Chris Seebeck died of an overdose in the basement of his parents' Kirkwood home on Jan. 27, 2010. Over the years, he had been hospitalized four times for heroin overdoses and had tried 13 rehabilitation programs. Just two months before, he had been released from his second stint in the Missouri prison system related to his drug use.
Seebeck bought the heroin that killed him from dealers who plied their trade just outside the doors of his downtown St. Louis parole office, according to his mother. Ann Seebeck said she and her son complained about the dealers' presence but said her son's request to report to a different parole office was twice denied. He had been clean about a year when he ingested the fatal dose at age 27.
"I guess the addiction was just so strong that it compelled him to take it," Ann Seebeck said.
St. Louis is in the fourth year of a heroin epidemic that is killing in numbers that law enforcement and medical examiners say they have never seen before.
To provide a glimpse of those affected, the Post-Dispatch reviewed heroin-related deaths that occurred in St. Louis and Madison counties during an 18-month period beginning in January 2010, when the epidemic was kicking into high gear.
In that period, 99 people in St. Louis County and 30 in Madison County died of heroin overdoses, according to medical examiner records.
The typical victim was an unmarried, 33-year-old white man. The oldest to die was 57, the youngest 17. Almost 85 percent were white. Thirty-two were women. At least 14 were married. At least a third were parents, often of young children. Some, such as Seebeck, came from supportive families who felt helpless against the drug's powerful pull on their loved one.
The dead included laborers, college students and military veterans. There was a steel worker, a hair dresser, a youth baseball coach and a paramedic. There was a nurse, a mechanic, a baker, a sous chef, an adult dancer.
Others were unemployed or operated on the fringes of society, scraping by on the charity of strangers, friends and — if they hadn't alienated them with their drug use — family.
"Generally speaking, they're not bad people," St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch said. "They've just done some things that aren't the smartest ... and they have horribly tragic consequences."
The reports show that at least half struggled with their addiction, in some cases for years. Many cycled through periods of drug abuse and depression. Several of the deceased were weeks, days and in some cases just hours out of treatment centers when they overdosed.
In 2010, Alexander Wichman left a Minnesota treatment center for a July 4 visit with his family in Maryland Heights. The night before he was to return to the program, the 19-year-old overdosed and died. His mother found him sprawled in the backyard.
Wichman got hooked on prescription drugs after suffering a broken wrist his sophomore year at Christian Brothers College high school. He got hooked on heroin after a friend offered it at a party, his mother said.
Chad Sims, 26, died on his knees on the kitchen floor of a Wood River apartment on June 23, 2010. A longtime drug abuser, the father of three had been released from prison on Christmas Day 2009, was still on house arrest and had just started a treatment program. His widow, Ashley Sims, said that despite his past, her husband's death caught her off guard. He had enrolled at Lewis and Clark Community College to study exercise science, she said.
"He hid it so well," she said of his drug use.
James C. Elmore II of Imperial was in an outpatient rehabilitation program when on Jan. 26, 2011, a Florissant resident reported seeing a black Lexus moving erratically down a neighborhood street. Ninety minutes later, another neighbor found Elmore, 38, slumped in the driver's seat. His family had reported him missing four days earlier.
Elmore had been on a methadone program, said his sister, Dawn Elmore-McCrary. A year before his death, he lost his job as a social worker. Then he lost his job as a pizza delivery driver. He no longer could afford the drives to St. Louis, and a methadone treatment center closer to home had a years-long waiting list, his sister said.
"I knew he was struggling. I told him, 'You have to do this for yourself.' He cried a lot and was just very depressed the last several months."
Elmore-McCrary said she is still angry that authorities didn't seem interested in catching the person who sold the drugs that killed her brother.
"Heroin kills people of all types, and all those people were loved," Elmore-McCrary said. "It's become this big, sexy story now that pretty, young, middle-to-upper socioeconomic class victims are more numerous, but it's a huge loss for all of us."
Heroin causes more deaths by overdose than any other single drug. It is tough to kick. Only 5 percent of heroin addicts are successfully treated. Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz has attributed a surge in residential burglaries to heroin addicts, and police in St. Louis point to heroin to account for the skyrocketing theft of copper.
"There's only two ways out. Get clean or die," said St. Louis County Police Capt. Chuck Boschert. "And getting clean is apparently really hard to do."
Law enforcement and others are targeting their anti-heroin message at a younger audience because people are experimenting at a younger age.
"They're dying in their 20s and 30s but more and more we're seeing they're starting it in high school," Boschert said. "That's the new emerging customer base. They don't think it's as dangerous."
In an extreme case, the parents of Joshua Vest, 24, of Hazelwood, told an investigator that their son had been a heroin user since age 10. The family declined to comment.
"It's too hard," his mother said.
The youngest victim, Shannon Gaddis, an outgoing and well-known senior at Triad High School in Troy, Ill., was 17 when she died Jan. 12, 2011. The former cheerleader overdosed on a school snow day after snorting heroin at her home.
"You'd always like to think your school and community are not going to have those kinds of things," said Jason Henderson, an assistant principal at Triad. "That being said, you're never completely surprised when these things happen because you know it's out there. It's a growing problem."
Since Gaddis' death, Troy police have trained Triad staff on how to identify heroin use.
The rise in heroin deaths isn't solely due to an increase in heroin use, however. Purity and price also are factors.
"It's a different kind of heroin," McCulloch said. "It's a more potent drug much more readily available to those with any means at all. I think that contributes to the number of deaths."
Some victims mixed their heroin with legally prescribed medications.
Kyle Harley already was using heroin before a 2005 car crash near Defiance left him paralyzed from the waist down. After the crash, he began abusing prescription medications such as Xanax, said his mother, Kaye Underwood.
