The Killer in Your Medicine Cabinet

A frequently prescribed painkiller found its way into the hands of two teen boys in a small California town. One night they went to sleep and never woke up. How could this have happened? And could it happen to your family?
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A Parent's Nightmare

Homecoming was shaping up to be a lively event at Lassen High School, in the northeastern California town of Susanville, in Lassen County. On Friday, September 22, 2006, Alan Hoffman, 15, a lanky, handsome kid with dark hair, an irresistible grin, and a passion for skateboarding, attended the football game to cheer on the school's team, the Grizzlies. His redheaded little brother, Zach, 14, was there, too, as was his mother, Brenda Hoffman, 45, an administrative assistant at Lassen Community College. The family's father, Rod Hoffman, 41, a tow truck-company manager, was at home. Alan's 16th birthday was just two weeks away, and Rod was secretly trying to track down a used Acura, a gift he knew his son would love.

When Alan and Zach were toddlers the Hoffmans had moved from the suburban sprawl of Southern California's San Bernardino County to Susanville, population about 17,000. A former logging town, it had a quaint main street and picturesque surrounding countryside. This one-time trail stop for settlers heading to the Sacramento Valley was rich historically, though not economically. In 2004 the median family income of Lassen County was around $43,000, compared with $55,000 for California as a whole. The Hoffmans hadn't sought riches, though; they wanted a friendly town where their boys could play safely in the park and ride bicycles, far from San Bernardino's burgeoning gangs. To Brenda, life in Susanville was close to idyllic.

Between whoops as Lassen trounced the visiting team, Brenda talked to Rod via cell phone. He thought he'd found the perfect car, and they made plans to check it out the following weekend. Meanwhile, Alan socialized with his friends and Zach. When a streaker ran in front of the crowd, Alan yelled in mock outrage: "In front of my mother?" "It made me laugh," remembers Brenda.

After the game Alan went to the homecoming dance but used his cell phone to check in frequently with Brenda. The family rule was, wherever he went, he stayed in touch. Toward midnight on Friday Brenda drove down the hill from the family's log cabin-style house to the school to pick up Zach, Alan, and Alan's friend Stephen Draxler, 17, who sang in the school choir, was a valued member of the wrestling team, and played guitar. Zach went to his room while Alan grabbed some snacks, kissed Brenda goodnight, and told her he loved her. Then he and Stephen disappeared to the separate bunkhouse bedroom Alan had helped Rod build the previous summer.

At 11 a.m. the next day Zach was at a friend's and Rod was at work when Brenda returned home from a hair appointment. She looked in on Alan and Stephen, who were still in bed. Like most teens, Alan often slept late on weekends. "I figured they'd been up all night playing video games," says Brenda. She went shopping and returned around 5:30 p.m. to find the bunkhouse still silent. "Wake 'em, or they'll be up late again," she told Rod and Zach, who were also arriving home.

Hearing Rod cry out, she hurried to the bunkhouse. The two boys lay motionless. "We were yelling 'wake up! wake up! " recalls Brenda .Rod says he shouted, "Call 911!" but Brenda was shaking so hard she couldn't punch in the numbers. Zach had to make the call. Within minutes a fire truck arrived, followed by police cars and ambulances. Staffers who'd arrived at the house from the coroner's office pronounced the boys dead, estimating time of death as early Saturday morning -- hours before Brenda had looked in on them. Brenda screamed, "I want my son back!"

Who or what could have hurt the boys? The answer would send Susanville into shock and spur the town into action. It would also turn Brenda into an activist.

Continued on page 2:  Mysterious Deaths

 

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