Alan Walters was never sure of his purpose in life until he first held his infant son.
“I looked at him and I thought, ‘Now I know.’ It’s to love this little boy and provide the best I can. I’ll always tell him I love him. And we did.
“I wish I could have protected him from this.”
Heroin enslaved Taylor Walters before killing him last year at age 20. His death by overdose plunged Alan and his wife, Sheryl, into deep despair.
The horrors of heroin are in many ways still with the family – as the drug continues to exact a heavy toll throughout the region. Authorities say the number of deaths from the drug appears on track to shatter records this year in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, a spike driven largely by sales of heroin mixed with the powerful painkiller fentanyl.
“The bodies are piling up faster than the coroners’ offices can take care of all of them,” said Jan Scaglinone, a pharmacist with the Drug and Poison Information Center of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
The Butler County Coroner’s Office handled 50 fatal drug overdoses in the first quarter of the year – a 139 percent increase from the same period last year. Twenty-nine were from heroin, heroin spiked with fentanyl or fentanyl combined with something else.
Farther north, in Montgomery County, the coroner’s office is on pace to record 240 overdose deaths this year from heroin, fentanyl or a drug cocktail containing fentanyl. The county had 161 heroin deaths in 2013, 93 in 2012 and 50 in 2011.
Other coroners on both sides of the Ohio River, including Hamilton County’s, say they can’t provide accurate statistics on overdose deaths for the first quarter of the year because they still have toxicology reports pending as far back as late January. The trend, though, is clear.
Orman Hall, director of the Governor’s Cabinet Opiate Action Team in Ohio, said the rapid rise of fatal overdoses this year has been fueled by dealers’ “boosting” heroin with fentanyl.
“We have heard from several communities that fentanyl-laced heroin is becoming a very big problem,” Hall said, adding that the dangerous drug combination sent 20 people to emergency rooms over one weekend earlier this year in the Northeast Ohio city of Lorain.
Heroin Caused Lives to Spin Out of Control
Taylor Walters came from a good home. His parents, who work for a data processing company, have one younger child, 19-year-old Jenny, who attends a Christian college.
The handsome young man with blue eyes, blond hair and a dimpled smile helped out at his church’s vacation Bible school. He earned a spot on the dean’s list his freshman year at Eastern Kentucky University. He had a great sense of humor and many friends.
But he lacked a sense of self-worth, his father, 52, said. “I think to escape that, he started with drugs.”
In May 2012, shortly after returning home from his freshman year of college, he was arrested by police for crossing a double yellow line. He tested positive for marijuana.
On his 20th birthday, June 30, 2012, he was arrested for possession of heroin and LSD.
“Our lives spun out of control immediately,” Sheryl, 52, said.
Taylor completed a drug and alcohol detox program, then voluntarily began a three-month intensive outpatient program. His father, in a show of support, accompanied him to Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
“He was getting back on track,” his mother said.
As the holidays approached late that year, however, his parents noticed things were disappearing from the house. Sheryl’s good jewelry; Alan’s power tools.
Taylor had begun smoking cigarettes and was increasingly groggy. He’d doze off while watching TV or sitting at the dinner table.
When Alan noticed burn marks on his son’s hands, Taylor said he’d fallen asleep with a cigarette. A couple of days later, Alan saw marks on Taylor’s forearm.
“Is somebody hurting you?” Alan asked.
Taylor said no. He later explained a black eye by saying he’d been roughhousing with friends. A boot-shaped bruise on his chest, he said, was the result of a fall in the shower.
“None of this made sense,” Alan said.
Desperate Measures and An Apology
The day after Christmas, Taylor told his parents he was addicted to heroin and that he had been introduced to it in March 2012 by a family member. He also said he owed several thousand dollars to Cincinnati drug dealers. Several times they had been to the Walters home in the middle of the night, most recently on Dec. 23.
That night, they got Taylor to come outside by threatening to barge in. Then they threw him to the ground, held a gun to his head and demanded he pay them the next time they came or face dire consequences.
His parents tried to get him into a local residential treatment program, but the wait was six to 12 months. Nor could they get in to see a doctor who would prescribe Suboxone, a drug to treat heroin addiction.
“I was desperate,” Sheryl said. She got on the Internet and found the G&G Holistic Addiction Treatment Program in Miami, Fla. Taylor was admitted Dec. 29.
Before he left home, he wrote a note to his father inside the cover of a book called “Beautiful Boy.” The book, a gift from Sheryl to Alan, tells of author David Sheff’s journey through his son Nic’s addiction.
“I cannot in words write how deeply sorry I am to everyone, for everything,” Taylor wrote. “I’m taking charge of my life, so that I will live a good, happy life, to be with my family.” He ended the note using his nickname for his father: “I love you so much, Papa John.”
When Taylor’s 45-day stay at G&G ended, Alan and Sheryl picked him up from the Lexington airport. It was Feb. 11, 2013.
“He was clear-eyed, clear-thinking, the Taylor that we’ve always known,” Alan said. “It was, except for the day he was born, the greatest day of our lives.”
“Our beautiful boy was back,” Sheryl said. “He looked so great. And he was so happy. The whole way home, he’s telling us about all the friends he made, about the program, how excited he was to be home.”
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John Johnston and Jim Hannah