up behind downtown buildings. Sometimes, he acts like the kid he is, playing with some of the skateboarding teens on the sidewalks along Main Street. But not often. Mostly he's serious, working to feed his habit.
He glances over at the annual firefighters' carnival, which was occupying half of Jillson Square one night. Some guy at the fair was his date the previous evening. "He was a nice guy. Bought me five bags with the money," Luke says.
Some of his dates are regulars who take him to their homes to spend the night. "That was good," Luke says, reminiscing as he stares at passing cars. A Honda slows down. Luke bolts off the bench into the waiting car and speeds off with the male driver. A 24-7 Business
The Rector boys typify a growing segment of heroin users in the past decade – young, middle-class and white. In 1992, the country had 630,000 heroin addicts, according to a study by the federal National Drug Information Center. By 1999, that number was up to 980,000, with an additional 200,000 to 400,000 reporting having experimented with it.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said after a 1999 hearing on heroin use that during the late 1990s there was a startling increase nationwide in heroin use among white suburban teens. "People falsely believe heroin abuse is just an inner-city problem," Grassley said after testimony from teen heroin addicts from middle-class suburbs in California, New York, New Hampshire and other states. Several of the teens said they began using heroin when they were 13. "We're talking about white-collar professionals from affluent suburbs and kids from small farm towns," Grassley said.
Many of the new users are afraid of using needles, so they sniff heroin. More than half start injecting heroin for the stronger high. New users falsely believe people can't become addicted by snorting, says Dr. Herbert Kleber, medical director of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Treatment centers in New England report an increase in heroin addicts under age 20 seeking help, according to an August 2002 survey by researchers with the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The average age of someone's first use of heroin dropped from 26 in 1991 to 17 by 1997, according to studies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services substance abuse division. Northeastern Connecticut, as elsewhere, has seen increased heroin use among young people.
"It's everywhere. It's easier for high school kids to buy heroin than beer. Plus, package stores close at 8. Heroin is a 24-7 business," says Geri Langlois, a former Thompson first selectman and former state representative who is a recovering cocaine user. "If you gave me money and 20 minutes, I'd come back with all the heroin we could afford." Langlois knows of a group of eight teenagers in Chaplin, just north of Willimantic, who got hooked on heroin last spring. They began by snorting it. One family has two sons fighting addiction. A son from another family is out on the streets, stealing to support his habit and hiding from the police.
Two of those families agreed to interviews, both on condition that the names of their sons, who are now in detoxification programs, not be used.
In the family with two heroin-addicted boys, the parents became terrified by the sons' wild rages. It was like "living with terrorists." "They used to be so close. Now it's like Cain and Abel," their mother says. "Heroin turned these caring, compassionate boys into monsters."
The secret habit of the eight teenagers was revealed when a parent found bags of heroin under a mattress. The parents learned that their kids were stealing money and items for drugs that they'd buy in Willimantic, sometimes in the Hotel Hooker. Now five of them are in various stages of recovery. It's a gamble.
Vivian Schweitzer of Willimantic knows. For years, she prayed that her youngest daughter, Anne Marie Brochu, would kick her heroin habit. Anne Marie began using at 16. She dropped out of school and once stole $800 of her older sister's wedding money to buy drugs. The girl who wanted to be a hairdresser grew up to be a heroin-addicted prostitute in her hometown.
Today, Brochu is incarcerated in York Correctional Institution, serving five years for crashing a car, while high on heroin, into another vehicle on Route 6 on Oct. 23, 2001. She killed the other driver, Gerry Suprenant, 23, of Brooklyn, an Eastern Connecticut State University student. Brochu was coming off a four-bag high. "I'm glad she's locked up," Schweitzer says. "At least we know where she is for the next five years. I won't have to worry that she's out somewhere, hurting herself or someone else."
Florence, a Willimantic grandmother who asked that her full name be withheld, knows all about heroin. It wrecked the hopes and dreams she had for her grandson, now 17, whom she raised. Now her hope is that he stays away from her. Her dream is that he kicks his heroin habit. She had him arrested in mid-July when he broke into her house, looking for things to sell. He said it was for rent, but she knew it was for heroin. He threatened to kill her when she told him to leave, so she called the police. A few days later, she went to Danielson Superior Court and got a restraining order barring her grandson from any contact with her. While there, she looked at the names on the day's court docket.
