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Heroin nightmare: David McCarthy's story

Heroin is no longer an inner-city scourge for dead-end junkies

FALMOUTH, Maine – Everything finally seemed back on track. David was home for a short visit and looked happy, calm. He had a job, a girlfriend, a plan. His father, Kevin McCarthy, came home from work that Thursday and smiled to see his son take his dog, Kima, named for the drug-fighting detective on "The Wire," out for a long walk.

When David came back, father and son settled in to watch their Patriots play the Jets on "Thursday Night Football." David gave his father grief about the TV being too small: "Come on, Dad, get with the 21st century." Near halftime, David got up and said he was going to watch part of the game at a friend's place.

When David returned an hour later, they watched the end of the game together. The Patriots won, barely. Kevin went to work the next morning, and he returned home Friday afternoon at 4:30. It was to be David's last night at home before he drove up to Sugarloaf Mountain to spend the winter at the family's ski place, working in a restaurant, his passion.

HOW DAVID DIED

From the countryside of New England to the cities of the Midwest, the most deadly epidemic of heroin use in half a century is tearing at the fabric of American life.

Part 1: David McCarthy's story

Part 2: 'The angel of death'

Part 3: Starting with Oxys

Part 4: 'He decided not to be'

Part 5: Enabling and denial

Part 6: Michael's story

Part 7: No more secrets


Kevin, who had moved his family to this splendid spot on the Maine coast after finding the life of a high-powered Manhattan attorney too frazzling, and Nancy, David's stepmother, had decided against taking David out to dinner on his last night home — there would be too much temptation to drink. Why risk it with David on the good path? So Kevin had gone out, bought a steak and thrown it on the grill.

Then he heard whining from upstairs. Kima, David's black lab.

"Dave? Dave!" the father yelled up.

He heard just the dog. He went up, opened the door and saw David's feet on the floor. His boy was cold.

"It was pretty clear he was dead," the father said. David was 29.

The needle was on the bed, next to him. The spoon was on the nightstand. A crystalline substance glistened in the spoon.

Kevin tried to revive his son, pumping, pushing, pleading. He called 911. He argued with the operator, who had the location wrong. The operator kept telling Kevin to calm down.

The next 20 hours were a blur of police sirens, ambulances, drug agents, cops, friends and the rest of the family, now coming home for the worst possible reason.

All of that hell — even before a second son overdosed on heroin, the very next night.

They were kids who had it made, at least on paper. The McCarthys' rambling farmhouse on U.S. 1, not a quarter-mile from the ocean, had a separate wing for the boys. They called it The Bunkhouse. They had cars, money and plenty of independence, like many teens in Falmouth, a town of 11,000, a place of privilege just across a short bridge from Portland, the state's largest city.

It's a place now ravaged by heroin — four overdoses, two of them fatal, in the past 10 months, in a town more accustomed to nothing of the kind. Maine is at the burning core of a nationwide heroin epidemic, the perverse outcome of a well-intentioned drive to save Americans from the last drug craze, a widespread hunger for heroin's chemical cousin, prescription opiate pills such as Oxycontin.

Heroin — now cheap, plentiful and more potent than ever — is killing people at record rates. Across the nation, deaths from heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled in the decade ending in 2013, according to a new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Maine, deaths from heroin overdoses ballooned from seven in 2010 to 57 last year. Two-thirds of the victims were, like David, adults in their 20s and 30s. In 2012, heroin accounted for 8 percent of the caseload for Maine's Drug Crimes Task Force; last year, it jumped to 32 percent. In Portland, the number of addicts served by the needle exchange nearly doubled in just two years. Today in Maine, a single tablet of Oxycontin often costs $50; addicts can find a single-dose packet of heroin for as little as $10.

David and his friends, like their parents, always thought of heroin as an inner-city scourge, something for strung-out, dead-end junkies. An entirely different trajectory had been set for them.

David's mother, Anne Ireland, an artist, took him down to New York a couple of times a year to see Broadway shows. Cute and friendly with his tousled hair and toothy smile, David was the youngest of her three boys; she wanted him to be a kid who liked to sit and read, like his brothers. She limited their TV to weekends, "with the 'Seinfeld' exception," she said. But what had worked for her older boys didn't seem to take with David.

"He was always different," she said. "He had every opportunity. He had parents who loved him. He seemed to reject that for the love of his peers. He wanted so desperately to be cool and older."

When David was starting at Falmouth High School, his parents split up. Beginning in 10th grade, he lived with his father; his relationship with his mother frayed.

David and his friends started smoking marijuana in middle school.

"We all shared this land of being a little different from the rest of the family, almost black sheep," said John Palman, a longtime friend. "We were all the youngest siblings, with successful older sibs."

In 10th grade, one of David's stepbrothers, Michael, an avid snowboarder, suffered an injury and was prescribed codeine and then Oxycontin, an opiate painkiller. It was an at-will prescription; he could get more whenever he wanted. Michael — whose family asked that he be identified by his middle name — offered some pills to David and his friends.

Soon, David was buying Oxys from a guy in the grocery store parking lot.

"The driving force was to test the unknown," said a high school friend of David's who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was admitting to extensive drug use. "I thought I wasn't in the lower socioeconomic group, so I'm not going to get hooked like people of that group."

Oxys were no party drug. They were, the friend said, "a drug of isolation."

HOW DAVID DIED: Read part 2 of the series

But David and his friends had a group of their own, too — affluent kids such as David, and kids from the other Maine, the towns where mills once flourished, where too many people now have too few options. At a suburban school such as Falmouth's, teens from both worlds came together.

"You're sitting next to the kid who's in the country club and you're not anywhere near that social strata," Falmouth Police Chief Ed Tolan said.

David's group coalesced around drugs, mostly marijuana and pills. A decade later, drugs remained their bond, but they had stepped up to something far more deadly.

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