In 2010, police arrested Harley on outstanding warrants for traffic violations and drunken driving, and he spent three months in the county jail in Clayton. On Sept. 13, 11 days after his release, police found Harley sitting at a sink in a room at a motel near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. He was slumped in his wheelchair with used syringes on the sinktop and heroin nearby. He was 26.
"The kids that are using this, they don't understand, you do it one time you are going to be hooked," Underwood said. "And after you are hooked, you will die. There's no question in my mind about that. It's not going to let you go, ever."
Haunted by memories of her son, Underwood moved to Florida in October.
"I miss the hell out of him," Underwood said. "He tried to get off of it. He tried and tried and tried and it just kept pulling him back. He was a joy. ... But he couldn't get away from the devil."
Benjamin Ritchie got hooked on painkillers after a back injury playing high school football. He exacerbated the injury working in a southern Indiana coal mine, where he swapped medications with co-workers, said his wife, Meghan Ritchie.
He died May 31, 2010, in a room at a motel in Collinsville. At the time, he was working as a paramedic in Belleville and was being investigated for stealing morphine from a Belleville hospital, according to the medical examiner's report.
When police made contact with his wife, who months before had kicked her husband out of the house because of his drug use, her first words were, "Let me guess — you found my husband dead of an overdose."
"If he wasn't high, he was the best person ever," Meghan Ritchie said. "It was night and day between the using person and the not-using person."
Ritchie, 29, a college graduate, left behind a 1-year-old daughter and a 2-month-old son.
Others also left children behind.
On Sept. 11, 2010, authorities found Josh M. Morgan, 21, dead on the bedroom floor of the Granite City home where he lived. Next to him, his wife, Amber Morgan, 18, sat cross-legged and slumped forward, her head in her lap. She, too, was dead. On a nearby bed was a mirror, razor blade, heroin and the couple's 5-month-old daughter, Lilly.
Amber Morgan's mother said the couple dated for about a year and married in January 2010. Lori Allen-Wright said her daughter, who dropped out of Granite City High School in 2009, quit using during her pregnancy, but resumed after Lilly was born. Lilly is living with family.
"Don't judge us and don't judge our children," Allen-Wright said. "Judge the drug. Yes, they make the choice to do it. But it's the drug. It's out there fast and furious right now, and it's killing a lot of people."
Some of the dead passed away in front of friends, family or fellow users, while others died alone in low-cost motels or in cars on convenience store parking lots. Some victims made it to an emergency room, where they might have lingered on life support before passing. But far more were found slumped on or near a toilet.
Some died from snorting, some from injecting. In several cases, the victim still clutched a syringe.
Many were found with, and in some cases had consumed, a cocktail of drugs that contributed to their death. Some mixed heroin with alcohol, an especially dangerous combination given that both can suppress breathing.
Max Hollensbe celebrated his brother's birthday on May 14, 2010, then went barhopping with a friend. They returned to the friend's Brentwood home, drinking until 5 a.m. Five hours later, Hollensbe was found dead in a chair on a screened-in porch. He was 27.
Brad Hall, 27, of New Florence, showed up at a friend's Breckenridge Hills house on the night of Feb. 4, 2011. Hall, who dropped out of Ritenour High School, told his friend he had consumed eight shots of whiskey. In the middle of the night, Hall told his friend he was thirsty. The friend said he splashed water on Hall's face and wiped away some mucus. He found Hall dead on the couch the next morning.
"He just drifted. He never wanted to grow up," said Hall's sister, Heather Morrison, of O'Fallon, Mo., who said she limited contact with her brother because of his drug use and frequent scrapes with the law. She isn't surprised her brother died young. What does surprise her and others who knew Hall is that it was heroin that killed him, she said.
"He was real naive ... which is why I don't think he knew what he was getting into," Morrison said.
This summer, St. Louis County police and drug counselors began a series of forums aimed at increasing awareness about the use of heroin. Similar forums were held in Illinois and the city of St. Louis.
Boschert said they initially planned to hold just three gatherings, but as word spread, more people showed up and school districts requested the program, which includes testimonials from users or parents of users.
While St. Louis County police don't track the number of cases that don't result in a fatality, Boschert said, "there are a lot of them."
In Illinois, prosecutors are using a get-tough approach, in some cases pursuing federal felony charges against anyone who supplies heroin that leads to a death. That doesn't just mean dealers, but even fellow users and even if no money is involved. Conviction means a 20-year minimum sentence. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, and Richard Callahan, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, disagree with that approach.
"I just don't see that as an appropriate charge in a situation where a guy goes out and buys some dope ... and then shares that with somebody else and somebody else dies from an overdose," McCulloch said.
Callahan said there would have to be aggravating circumstances for him to prosecute a heroin-related death case in federal court, such as if the victim were an unwitting user, the heroin resulted in multiple deaths or the supplier was a high-level dealer.
Callahan called the 20-year minimum sentence "a rather heavy-handed tool" that should be used sparingly.
"I don't intend to use it against low-level, shared users," Callahan said. "By my lights, that's not doing justice."
LOSING A SON
Shortly before he died, Chris Seebeck and his mother toured a college where he planned to enroll. By then, he'd been clean almost a year.
Then came that cold winter day and the trip to the parole office. Missouri Department of Correction officials said they could find no record of complaints from the Seebecks.
But Seebeck said she knew her son was high that day. She had seen it too many times before. She couldn't understand. Things were looking up. Why?
She sat up with him until 11:30 p.m.
"At least I got to say I loved him and hear that he loved me," she said.
The next morning, she found him still sitting on the couch, dead.