The Killer in Your Medicine Cabinet
On Saturday evening no one yet knew what had killed Alan and Stephen. Detectives from the Susanville Police Department, Ryan Hibbs and Rodd Joseph, spent hours searching the bunkhouse as well as the Hoffmans' main house. "There were no signs of foul play, a struggle, or forced entry," says Hibbs, noting that Alan and Stephen were both unknown to local law enforcement. "There weren't any plastic bags with residue, medications, pills, pill bottles, or alcohol. There wasn't anything at the scene that would have led us to believe the deaths were drug-related.
The Hoffmans were not surprised. When Alan had been caught smoking pot at 14, Brenda and Rod had grounded him for three months. After that Brenda didn't take any chances. She routinely searched his room, even looking inside board games and shaking out tennis shoes. "Why don't you trust me?" Alan had complained. "I do trust you," Brenda always replied. "But I love you so much that I'm going to check up on you anyway." She never found any drugs.
It was about 8:30 p.m. Saturday by the time Alan and Stephen were zipped into black body bags so they could be taken to the medical examiner's office. An autopsy would be necessary to determine the cause of death. "God made a mistake when He said it was Alan's time to go," says Rod. "I don't want to lose faith, but I don't understand why He had to take my little boy. Alan was so high on life." Brenda didn't sleep that night. "We were in shock," she says.
Early Sunday morning kids began appearing at the Hoffmans' house, their car windows painted RIP. Says Zach, who felt many did not comprehend the finality of the boys' deaths: "I think most were hoping Alan would appear and say, 'What's up, guys?' But that never happened."
The first boy to arrive, a friend of Alan's, had already contacted police to tell them what he now told Brenda: Flipping open his cell phone, he showed her the kind of souvenir photographs that some kids nowadays take of their activities -- legal and not. These photos were of large white tablets scored into four sections: methadone pills that the boy said a teenage girl from another high school had either sold or given away at the game. Other kids showed Brenda photos they'd also snapped of the discs, about the size of two stacked quarters. The youngsters claimed that the girl had obtained the drugs from a teen boy, Brenda says.
It eventually became clear that Alan and Stephen, who may or may not have known what the drug was or what its effect might be, had taken some amount of it at the game, fallen asleep Saturday night and not awakened. They may have been told that the pills can create feelings of euphoria, but likely didn't know that, in higher dosages, they can also cause extreme drowsiness, an irregular heartbeat, suppression of the part of the brain that maintains breathing -- and even death.
Brenda says she had warned Alan about cocaine, marijuana, and heroin but never thought to mention methadone. Like many parents, she believed it was a liquid dispensed at clinics to help heroin addicts stay clean. She didn't know that starting in the late 1990s it began to be prescribed in pill form to relieve discomforts ranging from the ache of arthritis to the severe pain of cancer. Annual amounts of methadone sold to pharmacies for filling prescriptions jumped from nearly 400,000 grams per year in 1997 to nearly 5 million in 2005, says the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Stephen's mother, Deborah Draxler, and her former companion, Dave Wilson, both Susanville residents, had also cautioned Stephen about drugs. Wilson, a carpenter, was a big part of the boy's life, he says, adding that he had been present at Stephen's birth and considered himself his dad. "Stephen had grand expectations," says Wilson. "He should not have died from a pill in the middle of the night."
Later that Sunday Alan and Stephen's friends organized an impromptu memorial service at the local skateboard park. Teens wore T-shirts printed with the likenesses of their dead friends, and Zach and Rod spoke.