Dee Bettencourt's son -- her best friend -- was shot to death two years ago at age 20 when a drug deal for OxyContin went bad.
Jackie Ricupero's heroin addiction cost her a 28-year marriage and, in just two years, $180,000. She stole from her kids and neighbors once her money ran out.
Liisa Bennett's son has been addicted to opiates since he broke his arm at age 15 and was prescribed the painkiller Percocet. Nearly a decade later, he's been through detox about 10 times as he progressed from Percocet to OxyContin to heroin.
Lori Lewis became addicted to heroin within three days of trying it. For more than a decade, she worked as a prostitute so she always had enough money to buy more.
A city known for chronic high unemployment and underperforming schools, Fall River's most serious -- deadliest -- problem is a long-running addiction to opiates.
From 2005 to 2007, 66 Fall Riverites died of opiate overdoses. That far surpasses the murder rate and accounts for nine-tenths of all overdose deaths during that span.
Dozens more overdose each year -- more than 200 between 2004 and 2006, according to the state Department of Public Health. In 2007 alone, Fall River treatment centers had 3,700 admissions for some type of opiate abuse.
Fall River "is at the heart of the epidemic," said Nancy Paull, the chief executive officer of Stanley Street Treatment and Resources, or SSTAR.
More Fall River residents died of opiate overdoses between 2005 and 2007 than did in Brockton, Lowell, Quincy or Springfield. Boston and Worcester each had more people die of overdoses but at much smaller rates than Fall River. Otherwise, only Lynn and New Bedford had higher numbers, but just slightly.
A look at the police blotter during the past few months alone shows how often police come across heroin.
Last month, officers stopped a drug deal in the parking lot of the Stop & Shop on Rodman Street and seized 252 packets of heroin. The same week, a 34-year-old man was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison for attempting to deal $34,000 worth of heroin and cocaine.
In October, police seized 50 bags of heroin from a Somerset home. A month earlier, nearly 100 bags were found in Swansea, and Fall River police interrupted an attempted heroin deal near St. Michael's School.
The Bristol County District Attorney's Office regularly comes across cases associated with drug addiction, said Lisa Rowell, a spokeswoman for the office. For a wide range of crimes -- shoplifting, larceny, breaking and entering, prostitution -- a drug dependency is the primary catalyst, she said.
Exact figures aren't available on how many Fall River area residents are addicted to opiates but a space crunch at area treatment centers is an indication of how widespread the problem may be.
SSTAR's outpatient methadone clinic at St. Anne's Hospital has 360 patients and could easily have far more if only there were room, said Lisa Garcia, the program director.
When Garcia started working at the 7-day-a-week clinic 18 years ago, around 80 people attended, she said. About 100 or more people have joined within the last year.
Opiates account for a majority of Fall River's drug addictions.
Of the 75 overdose-related deaths in Fall River between 2005 and 2007, 88 percent were due to opiates. The inpatient detox clinic at SSTAR gets about 1,500 visits a year, and anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 of them are for opiates, said Susan St. Amour, the center's director of nurses for inpatient programs.
It is "very common" for addicts to pass through detox multiple times, St. Amour said.
Substance abuse often leads to homelessness, another perennial problem in Fall River. At the last tally in 2007, 106 of the city's 153 accounted for homeless people had chronic substance abuse, according to the state.
Intravenous heroin use also spreads HIV/AIDS and other diseases. When Fall River last considered a needle exchange program in 2005, data cited to support the program showed that three out of four cases of HIV/AIDS in the city could be traced to drug injections.
As of 2008, Fall River had a reported 235 cases.
Fall River never created the needle exchange, but Westport did, at least briefly. The town's Board of Selectmen approved creating the exchange with SSTAR but reversed course only days later after protests that the facility would bring drug addicts to town.
'THE HEROIN, YOU NEED IT'
Liisa Bennett's son Chris didn't pick up the habit through peer pressure. At 15, he was prescribed Percocet to help deal with a broken arm.
"He got Percs and he loved it," Bennett said. "He fell in love that day."
Chris Bennett, a 24-year-old Taunton resident, has made repeated stops at detox clinics and spent some time at SSTAR when he was 17. "We thought he would be all better after that," said his mother Liisa, a software development specialist for Meditech in Canton.
"I don't hold my breath anymore," she said of the state curbing opiate addiction. "This drug is just too powerful."
Jackie Ricupero lost a boyfriend to a heroin overdose three years ago. Days before he died, she tried killing herself with heroin and alcohol.
Ricupero, now 55, first became addicted at age 15. Two years later, she entered treatment for the first time. She estimates she's been in detox about 50 times but can't identify a moment when she hit rock bottom. "There's always another worst," she said.
One of those worst moments was when her husband of 28 years gave her an ultimatum: Get clean or I'm leaving. "I couldn't stay clean," she said. "He left for his own sanity."
Her three children stopped talking to her. "I did things for my drug that I would never do for anyone in my lifetime," Ricupero said. She has been clean for 18 months.
Toni Botelho is another recovering addict. She became hooked on opiates in her 40s when a program where she was receiving OxyContin for a herniated disc closed down. She had become addicted to the feeling OxyContin gave her.
"I had no choice but to go to heroin on the streets," said Botelho, now clean for 18 months. "It brought me to my knees."
Like Ricupero, Botelho stole from her family to support her habit. The impact her addiction had on her family is what keeps her sober, she said. "If I could do heroin for the rest of my life and have no consequences, I would."
Lori Lewis got hooked on heroin three days after she first tried it as a way to balance the high of cocaine, which she was already addicted to. Within a week, Lewis went from snorting to shooting up. Intravenous users can feel a rush in less than 10 seconds.
She soon turned to prostitution to pay for heroin.
"Cocaine, you just want," Lewis said. "The heroin, you need it."
Marc Quintal, Dee Bettencourt's son, started smoking marijuana at age 13, was drinking and taking pills at 16 and by 19 had a serious OxyContin addiction. He sold pot and gambled to support his habit.
Just days after turning 20, Quintal and three friends drove to Providence to buy OxyContin from someone they had never met. David Mello and Sylvester Moses, part of a Providence gang, came out from a house with guns and demanded money. Quintal, in the driver's seat, reached toward the shift to put the car in reverse. Mello -- apparently thinking Quintal was reaching for a gun -- shot him.
He was pronounced dead soon after at Rhode Island Hospital. Bettencourt had to identify her son's body.
"The worst thing ever that a mother could have to do," she said. Later, showing a photo of Quintal, she proudly said, "He was my best friend."
Bettencourt now works for Family Service Association, helping 21 Fall River families deal with disabilities or drug use. Someday, she wants to create a foundation to help fight opiate addiction.
"I believe in my heart, my son would want me to do this. He'd say, 'Mom, I'm proud of you.'"
December 26, 2009
The Herald News
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