Pubdate: Sun, 08 Jan 2017
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2017 The Baltimore Sun Company


[photo] Bruce Brandler is chief federal law enforcement officer for a
sprawling judicial district that covers half of Pennsylvania. (Matt Rourke
/ Associated Press)

The phone at Bruce Brandler's home rang at 3:37 a.m. It was the local
hospital. His 16-year-old son was there, and he was in really bad shape.

A suspected heroin overdose, the nurse said.

Brandler didn't believe it. Erik had his problems, but heroin? It seemed

Nearly 10 years later, the nation is gripped by a spiraling crisis of
opioid and heroin abuse -- and Brandler, a veteran federal prosecutor
recently promoted to interim U.S. attorney, suddenly finds himself in a
position to do something about the scourge that claimed his youngest son's

Until now, he had never publicly discussed Erik's overdose death. It was
private and just too painful. But Brandler, now the chief federal law
enforcement officer for a sprawling judicial district that covers half of
Pennsylvania, said he felt a responsibility with his new, higher-profile

"It's easier to cope with the passage of time, but it never goes away,"
Brandler told the Associated Press in an interview. "And, frankly, this
whole heroin epidemic has brought it to the forefront."

[photo] Bruce Brandler's youngest son, Erik, died of a heroin overdose
nearly 10 years ago. (Bruce Brandler)

Fatal heroin overdoses have more than quintupled in the years since
Brandler lost his son. The illicit drug, along with highly addictive
prescription pain relievers like oxycodone and fentanyl -- a substance
more powerful than heroin -- now rival car crashes as the leading cause of
accidental death in the U.S.

Erik's death proved that heroin doesn't discriminate, Brandler said. He
urged parents to "open their eyes" to the threat and talk to their kids.

"I want to evaporate the myth that heroin addicts are just homeless
derelicts," said Brandler, who, before his son's overdose, held that
impression himself. "This epidemic hits everybody, and I think my
situation exemplifies that."

The opioid crisis was already taking root when Brandler began having
problems with Erik, the youngest of his three children. The teenager's
grades dropped, his friends changed and he began keeping irregular hours.
Brandler found marijuana in his room and talked to him about it, figuring
that was the extent of his drug use.

Then, in spring 2007, Erik overdosed on Ecstasy and had to be treated at a

"That elevated it to a different level as far as I was concerned -- a much
more serious level -- and I took what I thought were appropriate steps,"
Brandler said.

He called the police on his son's dealer, who was prosecuted. That summer,
Erik completed an intensive treatment program that included frequent drug
testing. Brandler thought his son had turned a corner.

He was mistaken.

On the night of Aug. 18, 2007, Erik and an older friend paid $60 for three
bags of heroin. After shooting up, Erik passed out. His breathing became
labored, his lips pale. But his companions didn't seek medical treatment,
not then and not for hours. Finally, around 3 a.m., they dropped him off
at the hospital.

At 5:40 a.m. he was pronounced dead.

Five people were charged criminally, including Erik's friend, who received
more than five years in prison.

Brandler still doesn't know why his son, who excelled at tennis, went to a
good school and had loads of friends, turned to heroin.

"I thought about that, of course, but it's really a waste of energy and
emotions to go down that road because I'll never know the answer,"
Brandler said from his office near the Pennsylvania Capitol, where a
framed photo of Erik -- strapping, shaggy-haired and swinging a tennis
racket -- sits on a credenza.

What he can do is join his fellow prosecutors in tackling the problem.

In September, the Justice Department ordered all 93 U.S. attorneys across
the country to come up with a strategy for combating overdose deaths from
heroin and painkillers. Brandler released his plan, covering 3.2 million
people in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, last month. Like others,
it focuses on prevention, enforcement and treatment.

He said his office would prioritize opioid cases resulting in death, and
aggressively prosecute doctors who overprescribe pain pills.

Additionally, prosecutors will hit the road -- bringing physicians,
recovering addicts, family members of overdose victims and others with
them -- to talk to schools and hard-hit communities.

Parents need to know that "if you think it can't happen to you, it can,"
Brandler said. "If it happened to me as a federal prosecutor, I think it
can happen to anyone, and that's really the message I want to get out."

Federal appeals Judge Thomas Vanaskie says it's a message that needs to be

"Education is the most important thing to me," said Vanaskie, who helps
run a court program that gets federal convicts back on their feet and who
has been working with a former heroin addict who robbed a bank to feed his
addiction. "We've got to prevent people from becoming users."

Vanaskie, who has known Brandler for years, commended him for speaking out.

"Hearing it from him becomes so much more powerful," Vanaskie said. "I
know it causes great personal pain on his part, but he personalizes,
humanizes this matter."
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