Heroin: The human toll

Johnny Dudek, 15, died of a heroin overdose in his bedroom, September 16, 2013 in Bartlett. (Family photo)

Johnny Dudek had piercing blue eyes, swooping bangs and a perfect grin — thanks to the braces that came off not long ago. Soon to turn 16, he was excited about getting the white Grand Am his grandmother left him before she died, though his parents said he needed to improve his grades before he could get a driver's license.

His mother caught him smoking marijuana a year earlier. Still, Ruth Dudek said she never imagined the boy she called her "love bug" would use heroin.

On July 10, his family found Johnny unresponsive in his bedroom in their Bartlett home. His father tried to resuscitate him, but he was cold to the touch, and Ruth Dudek knew her baby was gone. She said his inexperience with the drug, combined with seasonal allergies, proved fatal, and he stopped breathing in his sleep.

The high school sophomore-to-be was one of 11 people who died of a heroin overdose in DuPage County during a two-and-a-half-week period this summer. Chicago's suburbs have been witness to a growing toll of heroin-related fatalities, with DuPage, Kane, Lake, Will and McHenry counties seeing year-over-year increases in 2012. But the abrupt spike in July in DuPage — accounting for more than a quarter of the county's 2013 total to date of 38 — was particularly alarming in part because it cannot be fully explained.

Instead, it must be seen as a random statistical event that tells part of the unfolding story of a drug that is proving increasingly dangerous and increasingly fatal.

Johnny Dudek was the youngest of the 11 victims in DuPage; the oldest was 63. Three were veterans. Two were women. Geographically, the deaths stretched from Bartlett in the northwest to Clarendon Hills in the southeast.

Their deaths reflect what authorities have long said — that heroin crosses all social lines and doesn't discriminate by age, race or income. It's cheap, at about $10 for a small bag; easy to get; and no longer requires a needle.

Much of the heroin flooding the region is supplied by Mexican cartels and sold by Chicago gang members, said Jack Riley, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's five-state region that includes Illinois. Federal agents in Riley's region said they seized nearly 180 kilos last year, compared to 25 in 2002 and just 9 in 1993.

Authorities have not identified a link between the victims or one particular supplier, nor have they uncovered evidence of a tainted product. But Riley said the unknown purity of the heroin, which varies from dealer to dealer, is a big risk factor.

"Use it once and you can die," he said. "Nobody knows how your body is going to respond to it. It is the most dangerous of all narcotics. Unfortunately, I think sometimes parents' first key there's an issue is when they rush to the ER for an overdose."

Said Oak Brook Police Detective Benjamin Kadolph, who handled one of the overdose cases: "I've seen the saddest cases with heroin, (more) than any other drug."

Johnny Dudek's mother said she only recently stopped watching for her youngest child to come through the family's front door. She still can't go into his bedroom without being reduced to tears.

"I'm just so tired of crying every day," she said.

Last Sunday, Ruth and Rich Dudek put on a brave face for what would have been Johnny's 16th birthday.

After visiting the cemetery, they invited Johnny's friends over for a barbecue. A dozen teens listened to music in his room. They grilled outside and shared memories.

It was a celebration, minus cake, candles, presents and, of course, Johnny.

"My son was a good boy," his mother said, fighting back emotion. "He was not a drug addict. He just made a really bad decision."

A 19-year-old Hanover Park man is accused of twice selling heroin to Johnny in the hours before he died, police said.

"I just want people to be aware," Ruth Dudek said. "No matter where you live, the drugs are there. They're in the schools. They're everywhere."

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