Heroin’s deadly grip claims another young addict as overdoses continue to climb

Mary Sutton and Joe Richter flip through a family scrapbook of photos of their son David, who overdosed on heroin and died at age 23. (Photo by Ty Scholes/Cronkite News)

Just a few days after promising to go back to drug treatment, David Richter went on the last heroin binge of his life. He overdosed and died on his bathroom floor.

Richter was 23 years old.

He had relapsed 13 times and been to multiple drug treatment centers across the country. David’s father, Joe Richter, said that his son battled heroin addiction hard, but the drug was more powerful than the person.

“He hated the drug. I mean he wanted to stay clean, he really tried but he just couldn’t do it,” he said.

“After the first few times I learned to detach myself from the emotional part,” said Mary Sutton, David’s mother. “But it was hard. I always feared that this would happen. That I would get this phone call.”

Paul Langford, David Richter’s roommate and best friend, found him in their apartment. Both were heavily involved in the heroin recovery community.

Langford left for work early the day of Richter’s death, but not before noticing a hypodermic needle on the dining room table. Worried, he called Richter every twenty minutes before finally heading back home to check on him. Inside the apartment, it was dead silent, hot, the air conditioning off.

There was an “eerie silence,” Langford said. “All the lights were on, his door was open but there was no one on the bed… laying halfway out the bathroom door, David was there on his back.”

His parents said their son first started using Oxycodone when he was a high school sophomore.

“It sounds crazy, but you can’t trust your kids because they are trying to work you over to get to the next high, and that’s the bottom line,” Joe Richter said. “A drug addict is trying to get their next fix, even if it is your child, they work you over pretty well.”

“I mean he wanted to stay clean but he just couldn’t do it,” he added.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, drug overdoses are the leading cause of injury deaths in the U.S., ahead of car accidents and firearms. But deaths involving heroin are increasing at a much faster rate than other illicit drugs, the report says.

In 2013, 8,620 people died from heroin related overdoses, nearly triple the number in 2010. In Arizona, heroin-related deaths increased from less than 50 in 2004 to nearly 200 in 2014, according to Arizona Department of Health Services.

“How devastating it is, to not only the person, but the families. The families are the ones that have to live through this now,” said Mary Sutton.

The DEA’s report said that on average, 120 people die from overdoses every day, and the number is likely to rise. It attributes opiate-based prescription drug abuse as a major cause of heroin addiction.

Richter’s girlfriend, Corin Fort, was the last person to see him alive. She said she was frustrated that he had started using a few days earlier. The couple met at a Heroin Anonymous retreat. She had never seen him high.

“You could just see that heroin and getting high pushed everything else to the back and it wasn’t because he was a bad person, it’s just what it does,” Fort said. “It has this unbelievable grip on you, like tunnel vision, you can’t see anything else.”

“You can’t see that you’re hurting the people that love you.”
Joe Peterson, the admissions director at Crossroads, one of the largest drug treatment centers in the Southwest, said the DEA’s findings were “shocking, but not surprising when you work in this field.”

He said Richter’s story is increasingly common.

“Opiate based prescription pills are the root of it all. People usually go on a two-or- three-year run with pills, then they go to heroin. Why? Because it’s a cheaper, better high,” he said. “They smoke it, then when that’s not enough, they become an IV user, and that’s when it gets deadly.”

“Every time you shoot up, it’s like playing Russian roulette.”

According to the DEA report, heroin, though used by a smaller number of people than other major drugs, is much more deadly to its users.

“Their tolerance gets pretty high when they’re using, but then they get 30 days or so clean and when they go back out, they use the same amount that they used to. Then boom, what used to be a normal shot will knock them right out,” said Peterson.

Langford has overdosed four times, twice in one day. He said he understands how hard it is to stay sober.

“David was a good kid, a great kid from North Scottsdale that brightened up a room when he walked in, he was a loving, compassionate kind person that was addicted to heroin,” Langford said.