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As Heroin Abuse Rises In Orange County, So Does Death Toll

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Luca Serazzi
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Flickr CC - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

  This story was produced by member station WMFE in Orlando.

After raising four kids as a stay-at-home mom and helping run a successful business, Cindy Culpepper decided to try something new. She started bar tending at a friend’s club in Winter Park. On the nights that drew young crowds, she remembers finding small plastic bags scattered on the bathroom floors.

“In my mind, I’m thinking they’re doing cocaine in these little baggies. No, it’s not cocaine. It’s heroin," she says. "I’ve learned a whole lot of stuff.”

What she never expected to learn, though, was that her youngest child, Travis, was using the drug. She describes him as an 18-year-old gentle giant. He was smart even though he hated school.

“He was always good to me. Always good to his dad. Can I give you anything? I mean, he was a good kid. But that was the side that I always saw,” she admits.

Travis dropped out of school after years of being teased for his weight. He had just started going to Aloma High, an alternative school, to get his GED, and he was finally making friends. One day, Culpepper remembers, Travis didn’t come out of his room. Worried, she went in and found him unconscious.

“His fingers were grasping the desk. Still there was a full needle of heroin that was there. That was the day we found out,” she weeps.

Travis was dead just two days before his 19th birthday.

The Orange County Medical Examiner's Office has recorded over 70 heroin-related deaths in the past two years. In a quarter of cases, the victims were younger than 30.

Heroin Deaths in Orange and Osceola Counties, Jan. 1, 2013-June 30, 2014. Source: District 9 Medical Examiner's Office

“There’s a dealer everywhere in Orange County. No matter where you go," says Joseph Billittier.

He leads a group of undercover street agents for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. In 2013, his agents shut down a heroin ring at Lake Downey Mobile Home Park in Orlando where dealers were selling 2,000 bags of heroin a day at $5 and $10 a bag.

“All you had to do was drive up, get out, walk right up to do the door and they’d serve you right through the window. It’s not hard to obtain in the street," he says.

Billittier says dealers range from 18 to 60 years old and his agents have seen users as young as 14. He says heroin wasn’t so common until a few years ago when Attorney General Pam Bondi declared a legislative war against pill mills.

“We put so much investigation into shutting down the pill mills, closing down the doctors, shutting off the supply of pills on the street, that the next step was for them to go back to the heroin,” Billittier admits.

He says eventually another drug will take heroin’s place; narcotics trends run in cycles.

State Senator Geraldine Thompson voted in favor of the 2011 law to regulate pain clinics. She thinks back to when she was growing up when heroin was an epidemic.

“People of my generation, we knew first hand and we saw the destruction that was caused in communities and to individuals through heroin use,” she remembers.

Thompson and other legislators voted unanimously to regulate pain clinics.

“I did not anticipate that this would lead to an increase in the use of heroin because heroin was a drug that people associated with the '60s and the '70s and the use of it dramatically decreased," she says.

Thompson wants to give more resources to law enforcement agencies to stop heroin dealers. However, she believes addressing the demand side of heroin—or why people are using—is the real solution.

Back at Cindy Culpepper’s house, a large teddy bear sits where 18-year-old Travis died of a heroin overdose.

“I learned a lot about my son. Things that most mothers or fathers wouldn’t want to know," she says.

Culpepper lives with the guilt of not knowing Travis was using. She blames herself, her husband, and the person who sold her son heroin. But more than anything, she blames a new era where access to the drug is as simple as a phone call.

“Is it safe? Absolutely not. Are kids doing it? Absolutely. And how do we know it? They’re winding up dead," says Culpepper.