Pain and Redemption

Veteran sportscaster Kieth Mills battles addiction and the embarrassment of a public figure's downfall

August 24, 2006|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Reporter

In a cramped broadcast studio on Television Hill, in the shadow of a 1,000-foot transmitter that rises to the heavens like the stern finger of God, Keith Mills searches for redemption.

Once he was a high-profile sports anchor for WMAR-TV, but he figures there's no sense crying about that anymore.

Now he wakes up each morning at the ungodly hour of 2:45, when even the muggers are sleeping, and goes off to his new job as the morning sports guy for WBAL-Radio and sister station 98-Rock, delivering reports with his trademark can't-wait-to-tell-ya enthusiasm and a Bal'mer accent thicker than the humidity.

But here is the thing about redemption: Mills knows it comes from more than just a paycheck.

So he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three or four times a week. He checks in weekly at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center. He gets drug-tested, and when a man submits to the indignity of handing a cup of urine to a jail employee, the desire for redemption becomes even more overwhelming.

These days, when Mills takes calls from his two teenage kids or his sister or his agent, and they ask how he's doing, he tells them: "I'm doing well. But you know how that goes."

And he is doing well, especially for a guy on house arrest. But that's right now. And without getting all Dr. Phil about it, Mills doesn't want to think much beyond right now.

The main thing is, he wants people to know he's trying.

Mainly what he's trying to do is not repeat the events of that Wednesday evening seven months ago, when a bottle of prescription painkillers sang a siren's song and his whole world collapsed - again.

Some said he got off easy, but it sure doesn't feel that way to Mills.

"I'll never forget the humiliation of that night," he said. "It plays back in my mind every day. I think about that every day. And believe me, that is a very strong deterrent."

How could it not be?

For Mills, 48, that evening was another astonishing fall from grace, only this one was like tumbling from the top of the Grand Canyon and hitting every jagged rock and scrub pine on the way down.

Two years after receiving probation for phoning in a fake prescription for hydrocodone - and admitting an addiction to narcotic pain medicine - he was arrested for something that sounded like it came straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

This time it was for stealing the painkillers Oxycontin and hydrocodone from a neighbor in Linthicum, the woman who lived next door.

Worse yet, she was a cancer patient. The police said Mills let himself into her house when she was away. They had it all on videotape, courtesy of a surveillance system the woman's family had installed. Then the officers set up a stakeout and watched him take a bottle of her pills, and arrested him later at his home.

Not long after, they led him in handcuffs and leg shackles in front of a court commissioner in Glen Burnie. And when the commissioner asked whether he had a drug or alcohol problem, Mills replied: "Prescription pain medications."

That night he was all over the TV news: Keith Mills, popular Channel 2 personality, doing a perp walk in front of the cameras after his arraignment.

They showed him heading, grim and ashen-faced, to the car of his ex-wife, Elizabeth Barillaro, the camera lingering on him for what seemed like forever as she fumbled to unlock the passenger-side door.

It was so painful to watch for Scott Garceau, Mills' friend and broadcast partner at WMAR for 19 years, that he sat in stunned silence "with a knot in my stomach."

It was so painful to watch that Diane Bennett, Mills' sister, couldn't. She stabbed at the "off" button on the remote in her Severna Park home.

She was still reeling from an earlier phone call from her mother, informing her of Mills' arrest. "It literally took my breath away," she says. "I doubled over."

It was so painful that longtime Channel 2 cameraman Preston Mitchum, shooting his old friend outside the courthouse, told colleagues "it was the hardest thing I ever had to do."

So much pain, so much embarrassment, so much guilt. Nobody felt it more than the man who caused it all. Try living with that weighing you down every day.

That's why a man awakes hours before dawn and goes looking for redemption.

The beginning

How did things get this bad?

How did a guy from Brooklyn Park, a star athlete in high school, a fixture on the local sports-media scene for years - including co-host duties on a weekly TV show on WMAR about high school sports sponsored by The Sun - a man in an ego-driven business who was widely admired because he was so down-to-earth - such a nice guy - develop a jones for prescription meds?

Mills says it started in 2002, with a degenerative disc problem in his back. He went to a pain management clinic. They prescribed hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller.

"I took the medication as prescribed, and gradually I started taking a little bit more, because my body was adjusting to the medication," he says. "And then before you know it, I was addicted to it.

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