Since 2004, the number of deaths attributed to heroin use have skyrocketed, ballooning to eight times the number of deaths seen 10 years ago, according to data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
A 50-year-old wife and mother.
A 25-year-old father.
A family man known for his work ethic.
An adventurous son.
These are some of the faces of heroin in the Hannibal community.
The debilitating drug — which has spread like a cancer across Missouri, inflicting its wrath on small towns sometimes just as bad as on urban centers — doesn’t discriminate. It affects both young and old, whites, blacks, Hispanics, the poor and well-off, those with a stable family life and those who come from broken homes.
Collin McHargue came from a family of police and first responders when he died in August 2015.
Lisa Weathers, a mother with a history of substance abuse, died following her first encounter with heroin in October 2014.
Justin Bates had a strong faith and aspired someday to be a preacher when the drug claimed his life last month.
And Ollie Scott, remembered by his family as someone who would help anyone, died in July.
Since 2004, the number of deaths attributed to heroin use have skyrocketed, ballooning to eight times the number of deaths seen 10 years ago, according to data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. The Missouri State Highway Patrol reports the number of emergency room visits related to a heroin overdose has continued to rise over the past 10 years.
But, according to the families of heroin victims, it’s not the drug that defines them.
It’s not death.
“For people with a drug problem, that does not define the person they are,” Angela Akridge, Bates’ mother, said.
A call to action
Charlotte Scott and Beverly Collier never want to forget the good times they shared with their brother. And Scott has a strong reason to talk about how heroin took his life: To “give somebody else a chance, the chance I didn’t get.”
Collier and Scott lost their brother, Ollie “O.J.” Scott, to a heroin overdose on July 30. Scott said she sees the effects of addiction of each day as she treats patients at Comprehensive Health Systems. Akridge — Scott’s co-worker at Comprehensive Health — also sees what addiction does to a person.
Both women have encountered addiction with loved ones.
Scott could relate Akridge’s personal pain when Bates died barely a week after O.J.’s death.
Akridge said she hopes for a future with more diligent probation efforts for someone who is addicted to heroin, coupled with easily-accessible long-term treatment options. She also hopes for the stigma that surrounds heroin addiction use to be broken.
Mike Weathers, who lost his wife Lisa to a heroin overdose in 2014, agreed.
“I think people don’t have compassion on people who have this kind of problem,” he said.
Weathers said that local law enforcement officials are doing the best they can, but he hopes to see stiff sentences for everyone selling heroin in the community.
Hannibal Police Lt. Mike McHargue, who lost his son Collin in 2015, is sharing the impact of Collin’s life and how he passed away. The McHargue family had a video made that shows how Collin’s death profoundly affected the lives of everyone around them. The video has been shown to students, congregations and law enforcement agencies in the area and across the state, establishing a personal connection and encouraging dialogue about heroin and addiction.
All agree the curtain of silence surrounding heroin should fall.
“O.J.’s death isn’t going to be for no reason,” Scott said.
“Emotionally, it killed us inside,” Collier, O.J.’s other sister said. “We don’t want it to kill anybody else.”
Memories never lost
During the video about Collin McHargue’s life, a picture flashes on of him smiling during a game of paintball with his brother, his cousin and School Resource officer Jonathan Borgmeyer. Mike McHargue remembers fondly Collin’s fun-loving, caring nature and impulsive streak — he had purchased hair dye to change up his hairstyle just before he died.
For Akridge, the memories of her kind son who wanted to be a preacher provide comfort against the pain of losing him to heroin at the age of 25.
“He had a really good heart,” Akridge said.
While accompanying his mother to church, Bates cried throughout the entire service. Just 20 days before his death, he posted an inspiring Facebook message.
“He thought everything was OK,” Akridge said. “He thought God had a plan for him.”
Akridge smiled when she remembered how much her son loved his daughter, who recently shared a dream with her aunt.
“God brought Daddy down and told her everything would be alright. He’s with me,” Akridge said.
Charlotte Scott remembers how her brother was a talented artist, a hard worker and always willing to lend a helping hand. Her sister remembered his compassion, too.
“If I got a flat, my brother would be here to fix it in a heartbeat,” Collier said.
Now, Scott said she is “living with memories” of her brother, and she hoped that community outreach and more intensive treatment efforts might help those battling heroin addiction. She said she hoped that his story could help save at least one life in somebody’s family.
Weathers said that all of the families affected by heroin and other drugs hold tightly to memories that will never fade, and he wanted the community to remember every person, too.
