BALLWIN • Photos on the walls of Mark and Rheba Killingsworth's suburban home depict a well-groomed, upper-middle-class family of four with coordinated outfits and bright smiles.
But a strain of heroin that has crept into St. Louis area suburbs shattered their picture-perfect life.
"We don't fit what you would think of as a drug addict's parents or family," said Rheba Killingsworth, who with her husband spoke from their comfortable living room about the scourge that took over the life of their daughter, Meredith.
Meredith Killingsworth, 22, shared her side of the story from jail, where she awaits trial on a variety of charges related to the addiction that began when she was at Parkway South High School.
Police say she is emblematic of the younger, more affluent suburban and rural addicts who are lured by cleaner-looking forms of a drug once synonymous with hard-core urban despair.
Although jailed, Meredith is luckier than many. More than 500 people have died of heroin overdoses in the St. Louis region over the last five years. About 40 percent were under age 29.
St. Louis County police and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration met with suburban school officials earlier this year to deliver a warning that trends show the drug is in the high schools.
Meredith was born shortly after her father's job with a major retailer led the family to move to Ballwin from Mississippi. Her mother quit a job in investment banking to raise Meredith and her older sister, Lindsey, now 25.
A framed 1993 Post-Dispatch page on a wall of the Killingsworths' home shows the girls visiting the Magic House in Kirkwood. "I look at that one to remind myself that I was a good mother, and that I did do things with them," Rheba Killingsworth said.
Meredith was at the top of her class, her parents said, but started slipping in high school. In her freshman year, her parents caught her with alcohol. In her sophomore year, they found marijuana. She lost phone privileges and was grounded. Still, she kept up her grades, took honors classes, played lacrosse and became a hockey team cheerleader.
In Meredith's junior year, her grades started slipping after she went to a party during Christmas break. A friend offered a white substance called "China white," and she tried snorting it.
"She told me it would make me feel stoned, but like 20 times better," Meredith recalled. "I did it like two or three more times before I found out it was heroin. I was like, 'Oh my God.' But I didn't stop."
Soon, Meredith said, she was using heroin at school, at work and at home.
"China white," also called "concrete," had a pristine appearance compared with some other forms of heroin, like the descriptively nicknamed "black tar."
"It's sort of an odd way of making heroin look more glamorous than it once was," said Harry Sommers, special agent in charge of the DEA's St. Louis region. "Instead of injecting it, they smoke or snort it and get a fairly sustainable high. For the younger generation, they look at a junkie or an addict as someone who shoots it in their veins. This takes that stigma away."
Suddenly, the Killingsworths didn't know their daughter's friends or their parents. She slept all the time. Her eyes were glassy, the pupils just pin dots. She couldn't remember things. Her moods were unpredictable. They found rolled-up dollar bills in her purse and plastic tubes on the bathroom counter.
She had an answer for everything. She attributed bouts of sweating to her job at a hot restaurant.
"She was detoxing," Rheba Killingsworth realized later.
By August 2005, Meredith's boyfriend told her parents that he believed she was using drugs.
They spent the $22,000 they saved as her college fund to send her to a rehabilitation center in Minnesota. Counselors called the Kilingsworths to reveal their daughter's drug of choice: heroin.
"I had to say it out loud to believe it," Rheba Killingsworth recalled.
"Alcohol and weed I expected," Mark Killingsworth added. "But not this. We should have drug tested her to know exactly what we were dealing with."
The next few years were marked by failed stints in rehabilitation centers across the country — and a growing police rap sheet.
Meredith missed her high school graduation because she was in rehab in California but stayed sober enough to get her diploma in December 2006.
Rheba Killingsworth, who had gone back to work, resigned to help her daughter. Sometimes she searched for her in neighborhoods she never would have imagined.
"I quit because we were losing her," she said, through tears. "She either gets clean, goes to jail, or she dies. And I don't want any regrets if she doesn't make it."
Meredith said the girl who gave her China white at that party was later found dead of an overdose in a restaurant bathroom.
The trend of heroin overdoses has been moving dramatically upward. Medical examiners reported 506 heroin overdose deaths from 2005 through Thursday in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin Counties. The 39 recorded in 2005 had grown to 154 in 2009. Metro east figures were not available.
Officials say heroin may kill more people here than all other illicit drugs combined.
Dr. Mary Case, the St. Louis County medical examiner, said she typically hears that a fatality has overdosed several times before. "So that's only the tip of the iceberg," she said. "There are people using heroin and overdosing and not dying. It's something that's out there in huge numbers."
Of the 506 dead, 208, plus a stillborn baby, were under age 30 — 24 of those under 19. About 81 percent of the dead were male and about 78 percent white.
Said St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch: "It would be naive to think that it's not in the schools. It's a suburban, Caucasian drug problem."
Fred Crawford, director of security for the Parkway School District, called the heroin upsurge "quite alarming" and explained: "It does concern us with any new drug that can be non-injectable because it's easily concealed. ... Schools are going to have to incorporate new strategies and techniques to deal with the heroin epidemic. ..."
The DEA attributes heroin's rise in popularity to higher purity — which lets needle-shy users get high from smoking or snorting it — and street prices that over time have fallen by two-thirds.
The addicts Meredith knew eventually did resort to injecting the drug. So, she said, she tried that, too. "It was a way better rush," she explained. "By then, I didn't care, I was already hooked on it."
She couldn't keep her jobs working in restaurants and in retail, so she started stripping at men's clubs.
Life was getting worse at home. Police knew the Killingsworths' address by heart. There were violent eruptions. Rheba Killingsworth began keeping her purse wrapped in plastic and underneath her bed, so it would make noise if Meredith rummaged through it for money.
By age 19, had Meredith moved in with a boyfriend. She found out she was pregnant in early 2008. That November, her son Jayden was born. The couple signed their parental rights over to Meredith's parents.
"I wanted everything to start over," Meredith said. "I felt like, 'This is a new life and everything will be perfect.' I just couldn't stay away from it. I kept thinking I could do it and not get hooked."
'I was A normal kid'
The months leading to her latest arrests have been her lowest, Meredith said. She would only say publicly that she did things to get drugs that she never thought she would do.
St. Louis police arrested her in April after she crashed a stolen car into a light pole at Goodfellow and Natural Bridge avenues. They found heroin and drug paraphernalia in her purse. She has been incarcerated ever since, and awaits trial for allegedly breaking into cars parked outside workout centers.
Her parents refuse to pay for a lawyer or post bail. They said that as long as she is locked up, they at least have the peace of mind of knowing she's not out on the streets. They also said she is not yet welcome back at their home.
They visited her once, taking Jayden along. He banged on the glass separating them, shouting, "Momma!" The memory brings Meredith to tears.
She said she doesn't believe her parents could have done anything differently to help her, and cannot explain why she turned to drugs.
"I was a normal kid. Nothing happened out of the ordinary," she said. "I did it because I was curious."
BY CHRISTINE BYERS
Monday, August 2, 2010