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Heroin’s New Popularity Claims Unlikely Victims

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anthony Howard and Patrick Sparre, whom police found dead of drug overdoses in a Santa Monica studio apartment in December, were the most unlikely of heroin users.

They were USC seniors, former fraternity members and politically conservative. Sparre had once been a member of the campus Young Republicans chapter.

Both were natural athletes, expert skiers who worked out every day. Howard ran six miles on the beach every morning, and Sparre surfed before class. They were from close-knit families, and Sparre called home to Sacramento almost every night.

Their fathers had graduated from USC the same year--1968--and had been in fraternities.

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John Howard and Peter Sparre had done their share of beer drinking and partying at USC, but their sons’ heroin use has left them confused, tormented and struggling for answers.

How could their handsome, bright young sons, who were so close to graduating, buy a $20 balloon of heroin at a Pico-Union street corner and later shoot up?

Howard and Sparre, however, are typical of an increasing number of younger people experimenting with heroin today, narcotics detectives say. This increase is due in part to heroin manufacturers and dealers refining and selling the drug in ways that are more appealing to younger people.

Prices have dropped dramatically because there is more heroin on the nation’s streets, and users do not have to inject the drug because it is pure enough to smoke or snort. Howard and Sparre were exposed to heroin by smoking it and then eventually, inevitably, began shooting it because the high is more intense and lasts longer.

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Although there are no statistics that detail drug use by age, the problem of heroin use among the young is reflected in the skyrocketing number of emergency room visits nationwide connected to heroin use, federal drug officials say. In 1994, 27,300 people were admitted to emergency rooms after smoking or snorting heroin, up from 1,250 in 1988--a more than 2,000% increase--according to statistics compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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Heroin was once mostly confined to impoverished communities and inner cities, narcotics detectives say. With the advent of cheaper rock cocaine, its use began to decline, except in the city’s barrios. More recent, crack cocaine use has leveled off and heroin has made a comeback--not only in inner cities but among more affluent users as well.

The quantity and quality of heroin nationwide has remained high in recent years, and the influx of younger users being treated at drug rehabilitation centers--including college students and young professionals--has continued to surge.

“Twenty years ago when I was working patrol, the heroin users were all hard-core junkies in minority neighborhoods. . . . They were the only ones who could afford the drug because they were financing their habits through burglaries,” said Lt. Bernie Larralde of the Los Angeles Police Department’s narcotics group. “But now that the price has dropped, there’s a lot of it on the street, and coke dealers are offering heroin, too, the drug is big all over the city.”

Many young drug users deride cocaine as a yuppie symbol of the 1980s, but consider heroin the cool drug of the 1990s, the ultimate act of rebellion, experts say. In the movie “Pulp Fiction,” Eric Stoltz’s character tells John Travolta’s: “Coke is as dead as dead. Heroin is coming back in a big f---ing way.”

Heroin is a way for Generation Xers to express their alienation, said Richard Rawson, director of the Matrix Center, a West Los Angeles drug treatment and research center. “Heroin seems to be making a comeback among rock musicians, with the whole Seattle grunge scene and people like Kurt Cobain and others who have had heroin problems . . . which influences younger people in the wrong way. We’ve been seeing so many young heroin addicts that we’ve been saying lately, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

Fifteen years ago, the majority of heroin sold in Southern California was Mexican brown, a coarse powder that averaged less than 5% purity, narcotics detectives say. Today, local dealers are selling mostly “black tar” heroin from Mexico, with a purity level that averages 25% but can be higher than 50%.

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Unlike Mexican brown, it is difficult to dilute or “step on” tar heroin because of its gummy consistency.

Howard and Sparre began by smoking the tar, which did not seem dangerous to them, friends said, because it was heroin without the stigma of the needle, which could be contaminated with the AIDS virus.

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Buying heroin, one of Howard’s friends said, was as easy as driving through Jack in the Box and picking up a hamburger. Howard, Sparre and a few of their friends all knew of a few street corners in the Westlake and the Pico-Union areas where they could pull up, wave a $20 bill out their car window and get a 10th of a gram. Many of them began buying cocaine at these street corners. But during the last two years, dealers also began offering heroin, Howard’s friend said, and the price was about the same as for cocaine.

These were anomalous transactions: Clean-cut USC students, driving Hondas and Toyotas, cruising up to dangerous, graffiti-strewn street corners, in some of the highest crime neighborhoods of the city, often buying heroin from Central American gang members and heading back to their apartments in Manhattan Beach or Santa Monica.

“We’re arresting college students, lawyers, movie people . . . all kinds of people are coming to this part of town to buy heroin,” said Det. Frank Goldberg of the LAPD’s Rampart Division. “During the last year or two years, we’ve noticed that heroin is really on the upswing.”

Inexperienced heroin users, such as Howard and Sparre, are particularly vulnerable to overdoses because they do not know how to assess purity levels, which can vary greatly. In 1995, there were 282 heroin-related overdoses in Los Angeles County, more than triple the number compared to 15 years ago.

“A UCLA student who got addicted to heroin came in today on a skateboard,” Rawson of the Matrix Center said recently. “These kids don’t have any idea of what they’re dealing with.”

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TONY: ‘A Love-Hate . . . Kind of Thing’

Anthony Howard’s first coach was his father, a district sales manager for a paper company who managed the neighborhood T-ball team. Tony grew up in Bellevue, Wash., a wealthy suburb of Seattle, played baseball and football in high school and was the starting cornerback on the football team that made it to the state championships. He graduated with a 3.9 grade-point average and won the school’s scholar athlete award.

