Pubdate: Wed, 16 Oct 2013
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2013 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Christy Gutowski


After the Bears squeaked by the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Sunday night 
four years ago, Donna Roberts texted her youngest child, Billy, to 
see if he'd caught the game. He didn't respond, and then his friend 
called. Billy was at his home, and he wasn't breathing.

John Roberts, a retired Chicago police officer, scrambled to his car 
and was within minutes of reaching his son when a paramedic came on 
the line: "Sir, you've lost him."

William Michael Roberts died Sept. 20,2009, of a heroin overdose. 
Soon after he said goodbye, Roberts began a crusade aimed at the drug 
that claimed his 19-year-old son's life.

The Homer Glen man partnered with another local father, Brian Kirk, 
who suffered a similar loss five months earlier. The dads formed the 
Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization, or HERO, a charity whose goals 
include raising awareness and providing support for addicts and families.

"I call it the epidemic no one is talking about," Roberts said. 
"People think 'not my kid,' and so did we, but this drug is so 
seductive, so addictive. It just swallows you up. It's in all our 
communities. If we do nothing, we have yet to see how bad it can hit us."

The Chicago suburbs are witnessing a growing toll of heroin 
fatalities. Authorities in DuPage and Will counties, in particular, 
reported record numbers last year. With nearly three months left in 
the year, DuPage, with 41 deaths, is close to surpassing last year's 
total of 43.

The victims cross all social lines and include teens who experts say 
tried heroin for the first time after abusing prescription 
painkillers. Heroin is cheaper, easier to get, and now can be smoked 
and snorted as well as injected.

During 33 years as a Chicago police officer and homicide detective, 
Roberts was well aware of the drug's allure. But he long believed law 
enforcement's traditional lock-them-up approach was the way to win 
the war on drugs. Billy, he said, taught him otherwise.

Roberts, 61, now sees addiction as a disease, not a crime. He 
embraces efforts to cut off the demand through increased public 
education, access to treatment and alternative sentencing options for 
users - not dealers.

Roberts, who was named Cook County Forest Preserve District police 
chief in March, compares the impact of heroin on a family to a speeding bullet.

"It destroys everything in its path."

'Death rattle'

John and Donna Roberts raised two girls and two boys in a bungalow. 
The kids attended a nearby Catholic school in the city's Beverly neighborhood.

Their last child, Billy, was a "surprise," his mother said. He was a 
budding entrepreneur who in sixth grade started Billy's Lawn Care, 
complete with promotional fliers. Billy invested profits to buy his 
own equipment.

As captain of his eighth-grade soccer team, he was called "The Wall" 
by teammates. His trophies filled the bedroom he shared with his older brother.

The summer before Billy's freshman year in high school, Roberts, who 
had recently retired as a Chicago police captain, moved his family 
into a bigger home in Will County. Each child had a bedroom and 
enjoyed a sprawling yard with a pool and view of a farm and pumpkin patch.

The parents now wonder whether their move to the suburbs during 
Billy's formative years contributed to his drug use.

Their son, they said, was more of a leader than a follower, but he 
also was a daredevil who easily grew anxious and lost interest in 
things when he didn't immediately excel. Once a popular athlete, 
Billy was now in the much larger Lockport Township High School 
District 205 and in search of new friends. At some point, he began 
experimenting with drugs.

The couple said they figured he was just trying to find a place to 
fit in and, perhaps, encountered some bad influences at school or 
through his part-time job, exposing him to marijuana and cocaine. At 
17, he admitted using cocaine when his parents confronted him.

Billy spent 44 days in a residential treatment program, and for a 
while, his parents believed the worst was behind them. He held down a 
job and continued with the home schooling they set up after treatment.

Soon, though, one of his sisters said she heard a weird snoring sound 
coming from her brother's room. Roberts calls it heroin's "death 
rattle." They gave Billy CPR until paramedics arrived.

"All the way to the hospital we were praying," Roberts said. "When we 
got there, I dropped to my knees begging the Lord, 'Please, spare Billy.' "

Their prayers were answered. That day.

Losing him

When Billy was back home, the couple said, they sat at their kitchen 
table for hours trying to come up with a plan.

They began calling the phone numbers listed on a hospital handout of 
treatment providers. Some no longer existed. Others were closed for 
the weekend.

