Grieving father, recovering addict among those fighting heroin's march into county

McHenry County had 15 heroin-related deaths in 2013

Like a video that’s been played on repeat, Ken Chiakas can recall vividly the details surrounding the day his 17-year-old daughter was found dead of a drug overdose.

The late-night phone call: Stephanie was missing. The early-morning phone call: She was found unresponsive inside a Crystal Lake home. Police lights. Yellow crime scene tape. No ambulance.

“I knew she was dead. I could just feel it,” Ken Chiakas said. “There was no ambulance, that’s when I knew. When they didn’t send an ambulance, I knew.”

Stephanie Chiakas was a junior at Crystal Lake South High School when she died March 10, 2013. Multiple drugs were found in her system, including heroin.

The walls around Ken’s world came crashing down in an instant. His body tensed. His heart pounded. From that moment on, its beats would be a heavy reminder of all he’s lost.

“I never felt such pain in my entire life. I felt like they ripped my gut out and threw it in the street,” Chiakas said.

The next time he saw Stephanie, he was picking out her casket.

“I hugged her, and kissed her, and she was ice cold.”

Now, Ken looks for signs of Stephanie among the living. Orbs in pictures. Animals that come too close. He’s desperate to see her in dreams. It’s all the grieving father has to cling to.

“I wish I could dream about her; feel her, talk to her,” Chiakas said.

“The hardest part is she’s not coming back. No matter what I do, or how much I speak out, she’s not coming back,” he said.

Stephanie’s death was one of 15 heroin-related overdose deaths in McHenry County last year.

But she was more than just a number. She was a daughter. A sister. A girlfriend. A friend. A pretty, smiling blonde girl, who loved to help dad in the kitchen.

An everyday teenager with a secret.

Four months before her death, Stephanie was arrested on drug charges for possessing less than 15 grams of heroin.

For Ken, the news of her arrest sent a shock to his system. It was beyond comprehension.

Heroin? No way.

Stephanie was put in detox, given at-home drug tests, and her parents believed she was attending support groups.

“I had no idea that heroin was around, and that this much heroin was around,” Ken said.

Studies have shown that heroin use in Chicago’s suburban collar counties is surging. The former notions about what a heroin user looks like are no longer true. It’s becoming a drug of choice for white, upper- to middle-class suburban young people.

“These kids look like everybody else in [McHenry County],” substance abuse counselor Rick Atwater said. “They look normal. They look like what everybody else thinks is OK. … You just can’t judge a book by its cover.

“They could be the guy that’s selling you your car. They could be the guy that’s doing your taxes. They could be your best friend’s mom, or they could be the kid sitting next to you on the bench on the basketball team.”

According to the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, from 1998 to 2007, hospital discharges for heroin use among Chicagoans dropped 67 percent among 20- to 24-year-olds. During the same time, that figure increased by more than 200 percent in the collar counties.

Local law enforcement have said they’re targeting dealers who might see McHenry County as an ideal market with its proximity to Rockford and Chicago and accessibility to commuter train lines.

The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office said its heroin cases jumped from 30 in 2012 to 95 last year.

But for families such as the Chiakases, the efforts come too late.

Five years before Stephanie Chiakas died, Steve Staley of Woodstock was on the road to sobriety.

It was February 2008, and Staley’s best friend had just died. Heroin overdose, the coroner said.

Staley, 28, missed his friend’s call to get high by 15 minutes. It could have been him.

“I looked around the room, and it looked like my funeral,” Staley said.

Standing over his friend’s casket that day, he vowed that he would stop using heroin for good.

He didn’t.

A few weeks later, Staley watched another friend overdose and turn blue. Before this friend was carted off in an ambulance, Staley cleared the man’s pockets of drugs and money. Drugs that he would ingest. Money that he would spend on more drugs.

“I wish I could say I was looking out for him, but I wasn’t,” Staley admitted.

But it wasn’t long before Staley, on a whim, decided to go to a support group with other users. It was a decision that changed his life.

“For whatever reason, I raised my hand and I said, ‘I’m going to die. I need help.’”

He had tried getting off heroin before, but nothing worked. For whatever reason, this time was different.

Staley last used heroin March 9, 2008. Today, he’s got a girlfriend, new car and apartment, and is starting his own contracting business.

Today, he celebrates six years of sobriety.

Staley remembers early on getting into fights at school. He was insecure. He was angry. At 9 years old, he tried marijuana. It was the beginning of a long road of addiction. Drugs made it feel as though his “skin fit.”

He was drinking by middle school. Started dealing pot in high school. Tried pills soon after. Psychedelics, too. He eventually dropped out of Crystal Lake South High School in his senior year.

Staley always wanted more, more and more.

“My brain was craving booze and drugs the same way it craves water,” he said.

He has been arrested what he estimates to be 30 times. A couple DUIs, a few misdemeanor charges, ordinance violations, eventually leading to felony charges for retail theft.

Ironically enough, Staley never wanted to try cocaine or heroin, though it was definitely around, he said.

“Those drugs scared me,” he said. “I never wanted to become a junkie.”

The debate about whether addiction is an illness or a choice has been discussed for years. Atwater and Staley fall in the same camp, though others might disagree.

“I think people don’t understand that [addiction] is a disease,” Atwater said. “It’s not something people do to themselves on purpose. They don’t choose to have an addiction any more than a person chooses to have diabetes and cancer.”

Staley started doing heroin by accident, he said. Someone told him he was snorting Oxycontin, a pill that offers a similar high.

One day he woke up with the flu. His dealer talked him into coming over for more Oxycontin. Suddenly after he snorted it, his flu-like symptoms went away.

It wasn’t a miracle. Staley was showing signs of heroin withdrawal.

Soon, he was snorting up to 20 bags each day – about a $200-a-day habit.

Then he started doing all the things he said he never would do: stealing money and heirlooms from family and friends. He racked up debt with his drug dealer.

He started his downward spiral into heavy drugs afraid of needles. That didn’t last long.

“I shot it and my whole world changed,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m doomed.’ I just knew it was going to get bad. It was everything I’ve ever looked for. For me it made me whole.”

And that’s precisely what makes heroin so dangerous, Atwater said. Heroin has one of the highest dependency profiles of any illicit drug. Only nicotine ranks higher. Heroin is cheap, it’s available and it’s dangerously unpredictable.

“That’s what is scary about it,” Atwater said. “It’s plentiful. It’s easily made. It’s stronger than it was 20 years ago. It’s easily distributed. ... That makes it very dangerous because it’s available.”

Ken Chiakas and Staley – the grieving father and the recovering addict – both have taken leadership roles in curbing the heroin epidemic. Staley is called upon for speaking engagements and offers support to those early in their recovery.

Chiakas joined McHenry County’s Heroin Task Force to continue to raise awareness in his daughter’s memory. He’s also started attending support groups for other parents who lost children to drugs.

“Everybody wants to think it’s not my child,” Chiakas said. “People need to wake up. This is in your neighborhood. I want parents to be aware, to talk to their kids, and not take the approach that this is not my kid.”

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