2016-02-12 / Front Page

Heroin’s fatal grip worsens a mother’s pain

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

Terri McLeod of South Portland witnessed her son, Billy Munroe, struggle with drug addiction since his early teens. When Munroe was found dead by heroin overdose in a Portland parking garage Oct. 18, McLeod said she was left feeling guilty for a relationship that had been left unresolved. Munroe was 36 years old.

But try as she might to help him get better, McLeod said heroin had taken over his will. She stopped communicating with him when she realized that his appeals for help were excuses to get money to support his habit.

“I just was tired of it,” she said. “He would stay with me when he got out of jail. One time he showed up at the house with a broken hand and didn’t even remember how he broke it. Mentally, I just couldn’t let him live with me anymore and others couldn’t either. His friends didn’t hang around with him anymore because of his addiction and those that did would shoot up with him.”

McLeod said her son overdosed many times, and he was only 15 years old when he first overdosed in Naples, where they lived at the time. McLeod said she thought he had a problem with alcohol and didn’t even know, until the first overdose, that he was using heroin.

She had even sent him to a rehab center at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, for a month, thinking that his problem was with alcoholism.

“He was drinking a gallon of vodka a day,” McLeod said. “He even told me that he had even shot alcohol in his veins as well. He was not only addicted to drugs, he was addicted to the needle.”

In 1993, McLeod sold her Naples home to “get away” from the community where her son had become an addict. Throughout his adult life, McLeod watched her son go in and out of jail for stealing or assault, including a two-year prison sentence for assault.

“And the first thing he did when he came out of prison was chase that high,” she said. “He’d try to quit, he really wanted to quit, but it really consumes your brain. He would do whatever it took to get high.”

In 2013, Munroe became a father to a daughter, Ariana, now 3 years old.

“I thought that his daughter would be the one who could really turn his life around and he couldn’t even change for her, so the addiction really had a hold,” McLeod said. “I thought, ‘Maybe this will make him turn around and see that his life is worth more than he thinks it is. He said he didn’t drink around her.”

Munroe found himself in a custody battle for Ariana with the child’s maternal grandparents, and McLeod was going to testify against him, knowing that he had not confronted his addictions. His final hearing was scheduled for Oct. 22, just days after he died.

“I was dreading testifying against him,” McLeod said. “He needed supervised visits. He would drink and black out, but he said he would never do drugs around his kid.”

McLeod said Munroe would always deny he had an addiction problem, which made it harder for her to trust or believe him.

“There were many times, I would always say, ‘You’re going to kill yourself. I’m gonna find you dead sometime,’ and he would look at you and say, ‘I don’t do that anymore, I haven’t done that in a while,’” McLeod said.

Two weeks before Munroe died, McLeod said she was contacted by Portland detectives who said he was selling stolen items to pawn shops, and they thought he was stealing to support a drug habit. In his last year, McLeod said her son was homeless, staying at shelters, eating at soup kitchens and sometimes trying to detoxify at Milestone Foundation, a rehabilitation program for the homeless.

“He signed himself into Milestone many times, but the problem is, you can walk in, get OK, get through withdrawal and then get out the next day,” she said.

Munroe tried a methadone clinic, but was kicked out of the program after testing positive for alcohol twice. He was prescribed Suboxone, but after his urine test revealed drug use, doctors stopped prescribing it.

“The doctor said why waste time and money prescribing him if he’s going to trade Suboxone to use drugs,” she said.

McLeod said drug abuse has affected her family in many ways. Her brother, who was addicted to cocaine, committed suicide 30 years ago, at age 26. She has other relatives who have children that are addicted to drugs.

“Every parent wants to think and believe that their children are not doing drugs,” she said.

Old Orchard Beach resident Sylvia Merry, McLeod’s cousin, said heroin has become so widespread that she knows many of the people who have died due to the drug in the Biddeford area in the past year.

“My biggest fear is getting that phone call. I have known most of those kids that have died, offhand, at least six or seven,” Merry said. “It’s not stopping. My son’s best friend was one of them. These kids are all kids that have been at my house growing up.”

Merry said she lived in Biddeford for 20 years before moving to Old Orchard Beach and it’s unnerving to see her son’s friends dying one by one.

“It’s leaking into every family’s life in one way or another,” Merry said. “Every family’s going to be affected in one way or another.”

Merry said one of the people busted for heroin possession in Bridgton last year was her cousin. She worries that a nephew in prison will turn to drugs when he gets out.

“The fear is out there,” Merry said.

As a parent, McLeod said she tried many times to help her son. In 2014, he got a job for a moving company and she drove him to work every day. With his first paycheck, he bought a cellphone and some clothes. The cellphone soon ended up missing, “probably traded and sold for drugs,” McLeod said.

“You don’t know what to do. You feel helpless. You can’t make them get help. You can suggest it but you can’t make them get help,” she said. “The only thing you can do is give them to God. You can’t save them no matter what you do.”

Once, while Munroe was traveling to Virginia, he contacted his mother saying he didn’t have money for food. She wired him $40 by Western Union.

“I found out that he took the money and bought crack at a truck stop,” she said. “That’s when I said I was done. It’s the last time I gave him money.”

McLeod eventually had to file protection-from-abuse orders against her son after disputes over Ariana’s custody ended with a broken glass bottle stuck in her car tire.

