When Brianna Tighe heard the announcement that a close friend had died of a heroin overdose, she burst into tears and ran from her classroom at Westminster High School.
She later swore up and down to her younger sister that she would never even try heroin, that she could never do something so stupid.
Last month, nearly three years after the friend's death, police found Brianna, a former cheerleader and honor roll student, dead in a Pikesville motel room after using heroin and inhaling nitrous oxide.
To friends and family of the bubbly 18-year-old, Brianna's is the story of how drugs can pull in even those who seem like the most unlikely of victims. Even someone who forswore using the drug that has catapulted Carroll County into the national drug prevention spotlight with its "Heroin Kills" video and toe-tag bumper stickers. Even in a community more commonly known for its rolling hills and dairy farms than for the 15 people it has lost in the past four years to heroin overdoses, five of them this year.
"One assumes that just because someone has a lot of potential and is real smart that they won't get into drugs," said Brianna's younger sister, Barbara "Kriistal" Tighe. "But it doesn't matter how much potential you have. It can still happen."
Before the downward spiral that would take her from the heights of popularity and straight A's to an unhealthy dependence on drug-using boyfriends, Brianna certainly had potential.
She was smart. She was popular. She was pretty. The summer before her freshman year at Westminster High, Brianna began spending her days with her three best friends - her younger sister, her cousin, Danielle Fuller, and her friend Clare Pavey. The girls affectionately referred to their tight-knit group as the Daisy Club.
They spent lazy summer afternoons at Cascade Lake in Hampstead and in the two-story treehouse in Clare's backyard. They talked about boys and left notes in each other's basket mailboxes and took regular votes on which of them was the prettiest. The foursome wrote a pact, changing the words of the Pledge of Allegiance to devote themselves "to hipness and loveliness for all."
"Back then, she was very carefree," recalled Clare, 18, now a freshman business major at Western Maryland College in Westminster. "This was between eighth and ninth grade, when all girls are very insecure. As the oldest, I was the leader of the group, but she had such a strong personality that she was always dying to be the leader."
In school, Brianna studied hard, working toward a 4.0 grade point average and vying for an honor roll bumper sticker that her father could display on his minivan. She thought about becoming a lawyer, then a psychologist, then an interior designer.
She joined the cheerleading squad and spent hours with the service organization Key Club, selling flowers as a fund-raiser, decorating the gym for the school's annual semi-formal Valentine's Day dance, and wrapping and delivering presents at Christmas to a family in need.
`She turned wild'
Friends began to notice a change in Brianna in the fall of 1997, during her sophomore year. She started smoking, first cigarettes and then marijuana. She became less interested in school and more interested in finding ways to get out of the house to see her boyfriend, who worked with her at a Westminster Burger King."[He] is how she turned wild," recalled Kriistal, now 17. "Her desperation to see [him] transformed her from a goody-goody student into a totally codependent girlfriend. She changed from a leader to a follower, from an achiever to someone who would do anything for one person."
In January 1998, the heroin overdose of 15-year-old Liam O'Hara captured the attention of much of the Carroll community. The Westminster High sophomore had been a close friend of Brianna's. They worked together at Burger King and had eaten dinner together the night before Liam's body was found.
His death provoked Brianna's promise not to make the same mistake.
Shortly after the start of her junior year, Brianna left Westminster to live with her mother, Melanie Carr Tighe, who owns a floor covering store in West Virginia. Although Brianna attended school there, she soon dropped out - only three credits shy of her graduation requirements.
Michael Tighe, Brianna's father, said the family discovered that Brianna was using drugs while she was living in West Virginia.
By then, it was cocaine. And by then, there was a new boyfriend.
"She started staying out all night and sleeping all day," said her father, Michael Tighe, who works as a cable line technician and lives with his second wife and two of his four children in a white colonial outside Westminster.
Brianna was never arrested, family members said, and her relatives only briefly considered turning her in to police. Instead, her family sent her to a rehabilitation program in May.
She stayed only two hours, complaining to her sister, "I can't stand this place. It's full of all these drug addicts."