"We were scared out of our wits," said Donna Roberts, 54. "We just 
thought, 'How do we save our son?' "

Said her husband: "With all I knew as a police officer, and all we 
knew as parents, we still were so utterly lost on how to help him."

Donna Roberts said she asked Billy what it would take for him to stay 
clean. He suggested they move. The couple put their house up for sale 
days later. When it didn't sell right away, Roberts moved into his 
mother's South Side house with Billy to get him out of what the 
father considered a bad environment.

One month later, Billy was back in the hospital after another overdose.

As soon as he was released, Roberts put him in a car and drove 
straight to his sister's Lake Geneva home. They didn't even stop for 
a change of clothes. For the next six weeks, he and Billy lived there 
together. The father and son returned home with hope, but by now both 
understood heroin's addictive power and that relapse is often the norm.

The parents helped their son get a job at a hotel and moved him into 
an apartment with one of his sisters, who tried to keep an eye on 
him. But it wasn't long before he was slipping again. So the parents 
brought him back home.

Roberts said he stayed up most nights to check on Billy and analyze 
his cellphone for call patterns and contacts. The parents kept 
prescription drugs in a locked safe. There were written contracts, 
written confessionals, addiction counseling, heart-to-heart talks, 
nightly prayers and long hours spent in front of the computer or on 
the phone researching treatment programs and how to pay for them.

Donna Roberts said she asked her son to explain what goes through his 
mind when he uses heroin.

"He would say, 'I'm not thinking anything. I'm just doing what my 
brain tells me it needs.' "

"We kept seeing signs he was getting through it," Donna Roberts said. 
"We never lost hope. He was such a good, strong kid."

The couple eventually came to the hardest decision a parent has to 
make. Fearing they were enabling him, they told him to get into 
treatment again or move out. They hoped the ultimatum would work.

That weekend, Billy went back to the South Side neighborhood where he 
grew up to see his old friends. He said he wanted to think about his 
next move. Roberts said he and his wife thought he'd be safe. They 
knew their son's friends to be drug-free.

Then their phone rang. A friend told them Billy stayed behind when 
the others went to a Sox game. They found him unconscious on a 
basement couch. With his wife next to him, Roberts got there as fast 
as he could.

"He looked just like he was sleeping wrapped in his favorite 
blanket," Donna Roberts said. "I remember saying, ' OK, Billy, just 
open your eyes now. Just open your eyes.' "

HERO is born

The couple had their son's body cremated. His ashes were scattered in 
Lake Michigan off Diversey Harbor in Lincoln Park - where the family 
often fished and swam.

One of the signatures in the guest book from Billy's wake caught 
Donna Roberts' attention.

The entry read, "Matthew Kirk's father."

Five months earlier, on April 3, 2009, Brian Kirk found his 
18-year-old son in a fetal position in their Homer Glen home. Kirk, 
58, said Matthew died of a heroin overdose weeks before his high 
school graduation.

"I helped put my son in the body bag," said Kirk, an assistant chief 
engineer at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Kirk said he didn't know of Billy Roberts until after the teen's 
death when he learned Billy and Matthew had been friends. Kirk felt 
compelled to attend Billy's memorial service. When Donna Roberts saw 
his guest book entry, she remembered her son telling her about 
Matthew's death and called Kirk so they could meet and talk. Sharing 
information, they tallied up how many local kids were in treatment or 
had died of a heroin overdose.

"A few weeks later, I called John and said, ' We need to do 
something,' " Kirk said.

HERO was born. The group's efforts include speaking at schools and 
community events and providing free counseling and grief support. 
Roberts also lobbied for a "good Samaritan" law that grants immunity 
from prosecution to those who call 911 for an overdose victim if the 
amount of drug is under a certain amount.

Roberts said he has learned that parents alone can't save their 
children. An addict, he said, needs a daily support system of expert 
and family resources. Roberts encourages others not to let the stigma 
associated with addiction stop them from reaching out for help 
wherever they can find it.

While her husband finds solace and strength in his activism, Donna 
Roberts said she struggles to cope. At times, she finds it 
overwhelming. She fainted at HERO's first event, and her husband 
jumped down from the stage to help her. She said she dreams of having 
just one more moment with Billy.

Her message for others fighting a similar battle: Never give up.

"Just because our story didn't have a happy ending doesn't mean yours 
won't," she said. "As long as they are alive, there's still hope."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom