By Lynn Arditi
Published April 24, 2015
Burrillville has a heroin problem. Six people have died of drug overdoses, four involving heroin, since Dec. 31, the police say, most of them young men in their 20s and 30s. February was the cruelest month: four fatal overdoses.
Denise Spagnuolo talks about her only son, A.J., who died of a heroin overdose in February. She says he was warm and outgoing and had many friends.
BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — This isn’t the sort of place that comes to mind when people talk about the heroin epidemic.
In this former mill town, ponds run clear with trout and largemouth bass, drawing locals and out-of-towners to fish, swim and hike the woods around Wallum Lake. The town boasts its own modern ice hockey rink, home to this year’s boys’ high school Division 1 state champion. And the Jesse M. Smith Memorial Library hosts a free “coffee house” on Friday nights with refreshments and live music.
But the town also has a heroin problem. Six people have died of drug overdoses, four involving heroin, since Dec. 31, the police say, most of them young men in their 20s and 30s. February was the cruelest month: four fatal overdoses.
One snowy night in late February, about 10 people gathered in the parking lot of a closed bank in the center of Pascoag for a candlelight vigil. They planted signs in the snow that read “Get the H Out of Burrillville!” and “I Hate Heroin.”
One of the overdose victims — a 28-year-old father of two young children — was the son of a popular soccer coach. The young man’s father used to coach the police chief’s son. Their boys were 6 years old then. Now, one is dead.
“These are good people,” Burrillville Police Col. Stephen J. Lynch said. “This is a good town. This is a good community…. [But] we have a problem. We have people dying in our town.”
Turn to social media
For Lynch, a retired state trooper who has worked in narcotics, the challenge is how to reach the 20-to-30-somethings who are caught up in the drug trade. So he turned to social media.
“We need your help to address those that profit from the sale of illegal drugs and by the addiction and possible death of others …” reads the chief’s message posted March 20 on the department’s Facebook page. “Please help us protect this community.”
Within a few weeks, the Facebook page had been shared with 33,000 people — more than twice as many as the population of Burrillville.
Nationally, the number of heroin-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013, according to a report released in March by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death rate for overdoses involving heroin in 2013 was highest among white men ages 18 to 44.
In Rhode Island, state health officials reported 239 people died of accidental drug overdoses in 2014. Burrillville is among two dozen or so communities — mostly suburban or rural — with “5 or fewer” fatal accidental drug overdoses during each of the last three years. (State health officials have refused to release precise counts for communities with five or fewer overdose deaths, citing privacy concerns.)
But in winter 2014, police records show, overdose deaths in Burrillville climbed to two per month in November and December. And then, in February 2015, four died. A fifth overdose victim was given Narcan, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, and lived.
Dr. Steven A. Hokeness, associate medical director at WellOne Primary Medical and Dental Care, which has an office in Pascoag, said the town’s remote location may discourage residents with addiction from seeking treatment. The nearest inpatient drug treatment facility is 40 miles away.
Small towns also can feel like a fishbowl for those who fear the stigma of addiction, making it especially hard to reach out for help. “Nobody wants to talk about it,’’ said the Rev. Darin R. Collins, of the Berean Baptist Church in the village of Harrisville, where a parishioner in 2014 died of a heroin overdose. “Everybody’s feeling all of this shame.’’
Yet, the spike in overdose deaths in Burrillville is not so different from what’s happening in a lot of small towns and suburbs, said Traci C. Green, a professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at Brown University and deputy director of the injury-prevention center at Boston Medical Center. “The appearance of patterns like in Burrillville is not unusual,’’ Green said. “In fact, I think it’s what’s evolving to be our current norm.”
Green likens the spike in fatal overdoses to an outbreak of an infectious disease. Both spread among people in close proximity; both ignore geographic and socioeconomic boundaries.
In Burrillville, police have been questioning residents, known to have ties to illicit drug dealing, during routine traffic stops and house calls, Lynch, the police chief, said. And his department is working with police in Glocester, North Smithfield and Woonsocket to track the heroin’s source.
But in the four weeks since the chief posted the narcotics tips line phone number on Facebook, the department has received only 17 calls.
“This is a very tight community,’’ Lynch said. “It’s so difficult to infiltrate because everybody knows each other in Burrillville.’’
‘It’s always been here’
Inside Brigido’s Market just down the block from where the vigil was held in Pascoag, cashiers who work the evening shift will tell you about the glassy-eyed customers who come into the store and load up on junk food.
