By Kalea Hall
Anna Howells never thought her son would actually die from his heroin addiction.
This June it will be a year since she found Dennis Howells in his apartment and was unable to wake him.
Now she is using her son’s story and untimely death as a way to teach others about the disease that took his life.
Law enforcement, schools, area agencies, parents and others are taking a proactive approach at battling the drug problem that has seeped into the suburbs.
“Once you live in this life, you never want anyone else to go through it,” Howells said.
Her 30-year-old son died from the drug addiction he struggled with for 12 years. His drug of choice would transition over time, and throughout those years he went through rehab several times.
“This is a disease, and these people are not bad people,” Howells said.
Howells struggled as she watched her son’s addiction impact his life and his family. Dennis was on the mend and clean for eight months and then relapsed. Two weeks after he relapsed, he died. His mother went to pick him up for work and he would not answer his phone.
“I kept calling him and calling him,” she said.
And then she went in and found him on the bedroom floor.
“I tried waking him up and he never woke up,” Howells said.
In November, she spoke about her son, his addiction and death to the student body at Boardman High School for the Yes Fest — an event encouraging students to not only say no to drugs, but to say yes to life. Another Yes Fest takes place April 30 at Cardinal Mooney High School.
“It’s an epidemic,” Howells said. “It is so overpowering how these drugs come in.”
Dr. Joseph Ohr, Mahoning County deputy coroner and forensic pathologist, said the number of drug-related deaths decreased from 2012 to 2013. In 2012, there were 53 drug-related deaths, and in 2013 there were 46.
But there is a bump in heroin deaths.
In the vast majority of drug-related deaths involving heroin, other drugs also are included, Dr. Ohr said. It is rare for someone to actually die from taking too much of one drug. Drug deaths are caused by the direct effects of the drugs or drug, the adulterants added to the drugs, or outside forces, such as car accidents. The investigation into the person’s death is what leads to a ruling of drug-related death.
“We work like every other doctor’s office. We find out the person’s history,” Dr. Ohr said.
Right now, the coroner’s office is seeing a drug-related death about every four to five days, which could be a cluster or a trend.
“The majority of users are city dwellers,” Dr. Ohr said. “We are seeing a trend to suburbs.”
In recent weeks, residents learned of three people arrested in connection with the case of a young Boardman graduate, Erin Trell, 18, who died after she took a lethal cocktail of drugs in September last year.
Ruben Best, 20, of Warren, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, tampering with evidence, trafficking in drugs and trafficking in drugs containing cocaine. Gary Hartman, 24, of Boardman, is charged with involuntary manslaughter, corrupting another with drugs and two counts of trafficking in drugs. Marijo Mazon, 46, also of Boardman, also is charged with trafficking in drugs and corrupting another with drugs.
All three have pleaded not guilty. They have a jury trial set for 8:30 a.m. April 7 before Judge Maureen Sweeney of common pleas court.
Best and Hartman are believed to be the ones who provided the drugs, and Mazon is believed to be the one who gave Trell the drugs.
Martin Desmond, an assistant county prosecutor, works with the Mahoning Valley Law Enforcement Task Force, an agency that targets drug and criminal activity. He said in Mahoning County there have been only a total of five people prosecuted in the death of someone in the last four years for three drug-related deaths.
“They are very difficult cases all around,” Desmond said.
There are a variety of factors that make it difficult in prosecuting someone in a drug-related death including being able to get the witnesses who saw the person use the drugs to talk, identifying who sold the person the drugs, and proving those drugs in fact caused the death of that person. Charging someone with trafficking in drugs also is a difficult process.
The task force is composed of law-enforcement officials from many suburban areas and the city of Youngstown.
“Our goal is to disrupt or dismantle drug-trafficking organizations,” Desmond said.
Desmond said they are seeing a lot of pill use in young people, but heroin is the real problem. He believes it is important to educate the community about drug use.
“We can’t just stick our head in the sand and say there isn’t a drug problem,” Desmond said. “I just think that based upon the number of people we are seeing charged with drug [offenses] and based upon the number of people who are overdosing and not dying, I think it is without a doubt spreading to the suburbs.”
In Boardman, there is a narcotics unit devoted to working solely on drugs. The unit investigates leads on drug trafficking taking place in the suburban area and other drug-related activity.
“Our single biggest law-enforcement problem is the heroin issue,” Boardman Police Chief Jack Nichols said.
Nichols said the department averages about one drug-trafficking investigation a week. Nichols has been with the department for 37 years. In his first 25 years with the department, there were only about 20 to 25 drug-trafficking investigations. Drug investigations are “manpower intensive” and take time, he said.
“I think [the drug problem] has grown, but not only in Boardman,” Nichols said.
Police are contacted only when someone dies from drugs, but what Nichols would like to see is police stepping in when someone doesn’t die and is saved at the hospital. The idea would be not to just arrest someone, but to be there to help.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this. There has got to be another answer,” Nichols said.
Boardman Township Trustee Larry Moliterno also is the chief executive officer of Meridian Community Care and works with the police department to teach about drug addiction. At Meridian, there are about five to seven assessments done a day on patients with addictions. When he first started 10 years ago, there were about 80 patients.
Now there are approximately 600.
“Clearly what we have seen over the last couple of years are opiate addictions,” Moliterno said. “It started with prescription addictions, and then it has evolved into the heroin problem we have.”
Heroin is less expensive and easy to access, which is why it has grown popular as a drug of choice.
“The addiction issue is not a school problem and it is not a law-enforcement problem; it is a community problem,” Moliterno said. “There is not one strategy that is going to be the answer. It is going to be all the [supportive] services.”