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Fed-Up Dads, Moms Fight Back

Crime: 'Drug dealers are terrorists,' says father who dedicated himself to combat after his son died of an overdose. He founded a group to help.

June 30, 2002|WILLIAM KATES | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

TIOGA CENTER, N.Y. — The first time Steven Steiner tried to fight back against drug dealers poisoning his son and millions of other American teens, he couldn't find the words or the passion.

He was just another parent who felt powerless--until his 19-year-old son died from a drug overdose in January 2001.

Since then, the 41-year-old electrician has turned into a crusader. He founded Dads and Mad Moms Against Drug Dealers, or DAMMADD.

"Since Stevie's death, this is how I have a chance to work closer with him, to work together," Steiner said. "Believe me, my candle isn't going out anytime soon."

DAMMADD accepts tips about drug dealers over the Internet and offers rewards ranging from $100 to $1,500 for information leading to a conviction. Thirty-eight law enforcement agencies in 14 states--Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington--have started formal partnerships with the organization.

Tips quickly led to 21 arrests in New York and Maine, 10 of them resulting in convictions.

Broome County Sheriff David Harder is impressed by the quality and quantity of tips DAMMADD has received.

"It sort of reminds me of the 'America's Most Wanted' show on television," he said. "It gives citizens a way to fight back."

As Steiner recalled the final tortured years of his son's brief life, a 3-foot-tall photograph of Stevie stood against a wall in his living room and, nearby, an urn containing his ashes. They anchor a small memorial that has grown by the front window.

Steiner said the idea for DAMMADD took seed while Stevie was attending junior high school in Middletown, N.J. He struggled with academics but thrived when he could work with his hands.

At 13, he started learning his father's trade. He was also learning about marijuana and alcohol.

Steiner approached school administrators and local businesses about setting up a reward fund and putting a bounty on drug dealers. Administrators balked.

"I didn't have the message back then. I really didn't," he said.

All the while, Stevie was getting in deeper. In 1996, he stole his father's credit card and ran away. Steiner had him arrested, pressed charges and placed him in a juvenile hall for three months.

After jail, the Steiners moved to upstate New York for a fresh start, and it appeared 16-year-old Stevie had straightened out his life. He continued working with his father. He saved some money and bought a car.

But by age 18, it was clear Stevie was again involved with drugs.

"He wasn't an addict. He never bought drugs. He would only smoke and drink on weekends, with his friends and at parties," Steiner said.

He believes his son was acting on a dare on Jan. 29, 2001, while at a Super Bowl party in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Police said Stevie snorted a fatal mix of Ecstasy and OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller.

The DAMMADD Web site has graphic photos of Stevie's bruised and bloated body--the way police found him. His father displays the same photos when he talks at area schools.

His message conveys an honesty cloaked in pain.

"Drug dealers are terrorists," he said. "Drug dealers are child molesters. Not sexual, but the mental abuse. They are stealing their youth, their integrity."

Within two weeks of becoming a DAMMADD partner in mid-March, the Brewer Police Department in Maine received 16 tips, including one that helped lead to the arrest of five people and the seizure of crack cocaine and heroin.

"We had almost immediate success so we think this is a great intelligence tool," Sgt. Perry Antone said.

"People are sometimes hesitant to get involved. In small towns, everyone knows everyone and there is a fear that things will get tracked back if someone steps up with information," Antone said. "With DAMMADD's system, I think people feel pretty insulated."

From the basement of his home 85 miles south of Syracuse near the Pennsylvania line, Steiner monitors the computer tip line. His wife, Julie, runs the family electrician's business from a computer on the other side of the room.

Crumb-littered plates and a row of dirty glasses attest to the long hours Steiner spends at the computer, checking incoming tips to verify authenticity. The system has several layers of security and encryption to protect tipsters.

The credible tips he passes on to law enforcement.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, gave Steiner $100,000 in grants to develop DAMMADD after he described the project to its representatives. The company will soon distribute tent cards with tear-off sheets promoting the organization.

In January, Steven and Julie Steiner quietly observed the first anniversary of Stevie's death by instituting the Law Enforcement User Interface system, which automatically routes tips by ZIP Code. Steiner spent a few minutes that day telling his dead son what he has helped accomplish.

"I have a focus. I have a vision," he said. "It is getting all the parents, all the families, all the communities and everyone together....We're not going to just sit here and let our kids die one by one. We're going to do something to fight back."

*

On the Net:

DAMMADD: http://www.dammadd.org

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