“It’s always been here; it’s just gotten worse,’’ said Courtney Lacey, 34, head coach of the Burrillville/Ponagansett girls hockey team. “I think for a while nobody wanted to talk about it. And now you have six people OD’d in a few months, and everybody’s talking about it.”
So a few days after the fourth overdose death in February, Lacey, a member of the town’s drug overdose task force, and another coach for the girls soccer team ordered pizza and sodas and introduced their students to Jessika Ferreira. A Burrillville High graduate, Ferreira was a popular cheerleader and homecoming queen who in her 20s, while living in the Boston area, became addicted to prescription painkillers.
“I had thought, naively, that taking these pills was making me feel better; making me feel good,’’ Ferreira said she told the students. “But what it was doing is making me feel numb.”
Ferreira said that in July 2012, she sought treatment for her addiction, as well as for severe anxiety and depression. Now 28, she has moved back in with her parents in Burrillville and works as a certified nursing assistant.
“I’ve had to bury over a dozen of my friends, predominantly from this town,’’ Ferreira said. “People need to realize that addiction is a disease … And it seems to happen to very good people.’’
They are people like A.J. Spagnuolo.
His father, Tony, is 58 and works as the general manager of a sports complex and coaches for the Burrillville-Glocester Youth Soccer Association. His mother, Denise, 57, works as a registered nurse specializing in wound care. Their son, Anthony John, died Feb. 15. He was 28 years old. The suspected cause of death was a heroin overdose.
The couple live in a raised ranch perched on a steep hill that overlooks four wooded acres. One morning in April, their house was filled with plants and photographs and fresh grief. Pictures of A.J. were everywhere — framed on the living room walls, pasted onto giant poster board displays, spread over the kitchen table where his parents sat side by side, their backs to the view of the woods.
As a boy, A.J. used to ride his bike along the wooded paths, guided by the orange police tape his mother tied to the trees so he wouldn’t get lost. He was their “miracle child,” his father said, born after they’d given up trying to conceive and were looking to adopt.
Warm and outgoing, with bright green eyes and a big smile, he had lots of friends and seemingly boundless energy. But he wasn’t interested in school. He was working two jobs when, during his senior year, he dropped out. “I don’t need school, Dad,” he told his father, a former middle-school science teacher. “You taught me everything I need to know!”
He was 19 when his girlfriend got pregnant. “We all sat around and said how we’d make it work,” Tony Spagnuolo recalled. But the young couple’s relationship quickly frayed. Then she left, taking with her their infant son. A.J. quickly got a new girlfriend and, a year later, they had a baby daughter. But before their daughter turned 3 her mother moved out, and A.J. showed up at his parents’ house with his daughter and a U-Haul.
A.J. was working for a tree service company. He and his best friend and co-worker, Darrell King, would leave work each day covered in sawdust, what they called “man glitter,” and smelling of diesel fuel; they’d unwind over a few beers. Then A.J. would go home and cook dinner for his daughter. “He adored her,” King said.
A.J. also smoked marijuana. His mother worried. It’s a “gateway drug” she told him. A.J.’s uncle years ago was living in Berkeley, Calif., and became addicted to heroin. But A.J. always dismissed his parents’ concerns.
“Only the dregs of the dregs do heroin,” his mother recalled him saying. “Don’t worry, Mom…”
But then the Vicodin a doctor had prescribed Tony after an injury went missing.
A.J. checked into drug treatment programs twice — the last time in April 2014. His mother had found needle caps in his laundry. He was addicted to heroin.
A.J. was one month out of treatment in September when he began dating Christina Lapierre, a single mother working at a department store and raising two young children. He was smitten. They talked about building a house out back and raising their kids together. Finally, his parents thought, he was going to settle down.
On Valentine’s Day, A.J.’s parents asked him to sleep at home that night so he could clear the driveway for his mother, who had to leave for her weekend nursing shift the next day at 5:30 a.m.
“Great job on the driveway,” his father recalled telling A.J. when he poked his head into his son’s bedroom shortly after midnight. “Make sure to get up and check it in the morning in case it snows more.” A.J., who was folding laundry, playfully tossed a pair of boxers at his dad.
But that night it didn’t snow. His mother left for work without trying to wake A.J.
Later, his father went into A.J.’s bedroom to check on him. He found him face down, a needle near his left arm.
“This was never supposed to happen to us,” Denise Spagnuolo said, “but it did.”
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