Merry said she blames changes Gov. Paul LePage made with MaineCare for the increase in heroin use. When LePage took young single people off the state health insurance program, many addicts were cut from their access to methadone treatment.

“Ever since LePage took away MaineCare, they’ve turned to heroin because it’s cheaper,” Merry said. “Before, they were going to the methadone clinic.”

McLeod agreed that restricting access to methadone leads to higher heroin use.

“When they took MaineCare away from a lot of people who weren’t working, and (took away) the methadone clinics, they had no other choice but to go back to heroin,” McLeod said. “Methadone was keeping them away from heroin and now they’re totally cut off, without insurance … I know people who were on MaineCare, then got shut off from methadone, and now they had to steal to get heroin.”

South Portland Chief Edward Googins said he testified before the Legislature in favor of expanding Medicaid.

“I actually testified … for two reasons: mental health services and substance abuse services,” Googins said. “It’s not often law enforcement officials take positions (on bills), but a lot of others felt it would help to provide them with background.”

Googins said there is a correlation that can be made between crimes driven by drug addiction and a lack of health services to treat substance abuse.

“There’s clearly an increase,” Googins said, “an increase in overdoses, an increase in deaths.”

McLeod said she appreciates the governor’s efforts to increase the number of DEA agents in the state, but local law enforcement agencies need to do more to investigate heroin.

McLeod said her son was found in the corner of a parking garage, slumped over, with a needle still in his arm. McLeod said she was disappointed when detectives told her, “We don’t investigate overdoses.”

“It’s a city parking garage. Obviously there are cameras in there. Why not investigate if he was with someone, or who sold it to him?” she said. “It seems to me that police just give up easily.”

Lt. Frank Clark of the South Portland Police Department held a public forum and listening session on Feb. 3 to discuss opiate and heroin addiction.

Clark said there were 13 heroin possession arrests in South Portland in 2015, compared to seven in 2013 and eight in 2014. Three heroin trafficking arrests were made, not including cases conducted by Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

“There has also been an uptick in overdose calls,” Clark said. “I don’t have a specific number to provide, because some come in as overdoses, while others may come in as EMS or other less specific calls. To give you an idea though, there were 72 Narcan administrations by South Portland EMS crews last year, compared to 32 in 2013. We also recorded five opiate related deaths in 2015, compared to one in 2013 and three in 2014.

“Based on investigations, we also know that other crimes (trafficking, prostitution, thefts, etc.) are directly related to addiction to heroin, opiate and, of course, other drugs.”

Clark said there are people in Maine who have 6-gram-aday habits, which equates to about $5,880 per week.

Cape Elizabeth Police Chief Neil Williams said his department has not seen an increase in people using heroin.

“I believe the rescue has only had two cases and one was at Fort Williams. That person was not a resident.”

The department, however, has seen the other side of the issue.

“That being, we are dealing with more people who are stealing property, drugs and credit cards to support their habits.”

Williams said there was one arrest for possession of heroin in 2014 and two arrests in 2015.

In Biddeford, Deputy Police Chief JoAnne Fisk said the department is compiling data on drug-related offenses and Police Chief Roger Beaupre will present the data at the next Biddeford City Council meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 16. Fisk said there has been a drop in drug arrests in recent months because the frequency of trafficking and possession arrests before has put many drug dealers on alert.

“Our intelligence is telling us that they’re moving out of the area,” Fisk said.

In terms of referring addicts to recovery services, Clark said the South Portland Police Department works with substance abuse professionals, and with Scarborough Police Department’s Operation HOPE, to refer people to where they might get help.

Fisk said that although there is no formal program at the Biddeford Police Department, officers try to place anyone who contacts the department about their addiction into an appropriate program.

“We just referred four people last week,” Fisk said.

Williams said Cape Elizabeth does not have a formal referral and treatment plan.

Saco Police Chief Bradley Paul and Old Orchard Beach Police Chief Dana Kelley did not respond to the Courier for information about heroin-related arrests and treatment program referrals.

For McLeod, not speaking to her son for more than a year and then losing him to an overdose left her with unresolved emotions. Needing closure, she scheduled an appointment with Judy Turner, a psychic medium who lives in York. McLeod said Turner described a moment that happened shortly after Munroe’s death, when a smoke alarm wouldn’t stop making a beep and McLeod exclaimed, “Billy, would you please stop?” and it immediately stopped.

Turner told McLeod that Munroe said it was the only thing he could do to get her attention.

McLeod said Turner also told her, “He wants you to stop asking for forgiveness because it wasn’t your fault … The monkey is on his back.

“He said, ‘I know you loved me and I never told you, but I love you … If I could turn back the pages, Mom, I would.’”

Short of seeing a psychic, the only thing left of Munroe for McLeod are positive memories, visits with granddaughter Ariana, and the hope that others will learn to confront addictions among family members early, before it is too late.

“He had a heart of gold, he was intelligent, loved animals. He wasn’t a person who couldn’t care about people, it’s just when he was high or drinking, he became a totally different person,” she said. “If this reaches out to one parent, or one addict, so that they can see that the road progressively gets worse and that they can get help now while they still can, before they end up on the street with nothing, can’t hold a job anymore, lose their friends, and life becomes just existing, then maybe it could save a life.”

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