"I saw so many names of young people I knew, kids who were good but fell apart when they got messed up on drugs," Florence said.
Alcohol At 14; Heroin At 16
Sue Rector has a difficult time talking about Luke. It's a painful admission for his parents – one a teacher and the other an insurance company accountant – to make, to say that their son is a heroin addict. It's so painful that James Rector can't talk about it.
But Sue Rector wants other parents of middle-class children to know that it could happen to them, that one day their own child could be shooting heroin, particularly in Willimantic. Her face is sad and worn as she talks at the kitchen table in her quaint kitchen, decorated in country blue and brick with heart-shaped decorations that say "peace and love." She keeps a picture of Luke in a cap and gown holding the high school equivalency diploma he got the last time he was in prison. He was No. 1 in his class, his one success in recent years.
Sue Rector has taken down the most recent pictures of her son; they are just too painful to look at. Instead, she displays pictures of Luke when he was young, an angelic, smiling, towheaded toddler dressed in a red-and-white check shirt and overalls. "Luke was such a good boy. We thought, he's fine, we won't worry about him," Sue Rector says, a tinge of irony in her voice. "He was our little blessing for a long time."
The Rectors had moved to Connecticut from Texas, drawn by a job at an insurance company and to Willimantic by the reasonable price of their Dutch colonial in a decent neighborhood. Their boys went to church on Sundays and to Bible study and a Christian youth group during the week.
Luke, it seemed for the longest time, was the perfect child. He slept as an infant, and doted on his parents, giving them homemade gifts for Christmas and Thanksgiving. He was a straight-A student in middle school who played soccer and baseball.
The Rectors worried more about Luke's older brother, Larry, who had been a difficult child and was diagnosed as bipolar by the time he was 7. Larry, two years older than his brother, needed and got most of the attention. The first indication something was going wrong with Luke was when they found him drunk at age 14. He told them he was upset about something a girl had said to him. What he was afraid to admit to his parents was that he strongly suspected he was gay.
At 15, because of Luke's unruly behavior, his parents tried something drastic. They sent him to a faith-based school in the Dominican Republic, aimed at helping troubled boys. They could afford to keep him in the $38,000 program for only a year. Luke came home. "He came back and we tried to get him going with something else. At that point, everything we tried to do for him, he rejected," Sue Rector said. By the time Luke was 16, he had run away from home and was out on the street.
Luke says that after his first brush with alcohol at 14, he stayed away from drinking for a while, but then started smoking pot. He first tried heroin at 16 in August 1998, after he came back from the Dominican Republic. "The best way to describe it was heaven on Earth," Luke says, sitting on a park bench in Jillson Square, between dates a few weeks before he went to jail. "I was so high I forgot about all my problems. I just loved it."
By the next summer, he was shooting between three and eight bags every day. At 18, he would sleep in abandoned buildings, under bridges. His parents would get him into program after program, and he'd always leave after a couple of weeks.
Larry Rector tried heroin – he claims because of Luke – and two years ago, nearly died of an overdose. Larry's heart stopped, but paramedics revived him. "I knew I was dying and couldn't move. I was praying for God to let me into heaven and please forgive me," Larry says.
Larry believes his brother turned to drugs to avoid his conflicting feelings about being gay. "We were raised with a system of values firmly ingrained. To have feelings that go against it would bother him," Larry says. Indeed, Luke's parents don't accept his lifestyle, and have tried to change him rather than accept him for who he is. "I don't think that is something that is inborn," Sue Rector says. "Homosexuality is wrong, which I believe. If someone is a homosexual, it is wrong, but they need to get help in dealing with that."
If Luke ever shakes his drug habit, Sue Rector says, she would like to send him to a facility in Nashville called Love in Action, marketed as intensive "recovery from sexual sin."
Sue Rector says she constantly questions her decision to move to Willimantic. "When we bought the house, a couple of people told me there was a real bad drug problem," she says. "If I could go back in time, I would not have moved into this town."
By TRACY GORDON FOX, And BILL LEUKHARDT Courant Staff Writers
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