PLANO, Texas — This is a great place to raise kids. Except when they die.
The golden buckle of the Sun Belt, its brick-walled subdivisions and smoked-glass business parks swelling with white-collar migrants, Plano is by almost every measure the apex of educated suburbia--clean streets, big houses, 113 lighted ball fields.
With just two or three murders annually, this Dallas-area boomtown of nearly 200,000 is Texas' safest city--and one of America's top 10. The Children's Environmental Index calls it the nation's fourth most kid-friendly community, based on such socioeconomic data as dropout rates and household incomes. One of its high schools boasts an Academic Decathlon championship, a prize that earned the team a White House visit with President Clinton.
Then there is this measure: 11 young people dead of heroin overdoses since 1996.
Almost all of them were students, mostly popular, athletic and affluent--"nice, preppy, middle-class children," in the words of one drug abuse expert. They ranged in age from 15 to 22, a football player, a philosophy major, a former altar boy, a Marine home for the holidays. Four died last year, seven so far this year. And still the emergency room at Columbia Medical Center reports an average of three to five overdoses a week--unconscious, vomit-stained teenagers, often dumped at the hospital doors by friends in brand-new Jeep Wranglers and Range Rovers and Ford Expeditions.
One now lies in a coma, his family searching for some sign of life to keep him from becoming No. 12.
"How's this for a clean-cut, all-American-looking young man?" said Lowell Hill, pulling out a wallet-size photo of his blond, square-jawed son, Robert, a 1997 graduate of Plano East Senior High. On Aug. 20, he found Rob slumped over in bed, his face buried in a pillow. He put his mouth to the boy's blue lips, breathing for him, vainly. When doctors pronounced him dead of an overdose--at the same hospital that welcomed him into the world 18 years earlier--his father was incredulous.
"How do you know?" the former life insurance executive demanded.
"He was a happy boy," said his mother, Andrea, a special education teacher. "The last thing on my mind was to talk to my son about heroin."
The culprit, which has enjoyed a startling resurgence from the depths of junkiedom in the '60s to the heights of trendiness in the '90s, is widely available in Plano and conveniently packaged--usually in antihistamine capsules that can be broken open and snorted, avoiding the stigma of needles and syringes. Sold for $10 to $20 a hit, the powder is marketed here under heroin's Spanish nickname, chiva, which to Plano's predominantly Anglo kids sounds a lot more like a designer drug than old-fashioned smack.
"I didn't even know what it was the first time I tried it, but I liked it and I wasn't really interested in finding out," said Donald Jason Smith, 19, a recovering addict who has spent the past five months in county jail for heroin possession.
He described himself as someone with "good morals" who was "brought up not to do drugs." His mother teaches government and economics to 11th- and 12th-graders, his stepfather runs a jewelry shop. But once you cross that line, no matter how naively, "the drug grabs ahold of you and doesn't let go," Smith said. "I've taken friends to the hospital after they've overdosed and then gone right back to where we were and kept on using."
New Aura of Glamour
Heroin is not Plano's cross to bear alone. Gen X rockers and waifish supermodels have lent it a new aura of glamour, a dreamy narcotic languor compared to the manic rush of cocaine. From 1993 to 1996, the number of Americans who had sampled heroin more than tripled, from 68,000 to 216,000, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Since the beginning of the decade, the average age of first-time users has dropped steadily, from nearly 25 down to about 19.
New distribution networks forged by the Latin American cartels have helped expand the U.S. market, a phenomenon that the Drug Enforcement Administration calls "double-breasting." Dealers who once sold only cocaine now frequently also offer heroin, its purity and potency far greater than what the Asian pipeline has traditionally delivered. The lethal results are everywhere: four fatal overdoses in just one week this year in Boulder, Colo.; 30 last year in Orlando; 28 in Ventura County.
"The rules have changed and the risks have changed," said Ted Dickey, a Plano funeral home director whose mortuaries have buried about half of the town's overdose victims. "The risk is no longer about losing a scholarship or a place on the drill team or embarrassing the family; the risk is dying."
A Prior Epidemic