Death by drug overdose ‘just not natural’
It was against this backdrop that the heroin plague hit the region.
Coroner Lisman, whose dad was once the mayor of Wilkes-Barre, said that at first he made a point of personally going to the scenes when a suspected fatal overdose was reported. No more.
“Now it’s become so routine,” said Lisman, who has gone back to dispatching his deputies to do the grim work of taking the bodies to the morgue.
But Lisman said he is very much aware of what this plague is doing to his hometown and admits it has left him shaken.
“I was raised in an apartment above a funeral home … death never scared me,” he said.
What bothers him, he said, is the resignation he has seen in the victims’ families ones who react “almost with relief.”
“It bothers me that somebody’s life could reach a point that death could be a positive thing,” he said.
This from a man who has comforted thousands of people over the years whose loved ones died of natural causes, sometimes after enduring years of pain.
“Death by drug overdose is different,” he said. “That’s just not natural.”
One case in particular still haunts him. The police had gotten a 911 call and arrived to find a young couple in their 30s dead in bed from “a hot load of heroin while their 5-year-old son was watching TV and eating Cheerios,” Lisman said. “He knew enough to call the police for help.”
Death behind closed doors
The heroin plague in Wilkes-Barre is largely hidden with death taking drug abusers behind closed doors.
“You don’t see junkies on the street,” said Bozinski, who was previously an Emmy Award-winning TV and radio reporter. “This happens behind closed doors. In bedrooms and basements.”
But the effects ripple across the city and touch everyone.
“Everywhere you go you hear, ‘Did you see the story about that one in the paper? Was that another drug overdose?” said Wallace. “That’s what everyone here is talking about.”
The toll is not just psychic. Crime is up, police report, especially petty thefts and break-ins by drug abusers looking for money to score a fix. And the dealers are almost always out-of-towners.
“They’re not racist,” Bozinski said of Wilkes-Barre’s residents. “Yes, some white guys blame people from outside for bringing drugs here. But there’s also the acknowledgement that there is a market for it here.”
What’s happening now in Wilkes-Barre is not new. Heroin use has been on the rise across the country since 2002, according to the federal
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“We’re behind the times,” said 42-year-old Paul Smith, who was born and raised in the city — and who buried his former partner Jeremy three weeks earlier after he died of a heroin overdose. “A lot of the problems that were happening in other places are now happening here.”
Sitting in a local bar called Hun’s Café 99 and nursing a beer and a basket of chicken wings, Smith said Jeremy didn’t know what he was dealing with when he started snorting heroin.
“It’s been a very hard thing,” he said. “I spent a lot of time helping him to get clean. It was a very hard reality. And it was very hard to find services to help him.”
Smith said people in Wilkes-Barre turn to drugs because they are already depressed about their lives, depressed that they have to work two or three jobs to get by.
“That’s why people went for Trump,” said Smith, who runs a limo service, owns real estate — and admits to voting for the Manhattan mogul as well. “People are so sick of other people doing better.”
Sitting beside Smith was 28-year-old John Sabatelli. He agreed that it was ignorance of dangerous new variety of heroin that was fueling the crisis. He recalled being surprised when he discovered that a couple at the warehouse where he works was getting high on heroin in the bathroom.
“It’s surprising in that you don’t know who is going to do it,” he said.
Grieving dad Christopher Emmett said drugs have got a death grip on his community. He said his doomed son started smoking pot at age 13 and quickly graduated to harder drugs. He said Christopher Jr. was in and out of rehab — and so were most of his friends.
“It is really an epidemic,” Emmett said. “We went to 14 funerals of my son’s friends who died of addiction in just one year. They’re dropping like flies, every day.”
Emmett’s wife, Patricia, burst into tears at the thought of spending Christmas without her son. And as she cried, her boy’s ashes sat in an urn on a shelf in the living room.
“There ain’t no Christmas,” she said, bitterly.
A proud town fights on
Wilkes-Barre may be down now but it is far from defeated. In Public Square, new restaurants like Franklin’s have opened to serve the young professionals who have moved downtown to live in loft apartments in some of the vintage buildings.
Older establishments like the Café Toscana were bustling with diners on a Tuesday night. And so was the brand new Chick-fil-A, which is located on the first floor of a dorm that King’s College built right on the square in an attempt to make students part of the city’s revival.
Just outside downtown loomed the rotting hulks of long-abandoned factories. But higher up in the hills, Christmas lights twinkled on many of the modest-but-clearly kept up homes and the streets bustled with families going about the business of everyday life.
Over at the ornate county courthouse, which dates back to 1909 and which was built at a time when the future of Wilkes-Barre seemed bright, a chorus of fourth graders from a school across the river in Larksville filed into the central hall to perform a medley of Christmas carols.
Watching them was the grandmother of one 11-year-old, a chubby, brown-haired boy with untied gym shoes. His face creased into an angelic smile when he spotted his grandma.
“I am scared for him,” said the grandmother, who declined to give her name. “I have family that got hooked on drugs. I don’t want that to happen to him.”
Asked why the area has been so ravaged by drugs, she shook her head. “I don’t know, maybe because they’re so easy to get,” she said.
The children’s music teacher, Joseph James, said so far his kids “are completely sheltered” from the heroin crisis unfolding around them.
“I hope it stays that way,” he said.