The Killer in Your Medicine Cabinet
When Ignorance Kills
Susanville teens didn't own up to just the Hoffmans about the methadone. They also phoned the police department to tell officers about the pills that had been handed out at the football game. Since some tablets were likely still circulating, Hibbs, Joseph, and Police Chief Jeff Atkinson called in frightened kids for questioning and eventually determined that about twenty 40-milligram pills had been distributed on Friday. Some had been consumed, but a few were unaccounted for.
"Very candid" is how Hibbs describes most of the teens he questioned that weekend and during a visit to Lassen High School on Monday. "We reassured them that our main concern was accounting for the whereabouts of all the pills and getting hold of them -- not bringing charges," Hibbs says. "That said, had anyone lied to us, charges would have been brought."
The authorities cannot reveal information about the juveniles involved in this case. It appears, however, that a teenage boy stole the legally prescribed pills from his ailing grandmother and gave them to the girl, who seems to have then handed them out, perhaps selling some for $1 or $2 each. On Tuesday Detectives Joseph and Hibbs arrested the two teens. Because there was no proof at that point that methadone was the cause of death, they were charged with furnishing a controlled substance and placed in a juvenile detention facility.
The boy's grandmother has not been prosecuted in this matter. "She had every legal right to possess the pills," says Lassen County District Attorney Robert M. Burns. "If she had furnished them, that would totally change the picture."
Three months later, in December, results of the toxicology report confirmed that Alan and Stephen had died of acute methadone intoxication. There was no alcohol or other drugs in their systems. As a result of the police investigation, Hibbs estimates that each boy took two to three 40-milligram tablets. Since new users are often given starting doses as low as 2.5 milligrams, according to manufacturer Roxane Laboratories, that means Stephen and Alan may have consumed as much as 48 times the recommended amount. Methadone has a relatively mild effect, and Hibbs says the two boys probably took repeated doses to try to produce a more intense reaction. The medication built up and led to their deaths.
Looking back at the way the boys' overdoses occurred, Rod reiterates the opinions of some experts on teen drug use, who note that kids don't recognize the danger of abusing other people's prescriptions or of taking random doses or combinations of pharmaceuticals. "Kids think that if a pill is prescribed by a doctor, it's safe," says Rod.
"A cloud of depression hung over the town for months," recalls Letha Martin, chief probation officer for Lassen County, who works regularly with teens and whose department aided the police in tracking down the pills. "We found hundreds of kids who admitted to stealing methadone, other painkillers, and tranquilizers from relatives at one time or another." Generally, the youngsters admitted to taking from half a pill to a whole one.
Alan's and Stephen's deaths made some teens cautious. After attending a skate park memorial, a boy who had sipped wine there dropped by Martin's office, complaining of light-headedness. "We took him to the hospital, where he tested positive for methadone," says Martin, who surmises that "somebody laced the wine." Whether this was the case has not been proven.