Family members found the 22-year-old man’s body abandoned last June behind a church in the heart of Kansas City, far from his Independence home.
They called police. When officers arrived, the young man’s mother was kneeling, as if in prayer, with her head resting on her dead son’s chest.
With no obvious signs of injury, it took an autopsy to confirm what police suspected.
Heroin had claimed another life in Kansas City.
Over the last few years, police say, the old-school drug has gained an insidious foothold in the community to an extent not seen in decades, if ever.
It has brought misery and death to a whole new generation of users who span the gamut of socioeconomic groups.
That 22-year-old man found in June was one of at least 14 people who died from heroin overdoses in Kansas City last year. Those are just the ones that narcotics investigators know of, and they don’t include deaths in other area cities.
Just last week, another young man died from a heroin overdose in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City, according to police.
“That drug is truly the devil,” said veteran Kansas City police drug investigator Sgt. Chris Cesena, who is not prone to hyperbole after years of dealing with the ravages of other nasty drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine. “Once it gets a hold of you, it’s got you in its grip.”
The mother who found her son in Kansas City last June did not want to comment for this story. The emotions are still “too raw,” she said.
But if anyone knows how she feels, it is former Kansas City resident Sarah Ellis McIntyre.
After struggling with addiction for years, 23-year-old Tommy McIntyre died of a heroin overdose last June in a St. Louis suburb.
His road to heroin and death started like so many others — with abusing prescription drugs, his mother said.
He was an active baseball and basketball player through his early teens, but drugs robbed him of his motivation and ability to hold a job for any length of time. He went so far as to steal from his parents to get money to feed his habit.
Sarah Ellis McIntyre said her son was in and out of treatment multiple times, but he always returned to using.
“I only saw very small glimpses of the child I raised,” she said.
The experience has shattered her preconceived notion that junkies existed only in city back alleys. Her son was raised in a comfortable suburban neighborhood and attended parochial school.
Since his death, she has met many other mothers from all walks of life and economic backgrounds who have lost children to heroin.
“My story is not unique,” she said. “You can’t say: It’s not going to happen to my kid.”
For McIntyre, educating people, particularly parents, about the warning signs of heroin use they need to watch for in children is the motivation behind forming a group called Mothers Against Heroin. It is based in St. Louis, but McIntyre said she is working to find someone to start a similar group in the Kansas City area.
“We have to take the shame and stigma away,” McIntyre said. “I don’t want any more families to go through what we’ve gone through.”
In Kansas City, police say that seizures of heroin in 2013 dwarfed what was seen just two years before.
Recently, they seized 2 pounds of it that a smuggler had hidden in his shoes. At the going price of $120 to $200 a gram in Kansas City, that amount would be worth $108,000 to $181,000.
Area medical clinics that treat heroin addiction say they have seen not only an influx of patients but some disturbing trends.
“We’re seeing more of it. We’re seeing more IV use. And we’re seeing an increase in high-school-age kids and younger college-age kids,” said psychiatrist Jan Campbell, program director of the Kansas City Metro Methadone Program. “It’s unnerving.”
On any given day, the program at the University of Kansas Hospital is treating close to its capacity of 250 patients, Campbell said.
“We’re not one of the largest in the area,” she said.
In Missouri, the number of people admitted to state programs for heroin treatment increased from 1,900 in fiscal year 2008 to 3,215 in fiscal year 2012, according to health department records.
Erin Nelson, program coordinator for two Behavioral Health Group clinics in Kansas City and Overland Park, said that while there has been an increase in people entering treatment, there has been a huge increase in people who need treatment but are not seeking it or are unable to afford it.
“There are clear indicators that we are in crisis,” she said.
What’s happening in Kansas City mirrors what is happening across the state and in other parts of the country.
Last year, Missouri saw 187 accidental heroin deaths, according to preliminary statistics from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
After 46 deaths in 2007, it was the state’s sixth straight year with double-digit heroin fatalities.
Kansas statistics are not broken down by specific drugs. But overall deaths attributed to “narcotics and hallucinogens” totaled 109 in 2012 compared with 83 the year before, according to the most recent statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Sixteen of the deaths in 2012 were in Johnson County and 11 in Wyandotte County.
Nationally, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency said heroin availability continues to increase as Mexico-based traffickers expand their distribution efforts.
Seizures of the drug at the southwestern U.S. border rose 232 percent from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2012, according to the DEA’s most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, released in November.
The DEA report also notes that overdose deaths are increasing in parts of the country.
In Pennsylvania, 22 deaths have been reported since Jan. 19 in a four-county area around Pittsburgh. Authorities blame a batch of heroin laced with another potent painkiller.
That outbreak highlights the danger of users not really knowing what they may be injecting into their bodies. Other factors believed responsible for the increase in deaths include higher purity of the drug being sold on the street, users starting at an earlier age and people switching to heroin from prescription opioid drugs such as OxyContin.
Once they make that switch, people tend to stick with heroin because it is “highly addictive, relatively inexpensive and more readily available,” according to the DEA.
“Those abusers who have recently switched to heroin are at higher risk for accidental overdose,” according to the report.
That pattern of progressing from swallowing pills to snorting heroin to injecting it is almost universally what police encounter in Kansas City, according to Sesena.
“If they haven’t built up a tolerance to it, boom, they die,” he said. “We’ve found people dead with a needle still hanging out of their arm.”
Many people who get hooked on heroin originally had been prescribed drugs for legitimate reasons following sports injuries or traffic accidents, Sesena said. But there also have been instances of doctors fraudulently prescribing pills to people who then turn around and sell them to others.
When law enforcement efforts crack down on that type of fraud, or when legitimate prescriptions run out, people addicted to the pills are forced to seek alternatives, and that leads many to heroin.
“The logistics of finding it and being able to pay for it is easier than OxyContin,” Campbell said.
Once people find heroin, escaping its grip proves to be exceedingly difficult.
Nelson, with the Behavioral Health Group, said longtime heroin users get to the point where they no longer take it to get high but need it to feel “normal.”
“Without it, they are physically sick,” she said. “They can’t work. They can’t function. Opiate addiction is not like drinking. It’s not like smoking.”
Treating addicts with drugs like methadone allows them to function normally while they seek stable employment and address underlying lifestyle issues, Campbell said. Few succeed without missteps.
“Relapse is the norm for just about everybody,” she said.
The increase in heroin use and overdose deaths has brought with it an increasing number of prosecutions in state and federal courts.
Two cases are pending in U.S. District Court in Kansas City against defendants charged with distribution of heroin resulting in death, including the incident from last June involving the 22-year-old Independence man.
In the last several years, other deaths have led to criminal charges in cities throughout the state, from Joplin to St. Louis to Columbia to Fulton.
“It’s everywhere,” said Darla Carey, whose daughter Charly Smalley died from an overdose in St. Louis County. Smalley’s estranged husband was recently sentenced to three years in prison for injecting her with the fatal dose.
The experience has prompted Carey, like McIntyre, to start an anti-heroin advocacy group to educate people about the problem and lobby legislators for new laws to address it.
One bill just introduced in the Missouri General Assembly is called the 911 Good Samaritan Act and is patterned on laws in other states.
It would grant limited immunity for someone who calls for emergency medical help for an overdosing drug user. The law would protect 911 callers and overdose victims from being prosecuted for possessing minor amounts of drugs.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bryan Spencer, a Republican from suburban St. Louis. A schoolteacher, he has known students who died from overdoses.
“It’s about saving lives and getting them the help they need to start healing,” Spencer said.