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CORRECTION: Year in review: Heroin-related deaths rose locally in 2012

Posted: December 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 30, 2012 2:00 a.m.

In a year that began with civic leaders rallying to fight heroin and stop a tragic number of young people dying from the deadly narcotic, the number of local deaths blamed on heroin rose steadily.

In January, The Signal published a four-part series exposing the unfolding threat posed by heroin distributed in the Santa Clarita Valley, which had claimed the lives of a number of 20-somethings. The drug has gained popularity among young people.

By mid-summer the anti-heroin push had the backing of a community united in seeing the drug eradicated.

On Aug. 29, officials with the city of Santa Clarita took a long, hard look at the efforts under way to dissuade youngsters from stepping on the path to deadly narcotics. The city sponsored a public one-year retrospective meeting about it dubbed “Heroin Kills: One Year Later.”

Hundreds turned out for the event, looking for ways to stop the opiate from being used in the Santa Clarita Valley.

A six-speaker panel included Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Capt. Paul Becker, who told the group he had returned from Florida with a brand new anti-heroin plan, and Dr. Darrin Privitt, who said he had treated 380 heroin overdoses at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital so far that year.

Cary Quashen of Action, a local drug-treatment facility, said he sees some positive signs heading into 2013.

“It takes a village to raise our kids and open our eyes,” he told The Signal at year end.

Looking back on 2012, Quashen said we as a community have many reasons to be proud.

More intervention

Eight people died of heroin overdoses in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2011.

By the time civic leaders held their one-year retrospective meeting in August, nine other people had already died of heroin.

Before the year was out there would be 11 confirmed “opiate-related” deaths, at least four drug-related suicides and five unconfirmed heroin overdose deaths.

“Definitely, as a community, we’re making headway,” Quashen said — not because of the heroin deaths but because of the awareness about them.

“People are absolutely talking about it, where in the past, they were not,” he said.

“We’re still seeing heroin and it’s not going away, but people are coming to us sooner now, which is exciting,” he said.

Asked about goals for the new year, he said: “We want a lot more education because with education comes power.”

Law enforcement

Becker, with the backing of civic leaders, empowered many students in junior high school this year when he introduced the Drug-Free Youth in Town Program, dubbed DFYiT, which reports a high success rate in Miami.

The program focuses on reaching kids before they get to high school by supporting clubs of drug-free kids in junior high schools.

Also this past year, Becker recruited heroin watchdog Investigator Bob Wachsmuth, who heads the Juvenile Intervention Team at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.

“We’re becoming a model for other cities,” Wachsmuth said in late October.

Again, it was a professional assessment of the response to a problem and not a reflection of heroin-related deaths so far.

In vigorously supporting the DFYiT program, Wachsmuth also promotes a program that deals specifically with kids busted for marijuana use.

“It all comes from marijuana users,” he said in October. “That’s not to say, of course, that all marijuana users become heroin addicts — of course not.”

The program is aimed at heading marijuana users away from drugs before they try heroin.

Under his program, young marijuana users are given the option of following a criminal charge through court or attending a drug awareness program such as those offered by City of Hope and Action Family Counseling.

Sad trend

By the end of 2012, on average, someone in the Santa Clarita Valley had died from heroin each month, civic leaders reported.

At least three additional deaths late in 2012 were suspected heroin overdoses.

On Oct. 10, the body of 22-year-old Carly Coulter was found in a Newhall residence, dead of an apparent heroin overdose.

In the same week, the bodies of Jeff Donnelly, 51, and Christine Towner, 29, were found in their studio apartment in Newhall.

Relatives and friends told The Signal the couple had recently started using heroin.

By year’s end, no official cause and manner of death had been issued by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office for the three deaths.

Entering 2013, a coroner’s official summed up heroin in a way many civic leaders on the frontline of the heroin fight know all too well.

“Heroin is the most overdosed drug of illegal drugs,” said coroner’s Lt. Craig Henry.



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