“We really do miss her,” he said of his wife. “She’s not forgotten, and she’ll never be forgotten.”
Weathers remembered that his wife loved her children, and she was a “compassionate, loving, kind, person” to everyone around her.
But one fateful visit and her first encounter with heroin ended up being her last.
A deadly path
Weathers said his wife had a history with other drugs, but she had never tried heroin until she went to a home on Richmond Street on Oct. 10, 2014. Weathers said that his wife’s bipolar condition affected her decision-making, and the couple had an appointment scheduled to seek medical treatment on Oct. 24 in Columbia.
But they didn’t make it to that appointment.
Lisa Weathers died from a single dose of heroin after peer pressure played an important factor, her husband said. He acknowledged that she shouldn’t have been in the house, but he still holds the suppliers of the drugs accountable.
“I believe those people who shot her up with drugs should be responsible for her life,” he said.
McHargue said his son had only used the drug three times, which he pieced together from phone and Facebook message contents. If he hadn’t shared two previous doses with a friend who helped find the drug, one of those doses could have claimed Collin’s life. McHargue and fellow law enforcement agents have found doses with wide variances in purity and what substances dealers mix with the heroin — both of these factors can make one dose lethal while one that appears identical might not be.
Charlotte Scott recalled that her brother fought with drug addiction throughout his life. But his sisters noticed when his drug of choice turned to heroin, his life changed drastically. He always assured them that things were under control, but Charlotte Scott said she kept trying to help her brother get away from heroin once and for all. Collier did too, noting that addicts feel they are being loved by fellow addicts — something she remembered as a “sick love.”
“I preached to my brother constantly about the people he was with,” Collier said.
Scott remembered “assuming too much” at times, brushing off moments when she saw him appear groggy or fall against a wall. He still regularly performed odd jobs all around town, trimming bushes and performing other tasks at people’s homes.
“I wear my brother near my heart now,” Charlotte Scott said, pointing to a small urn pendant dangling from necklace.
She said how much her heart goes out to her niece, “to wake up and have your daddy gone.” Many visitors to the funeral expressed their sorrow and shock, remembering that they had seen him appear normal just days before.
Akridge, Scott’s co-worker and friend, recalled her son’s painful journey and a shortage of resources to help him escape addiction. Akridge said it remains difficult to picture her son being a part of the “drug life.” For one thing, he hated needles. Bates drank with friends during his teen years — leading up to a DWI charge and a probation term. After a series of events — some of them tragic — he decided to try heroin. To this day, Akridge asks why her son wasn’t regularly tested for drugs during probation meetings and why more long-term treatment options weren’t available for him.
Akridge said Bates’ probation officer gave him the option of seeking treatment on his own. After she spoke with the officer, he told her about three places to contact for treatment. One was too expensive, one didn’t answer the phone and the other one never called her back, Akridge said.
“It’s a fail everywhere you go,” she said.
She remembered when her son saw some success at the Hannibal Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (HCADA), completing his treatment program and studying for his GED. He seemed to be doing much better for a couple days, but he quickly slipped back to using heroin. He even bragged that he finished the program and wasn’t tested for drugs. Akridge said Bates went back to “full-fledged” heroin use.
She explained that Bates was “still trying” to get help just days before he passed away. During a second visit to HCADA, her son left and went through the detox process — the emotional withdrawal and physical illness that comes when a person stops using the drug — on his own.
But on Friday, Aug. 5, her son overdosed, following a night drinking at a demolition derby. After injecting a dose of heroin into his thigh, he passed out, hitting his head on the horn of a car. When responders found Bates, his breath rate was only three breaths per minute. When Angela and Lanny Akridge got to Bates at about 3 a.m. Saturday morning, he seemed “out of it.” Akridge said he didn’t remember shooting the needle into his leg.
Soon thereafter, her ex-husband said their son would be charged with heroin possession and DWI for the Friday incident. She felt relieved that he could get away from the drug in jail, and she joined fellow family members in prayer for him in church that Sunday.
But somehow, Bates was transported back to his home from the hospital after recovering from the overdose that Friday.
Early Sunday morning, Bates took the dose of heroin that claimed his life. As Akridge tearfully recalled what her son went through, she expressed hope that more people would talk about the drug’s dangers.
Akridge joined Scott and Collier to encourage community dialogue about heroin and help families of users affected by the drug. They hope to spark conversations and greater knowledge about the heroin epidemic for all members of the community.
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org