Old Enemy Stalks Kids of Privilege

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a great place to raise kids. Except when they die.

The golden buckle of the Sun Belt, its brick-walled subdivisions and smoked-glass business parks swelling with white-collar migrants, Plano is by almost every measure the apex of educated suburbia--clean streets, big houses, 113 lighted ball fields.

With just two or three murders annually, this Dallas-area boomtown of nearly 200,000 is Texas' safest city--and one of America's top 10. The Children's Environmental Index calls it the nation's fourth most kid-friendly community, based on such socioeconomic data as dropout rates and household incomes. One of its high schools boasts an Academic Decathlon championship, a prize that earned the team a White House visit with President Clinton.

Then there is this measure: 11 young people dead of heroin overdoses since 1996.

Almost all of them were students, mostly popular, athletic and affluent--"nice, preppy, middle-class children," in the words of one drug abuse expert. They ranged in age from 15 to 22, a football player, a philosophy major, a former altar boy, a Marine home for the holidays. Four died last year, seven so far this year. And still the emergency room at Columbia Medical Center reports an average of three to five overdoses a week--unconscious, vomit-stained teenagers, often dumped at the hospital doors by friends in brand-new Jeep Wranglers and Range Rovers and Ford Expeditions.

One now lies in a coma, his family searching for some sign of life to keep him from becoming No. 12.

"How's this for a clean-cut, all-American-looking young man?" said Lowell Hill, pulling out a wallet-size photo of his blond, square-jawed son, Robert, a 1997 graduate of Plano East Senior High. On Aug. 20, he found Rob slumped over in bed, his face buried in a pillow. He put his mouth to the boy's blue lips, breathing for him, vainly. When doctors pronounced him dead of an overdose--at the same hospital that welcomed him into the world 18 years earlier--his father was incredulous.

"How do you know?" the former life insurance executive demanded.

"He was a happy boy," said his mother, Andrea, a special education teacher. "The last thing on my mind was to talk to my son about heroin."

The culprit, which has enjoyed a startling resurgence from the depths of junkiedom in the '60s to the heights of trendiness in the '90s, is widely available in Plano and conveniently packaged--usually in antihistamine capsules that can be broken open and snorted, avoiding the stigma of needles and syringes. Sold for $10 to $20 a hit, the powder is marketed here under heroin's Spanish nickname, chiva, which to Plano's predominantly Anglo kids sounds a lot more like a designer drug than old-fashioned smack.

"I didn't even know what it was the first time I tried it, but I liked it and I wasn't really interested in finding out," said Donald Jason Smith, 19, a recovering addict who has spent the past five months in county jail for heroin possession.

He described himself as someone with "good morals" who was "brought up not to do drugs." His mother teaches government and economics to 11th- and 12th-graders, his stepfather runs a jewelry shop. But once you cross that line, no matter how naively, "the drug grabs ahold of you and doesn't let go," Smith said. "I've taken friends to the hospital after they've overdosed and then gone right back to where we were and kept on using."

New Aura of Glamour

Heroin is not Plano's cross to bear alone. Gen X rockers and waifish supermodels have lent it a new aura of glamour, a dreamy narcotic languor compared to the manic rush of cocaine. From 1993 to 1996, the number of Americans who had sampled heroin more than tripled, from 68,000 to 216,000, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Since the beginning of the decade, the average age of first-time users has dropped steadily, from nearly 25 down to about 19.

New distribution networks forged by the Latin American cartels have helped expand the U.S. market, a phenomenon that the Drug Enforcement Administration calls "double-breasting." Dealers who once sold only cocaine now frequently also offer heroin, its purity and potency far greater than what the Asian pipeline has traditionally delivered. The lethal results are everywhere: four fatal overdoses in just one week this year in Boulder, Colo.; 30 last year in Orlando; 28 in Ventura County.

"The rules have changed and the risks have changed," said Ted Dickey, a Plano funeral home director whose mortuaries have buried about half of the town's overdose victims. "The risk is no longer about losing a scholarship or a place on the drill team or embarrassing the family; the risk is dying."

A Prior Epidemic

What makes the tally here so troubling is not just that this is a bastion of privilege, although that undoubtedly has helped propel it into the news. What so rattles Plano is that it already has been through an epidemic like this, making headlines in the early '80s when eight teenagers committed suicide, and a dozen others attempted it, in one nine-month spurt.