At USC, he had a partial academic scholarship and majored in engineering. He joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, and although he drifted away from the fraternity during his years at USC, he stayed friends with many of the members.

During his first two years in college, he experimented with cocaine and a drug called Ecstasy, but much of his partying still revolved around beer and fraternity bashes and USC football games. Then, at the end of his sophomore year, he smoked heroin for the first time with a few other USC students, one of his friends said. “He told me it tasted like hell,” said Joey Veneziani, who had known Howard since grade school. “But he said it was a pretty intense high. One thing he swore to, though. He said he’d never shoot it.”

But during his junior year, he broke his vow.

“I think he got off on doing something that was so taboo, so bad,” Veneziani said. “I know he wasn’t addicted, and he got to the point where he didn’t even like doing it. It was kind of a love-hate, push-pull kind of thing. At someone’s apartment, he and his friends would be drinking and it would be like the finale to a night of partying. The next morning he’d say, ‘What the hell did I do that for?’ ”

Howard had always been a conscientious student, but during his junior year he began missing classes and his grades suffered. At the end of the year, he decided to return to Seattle for the summer. He would be getting away from drug-using friends, removing himself from the Los Angeles drug scene.

“One day over the summer he began talking to me, like he was unburdening himself,” said his mother, Nan Howard. “He told me, ‘You know why I got such awful grades last year? . . . It was because I was using drugs.’ I asked him what kind of drugs. He said, ‘Heroin.’ He saw how upset I was, so he said, ‘Don’t worry, mom. I’m OK now. I got over it on my own.’

“We both were crying. We hugged. I felt sure he had put it all behind him.”

During his junior year, he had lived with a few roommates in Manhattan Beach. Last fall he decided to live alone in Santa Monica so he could be free of distractions and concentrate on school. This was his last semester, and he wanted to get good grades. He had been scheduled to graduate in December.

PATRICK: ‘Being Wild . . . Was Considered Cool’

Patrick Sparre’s parents met at USC, married and raised their two children in a Sacramento neighborhood called Land Park that is filled with elegant, spacious older homes. Sparre’s father, Peter, is a partner in a commercial real estate firm and develops shopping centers. His mother, Alison, who was a member of a sorority at USC, teaches Bible classes at their church. Both describe themselves as born-again Christians.

Sparre had a problem with drugs before he enrolled at USC, his parents said. He developed a cocaine problem during his junior year in high school, and his parents sent him to the Hazelden Center, a renowned drug treatment facility in Minnesota. When he returned, he attended a private prep school in Squaw Valley. He stayed away from drugs, his parents said, and competed on the school’s ski team.

During his freshman year at USC, he pledged to the same fraternity as Howard, but soon quit. He was too much of an iconoclast, his friends said, to conform to fraternity life. While Howard was quiet and introspective--considered shy by those who did not know him well--Sparre was exuberant, charismatic and reckless. He drove fast, surfed big waves and skied with abandon.

“Being wild and always partying hard was considered cool when I was at USC, and it was still considered cool when Patrick was there,” his mother said. “It was alcohol when I was a student, and there’s a lot of drugs now, but the whole image is the same. All Patrick’s friends thought this wild part of his personality was great. Maybe if he wasn’t trying to be so cool, he’d still be alive.”

Sparre smoked heroin a few times last year, a friend said, and shot up once, when a friend injected him because he was afraid of the needle. But he had a bad reaction, and friends rushed him to the emergency room. Extremely frightened by the experience, he told his friends he would never again use drugs.

Sparre’s college career had been checkered, and he had left USC a few times, but during the fall semester, his friends said, he changed. He was serious about school, studying hard and keeping his vow to stay away from drugs. He was scheduled to graduate in May. And now, for the first time, he had a clearly defined idea of what he wanted to do with his life. During the fall semester he had a job at Elektra Records and was excited by the work. He decided that he would try to make the music business a career.

THE LAST NIGHT: ‘They Both Had Sworn Off Heroin’

Howard had never been to a racetrack, so on a Friday night, Dec. 2, a friend decided to take him to Hollywood Park. Sparre, who had a part-time job delivering pizzas, spent the evening working.

Later that night, they both stopped by a mutual friend’s house in Manhattan Beach. A few other USC friends gathered there and later they all went barhopping.

Howard was in a particularly good mood that night. This was his last weekend in Los Angeles. He only had another week of college, and then he and some friends were going skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He planned to return to Seattle, work for a few months and save money so he could spend the summer in Europe with a high school friend. Then he would look for an engineering job in Seattle.

After the bars closed, Sparre, Howard and a few others returned to the friend’s apartment. Howard needed a ride back to Santa Monica, and Sparre offered to drive him. They told friends they were going to get something to eat in Manhattan Beach and then head off to Santa Monica.

As they walked to Sparre’s car, , a few friends were concerned but said nothing. They knew Howard and Sparre had used heroin. Although both had vowed to stay clean, the two of them might be a dangerous combination.

On the way to Santa Monica, they apparently stopped by one of the street corners they knew so well, bought a balloon of heroin, returned to Howard’s small studio apartment, heated it in a spoon and shot up.

Police found them two days later sprawled in the living room, their syringes and spoon in the kitchen.

“If they hadn’t been drinking heavily, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Tim Wesley, who pledged the Beta Theta Pi fraternity with Howard when they were freshman and remained his best friend.

“They both had sworn off heroin, and really were focused on school. Tony was probably thinking that since this was his last weekend in L.A., he would do it just one more time. Then he’d leave L.A. and heroin behind forever.”


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