Strong anti-drug fighter

Mission: A Westminster father still speaks on the dangers of heroin six years after his son's death.

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 Liam's death. 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, O'Hara, 49, 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.

"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."

O'Hara knew that Liam - his second of three children, born between two straight-A students who excelled at such diverse interests as soccer and modeling - was no angel. By his sophomore year at Westminster High School, Liam was smoking marijuana, leaving bongs around the house and, O'Hara suspected, testing his parents and his independence.

A few months into his junior year in the fall of 1997, Liam's grades dropped. He was alternately sleepy and irritable, nodding off at times and instigating fights with his older brother.

O'Hara took Liam to Junction, the county's substance abuse prevention and outpatient-treatment program. There, on Dec. 19, 1997, an addictions counselor assured the father that whatever drug problems his son had were not serious.

Seventeen days later - and just nine hours after O'Hara had helped fix his son's cable reception and told him he loved him - Liam was dead. The fatal dose of heroin he snorted likely cost $5.

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