6 years later, dad continues anti-drug fight

Westminster teen's death spurred county campaign

`[Heroin] is not a playful drug'

Annual summit to assess progress set for tonight

November 04, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

In the days after he found his 15-year-old son dead of a heroin overdose in their Westminster home, Mike O'Hara learned things about his youngest boy that a father never wants to hear.

Among the more alarming revelations was that Liam O'Hara had gone to Baltimore less than three weeks before his death with friends, and one of them was arrested while trying to buy drugs.

"We didn't know they had gone there, we didn't know he was in the city and we never got a call from his ... friend's mom saying, `My son was arrested and Liam was with him,'" O'Hara recalled. "We were really upset that there were probably people out there who knew Liam was involved with heroin but never said anything."

Much has changed in the nearly six years since the death of a teen-ager who preferred gymnastics and the Discovery Channel to school shocked a complacent community out of inaction. Because of the burst of activism after Liam's death in January 1998, the kind of ignorance and denial that left many parents resistant to the suggestion that Carroll County had quietly developed a heroin addiction is far less common.

Waiting lists at the county's primary outpatient drug treatment center have been eliminated. A residential treatment center for young adults is in the works in Sykesville. And although statistics show an apparent increase in heroin use among young adults in Carroll, they also suggest that use of the drug among county high-schoolers, after peaking in 1999, has plummeted.

The local anti-heroin campaign's distinctive image - a toe-tag that reads "Heroin Kills," splashed across county billboards and bumper stickers - leaves no question that people have responded to the drug's arrival in the small towns, sprawling housing developments and rolling farmland of Carroll County.

Although it is not the only suburban enclave to fall victim to such a problem, Carroll County's fight against heroin is a campaign for which the community became nationally known.

The county is so strongly associated with its heroin battle that a Texas woman seated beside a county employee on a flight in March 2001 remarked, "Oh, you're from the county that has the heroin problem." The Texan had seen the public service announcements produced by Residents Attacking Drugs, the grassroots Carroll group that distributed an anti-heroin film to hundreds of school districts, police departments and community organizations in 43 states and eight countries.

"Because of the awareness program, a lot of people are categorizing Carroll County as Heroin City," said George Butler, a drug investigator with the county state's attorney's office. "But we're no different. We just acknowledged it."

Tonight, the community's prosecutors and police, activists and addiction counselors will come together to assess the state of drug abuse in Carroll County at the county's annual drug summit in Westminster. With a nod to the progress made since Liam's death, the theme of this year's gathering is "Maintaining the Gain."

To summit organizers, there is no better teacher on that topic than Mike O'Hara.

"Mike is from Carroll County. Mike is of Carroll County," said Mark Yount, the substance abuse prevention coordinator at Junction Inc. "The death of his son is what started the fervor in confronting and dealing with this problem."

After spending five years on a grueling public speaking schedule that would make almost anyone weary, streaks of gray have found their way into O'Hara's mustache and brown hair. But the 49-year-old remains eager and unflinchingly dedicated to his mission of keeping as many parents as possible from knowing the pain he and his family have experienced.

"I'm not sure there are good words to describe that place," he said. "When I talk to kids, I try to explain the impact of not just a child dying but also losing that relationship. I was totally shattered."

Asked during an interview last week at his home how he is doing these days, O'Hara shakes his head and removes his glasses. It's a hard question.

O'Hara, soft-spoken and slight of build, is an unlikely spokesman.

He works for the National Security Agency, the most secretive of the federal government's intelligence-gathering agencies. Although he won't describe his job, he served as a Russian interpreter in the Army, earned advanced degrees in Slavic languages and linguistics and can "get by" in German and Spanish.

He speaks fondly of Westminster - the city his parents chose for their brood of nine when they moved from Scranton, Pa., in 1964.

To him, the "small town" remains a place where boys with whom he went to school now hold titles such as mayor and police chief; where he was so recognized as a local musician and kids' soccer coach that he contemplated changing his license plate to "Mr. Mike." And where a neighbor once pointed out even before the O'Haras had noticed that the small light kept burning in the third floor window of what used to be Liam's bedroom had gone out.

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