Heroin separated father from son until it was too late

October 07, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

AMONG THOSE who will pray tonight at the funeral for Eric Rondell Villines Jr. is his father, Eric Rondell Villines Sr., a man who was conspicuously missing from the life of this boy as it was chronicled in this newspaper last week - and as it was mostly lived for 16 years.

The story of this teenager is particularly tragic because his mother, Kim Armstrong, made an extra effort to save him from becoming a statistic. When she saw her son going the way of so many at-risk juveniles in Baltimore - getting in trouble at school, getting arrested, selling drugs - Armstrong quit her job to spend more time at home, and she posted rules of the house that she believed would get Eric back on a healthy track.

She thought she had righted him, so much so that Armstrong became an activist for better juvenile services throughout the state and spoke out as co-chairperson of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

And still the street got her son.

Someone shot Eric Villines several times as he walked out the back door of his Northeast Baltimore house on the night of Sept. 27. No arrests have been made.

The funeral is tonight at Vaughn-Green Funeral Home.

The boy's father will be there.

No reference was made to a father when the story first appeared in The Sun last week, but he lives - there is such a man. He is tall, slender, 39 years old and seems easygoing and pleasant. He grew up in Baltimore, not far from where Kim Armstrong raised their son. He never married Armstrong, but he paid child support for several years. He saw his son from time to time, took him on trips to visit family in North Carolina. The boy even lived with his father for a few months here and there.

Eric Villines Sr. was not among the invisible. He was not one of those deadbeats who get a young woman pregnant and never take responsibility for a child. Even Armstrong gives him that much. He paid child support for as long as he worked, and he worked until the heroin took over.

Heroin.

I can't go much further without mentioning that.

You can't really go into any crime-related story in Baltimore without coming across heroin.

Eric Rondell Villines Sr. got into heroin relatively late in life - when he was 28 and employed as a custodian at what was then Towson State University - and he never became a homeless, zombie-headed street junkie. "I was what they called a `functional addict,'" Villines tells me over coffee in a restaurant near his mother's house in Northeast Baltimore. "I managed to do heroin and go to work every day."

Work, yes. But Villines says he frequently stole various items and pawned them for the $100 he needed each day for his heroin; the custodian's job just didn't support his habit.

Villines says his thievery went on for a year before police accused him of stealing walkie-talkies from a Towson coach's office. Still, he was found not guilty of the charge, and he soon went on to another job at a Baltimore County apartment complex.

"I worked there in maintenance and as a groundskeeper for 10 years," Villines says.

And the whole time he was doing heroin.

"I hid it pretty well."

One time, when his son was 13 and visiting Villines at the rowhouse he rented in East Baltimore, the boy saw his father start to nod off.

"He asked me if I was OK," Villines says. "And that's when I told him, `I'm high,' and I said, `Do you know that?' He said, `Yeah, I know that,' and I said, `Are you all right with that?' And he said, `Yeah, I'm all right.'"

So his son knew Villines did dope. In fact, Villines says, his son would fight with other kids who called his daddy a junkie. "We were friends," Villines says. "Like best buddies."

At least when they were together, which was not all that often.

And as Kim Armstrong worked to keep her son straight, her effort was pretty much solo. Eric's father was in no position to tell him to stay away from drugs.

He might have accepted you and loved you, I tell Villines, but he probably wasn't going to listen to your admonitions.

Not while his father did heroin.

So there came a time, about three years ago, when the father decided it was time to make himself better. The heroin had taken over. He could no longer function as a working man. He decided to make a break and move to Philadelphia, to get treatment in a residential program there, called Stop and Surrender.

"I was tired of disappointing my family, my mother," Villines says. "And I didn't want my son to see me this way anymore."

He packed up and left Baltimore in August of 2001. He lived in a group home, then a rented place. For a time, his son moved to Philadelphia to be with him - and to get away from young men in Baltimore who had threatened him. But young Eric couldn't stay out of trouble; he got into fights and stole things from classmates at school in southwest Philly.

"I used to ask him why he did these things - `What is it?' - and he said he didn't know," the senior Villines says.

Eventually, the boy returned to Baltimore, and the father worked on beating his drug habit. He's been in recovery for a good while now, and he has a job cleaning floors in Philadelphia. He's come back to Baltimore only for his son's funeral.

"I'm so angry," Eric Rondell Villines Sr. says. "I'm angry that my son is a statistic. I'm angry that I wasn't around as much as I should have been, that I didn't take responsibility. ... I should have stayed on his back about staying out of trouble. I told him in July at a family reunion that, if he kept going the way he was going, he was going to end up in jail or 6 feet under.

"I wanted to take him away from [Baltimore] because I learned that sometimes to change yourself you got to change people, places and the things around you. ... We had plans. He was going to come live with me again. And now I'm clean and ..."

And the funeral is tonight.

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