Victim's mother says education is key to prevention
BY JASON BRUBAKER | COMMUNITY RECORDER STAFF WRITER
Linda Gutapfel thinks that her son might still be alive if he had fully known the dangers of what he was doing. That's why she's set out to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Gutapfel's 22-year old son, Johnny, was found motionless in the foyer of their Independence home on August 27, dead of an apparent heroin overdose. Linda says her son was not a drug-user, and was likely just experimenting.
"I just want people to know that this can happen the first time you try this," said Linda. "You don't have to be an addict. I don't know for sure if it would have saved his life, but I'm about 99 percent sure he wouldn't have done this if he had known more about it."
Gutapfel has taken her fight public, saying that families need to be aware of a possible escalating drug situation on the area. On the weekend of Johnny's death, Independence Police Detective Jim Moore said there were at least eight other drug overdoses in the city that police responded to, although none resulted in fatalities.
"We really just try to investigate these from the drug aspect, but it's not easy," said Moore. "Most people won't talk to us, because they don't want to get in trouble, or give up their dealer's name. I think this is really a regional problem, but it is definitely hitting close to home for some families."
Rumors of heroin laced with fentanyl have been circulating in the Northern Kentucky in recent months, after the death of a 16-year old Boone County boy who overdosed in May. Fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller, showed up in the toxicology reports of Dwayne Carroll, who passed away May 26.
However, Moore said that until the toxicology reports for Johnny are released, there is no way of knowing whether the heroin he snorted was laced with fentanyl. He said that Johnny's inexperience with drugs could have played a role in his death.
"A lot of times, when you buy illicit drugs on the streets, you have no way of knowing what is actually in them," explained Moore. "You never know how potent it is, and there's no way to be able to know, especially if you don't have much experience with it. Someone who has never done any illicit drugs could easily overdose on something their first time, even if it wasn't laced with anything. That's why this is so scary."
Jim Liles, the director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force, said he has noticed an increase in heroin use in the area this year. He said the task force already had more heroin seizures this year than in the past five years combined. He also agreed with Moore, saying that the unfamiliarity with the drug is likely a contributing factor in many of the overdoses.
"Let's say that if I'm a heroin user, I may be buying stuff that's about 10 percent heroin from my dealer," said Liles. "Then, maybe that dealer gets arrested, so I go somewhere else. Now, I may be buying stuff that's about 30 or 40 percent heroin, but I'm still ingesting the same amount, because I don't know any differently. That's why it's so easy to overdose on heroin especially, because there's no consistency."
Liles said he believes that the influx of heroin may be coming out of the South American region, where it is becoming a big-money drug similar to cocaine.
"Heroin is strange, because it will be here for a while, and then it will disappear," explained Liles. "There's no really rhyme or reason to it, but we know there is a lot of money in heroin trafficking now, because of the availability. I think they may just be looking for a foothold in Northern Kentucky, because we have been finding more lately."
Johnny's brother, 18-year old Chris Cunningham, said he has several friends struggling with drug addictions, who he has been trying to aid in any way possible.
"If I could have helped Johnny, I would have," said Chris. "I found him on the floor, and tried to give him CPR, but it too late by then. Now, we're just trying to help my friends, who are going through some of the same things, because now I've seen what it can do to you."
For her part, Gutapfel said she is simply looking to get the word out to parents and kids alike, who may have easier access to the drug than many believe. She plans to speak at an Independence city council meeting in October, and is trying to get a letter sent to all parents in the Kenton County School system. She said that Johnny's death has put her on a mission to save others from a similar fate.
"I think it has helped me with the grieving process, to try and get the word out so more parents don't have to go through this," said Gutapfel. "I know that doing this will help to save someone else, I just know it. People just need to know that it is out there, and it is bad. If we can save even just one person from going through what we've had to go through, it will be a good thing."