At the time, much was made of Plano's status as a "pop-up" city, a "nesting ground for the migratory American executive," as the city manager said in a 1983 Newsweek article. In two decades, it had gone from a quiet hamlet of 3,000 nestled in the cotton and soy fields 20 miles north of Dallas to a high-achieving bedroom community of 100,000, its growth fueled by Eastern professionals chasing the Southwest's newfound prosperity.

It is hard to imagine how the sense of rootlessness and social disruption--the homogeneity and competitive pressure--would have diminished in the ensuing years. The population has doubled again, making Plano the nation's fifth-fastest-growing city. Less a suburb now than a capitalist sanctuary, civic leaders have persuaded an impressive roster of corporations to relocate their headquarters here, including such giants as J.C. Penney Co., Frito-Lay Inc. and Dr Pepper/Seven-Up Cos.

"If you drive through Plano, there are miles upon miles of huge, brand-new houses--enormous houses, 12 feet apart--and there's nobody there all day long," said Sabina Stern, coordinator for the Collin County Substance Abuse Program, a local referral agency. "Dad works. Mom works. Long hours. Frequently one of them travels. Nobody eats dinner together anymore. When do they talk? In the car? While they're chauffeuring their kids from one activity to another, from school to ballet to soccer? It's insane."

Many of Plano's young addicts were given their own $20,000 cars as soon as they turned 16. Some carry beepers and cell phones. Others have credit cards; $100-a-week allowances for lunch; bedrooms equipped with TVs, VCRs, mini-fridges and microwaves. "A lot of the parents have said that they saw no sign of drugs," added Stern, who starts every day by scanning the obituaries. "You don't want to be cruel. But sometimes you wonder how hard they looked."

Challenge to Ignorance

Unlike during the suicide crisis, when public discussion was considered an invitation to copycats, Plano's leaders now make a deliberate effort to challenge whatever ignorance or denial may continue to linger about heroin. Led by Dickey, whose funeral homes also buried many teenage victims in the '80s, a community task force is developing ways of saturating the city with anti-drug messages--from warnings slipped into utility bills to billboards plastered with photos of those who have died.

The police department has doubled the number of its narcotics investigators from four to eight. The school district, which already had two dozen drug and alcohol programs, has put more counselors on campuses. A community forum that was expected to draw a couple of hundred parents earlier this month turned into a cathartic outpouring of 1,800.

"I'd never seen so many frightened people before," Dickey said. "Normally, this is a subject nobody wants to talk about."

But as much as some parents may have turned a blind eye, or even contributed to their children's boredom and alienation, many others simply have found themselves confronting a foe more powerful than their best intentions.

Addiction visited the Shaunfield home when Matt was just 17, a high school sprinter. He tore up his knee that year. After surgery, he got his first taste of Demerol.

"Matt loved it," said his mother, Barbara, a former PTA president, sitting on a leather couch in the living room of her elegant brick home. "In the hospital, he had one of those machines where you can dose yourself by pushing a button, and when they came to take it away, he started hanging on to it. He said, 'You can't do this. This is my friend.' I thought he was joking. So did the nurses."

Relapse at Home

After being discharged, Matt had access to enough pain pills to continue feeding his hunger. His parents finally caught on and put him in rehab. He graduated with his senior class and went on to college in East Texas, where he studied business and psychology. On a vacation at home, he relapsed. This time, it was heroin.

That led to more rehab and eventually to methadone, which he also found a way to abuse, landing himself back in rehab. He tried Narcotics Anonymous, psychoanalysis and family counseling. "Sometimes he would say, 'Why me, Mom? Why do I have to be an addict?' " his mother recalled. "I look at it kind of like cancer, not a moral issue or a lack of willpower. I think wherever we lived, or whatever we did, Matt would have had this problem."

In the fall of 1995, at the age of 22, Matt tried college again, this time at a Mormon school in Utah. When he came home for Christmas, he appeared healthy and sober. His dad, John, an inventor of fiber-optics technology, bought a big-screen TV so they could watch football bowl games together. Everyone agreed it was the family's best holiday.

On the day he returned to Utah, Matt called to say that he had arrived safely and to tell his parents that he loved them.

The next morning, the Shaunfields got another call, this one from an undertaker.

"What do you want us to do with his body?" they were asked.

It was Jan. 2, 1996.

Heroin has claimed 10 other Plano kids since.

Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this story.

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