After several arrests and stints of sobriety, a baby-faced 22-year-old man vowed last August he was "gettin' straight.'' A month later, he died of a heroin overdose in his grandfather's Paramus home, Bergen County's 12th fatal overdose in three months.
On Feb. 8, a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter from Glen Rock died under his parents' roof, just 24 hours after he had left rehab.
And in March, two months after being arrested on car burglary charges, a 20-year-old self-trained magician died of a heroin overdose in his father's Montvale home.
Since the beginning of 2011, heroin has claimed at least 50 lives in Bergen County. It has its grasp on hundreds more.
Once, they were talented athletes, promising students, happy siblings. Now they drive into Paterson, a hub of the regional drug trade, several times a week to buy bundles of heroin, risking violence, arrest and death to sustain $300-a-week addictions.
They snort or inject it on highway shoulders, at home in towns such as Wyckoff, Ringwood or Fair Lawn. Many young addicts live with their parents, dependent on the family's money and shelter as they stash hypodermic needles and slender glassine bags of heroin in their childhood bedroom.
Most got hooked through pills _ prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Opana _ procured legally through a doctor, swiped from bathrooms or shared by friends. But heroin, at $5 per bag, is far cheaper, potent and widely available.
"It is an absolute epidemic,'' Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli told The Record Of Woodland Park.
Molinelli, who led a multi-jurisdictional task force to crack down on North Jersey's heroin trade over the past four months, says ``these kids have no idea what they're getting into.''
Public health data confirm what local authorities across the United States have known for several years: Heroin use is on the rise, particularly among suburban youth. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of heroin users nationwide increased dramatically, from 373,000, to 620,000, according to federal data, while the number of heroin-dependent young adults more than doubled, from 53,000, to 109,000, between 2009 and 2011, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Addiction.
In New Jersey, a wave of heroin addiction in affluent communities has been accompanied by a spike in reported overdoses and drug-related crime and death. Bergen County is no exception: In 2011 and 2012 combined, the Prosecutor's Office counted 130 heroin-related overdoses, 38 of which were fatal, a steep increase from prior years.
The recent increase in heroin use in New Jersey has many layers, officials say. The state's massive ports and highways are conduits for South American heroin. The drug flowing onto New Jersey streets is at least five times more pure than it was several decades ago, which makes ingestion easier _ it can be snorted _ and addiction more rapid.
But above all, heroin addiction is believed to have its roots in what public health officials have called an "epidemic'' of prescription painkillers, which are readily prescribed and highly addictive. Chemically and metabolically, painkillers based on oxycodone are nearly identical to heroin, to such a degree that they are often conflated in emergency room reports and public health data.
"Heroin is much more commonplace than it's been in years,'' said Ellen Elias, director of the Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources in Hackensack. "We see it all around. It seems like the population in which heroin is most prevalent is that 18- to 25-year-old population.''
Last October, the Bergen County Medical Examiner's Office reported ``an alarming spike'' in heroin-related deaths. But trouble had been brewing for months: Police blotters in quiet towns have been thick with drug arrests, young adults caught with hypodermic needles and bags of dope. In the past few months alone, six arrests of Wayne residents. Five of Garfield. Two of Fair Lawn. And many, many more.
In Paterson, a strained police force struggled to keep pace with addicts pouring into the city, across the Passaic River, to buy heroin. Paterson cops reported arresting a Bergen County resident "every other day,'' according to an internal report from the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office.
The war on drugs is waged not just in the homes of affluent Bergen County families, but in the streets of Paterson, where effects of heroin demand take the form of gang activity and criminality.
"The drug trade has successfully destroyed, ravaged, our community and communities across our nation,'' said Laquan Hargrove, director of the Paterson Youth Services Bureau. "The war on drugs, we are losing it.''
Hargrove said he has seen the reach of gangs extend in recent years to nearly every corner of the city, nearly every age group. "These kids are exposed to the whole spectrum of the gang lifestyle,'' Hargrove said. "Its crime, its violence, they are exposed to the drug trade, they are exposed to it all.''
On a recent afternoon in Paterson, heroin was being sold openly on the street mere blocks from a public school. In March, Bergen County detectives arrested a midlevel dealer after he dropped his child off at school, part of his morning routine.
Most of the gang activity reported by the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office was attributed to the Bloods, a national gang with strong offshoots in Newark, Camden and Paterson.
Paterson's needle exchange program, intended to provide junkies with clean needles to lessen the spread of disease, has reported a steep increase in 18- to 28-year-old members. So has the Bergen County homeless shelter, as young addicts _ having exhausted the patience and resources of their parents and local police _ are kicked out of their homes.
Police across Bergen County have seen spikes in shoplifting, home invasions, burglaries and armed robberies, "localized crimes'' to get money for drugs. Addicts were showing up at open houses hosted by real estate agents, scouring strangers' medicine cabinets for prescription pills.
"Even if you're not seeing the use, you're going to see the crime from it,'' said Detective Brian Huth of the Ramsey police. "The faces that are getting arrested for heroin, they pop up in commercial burglaries all through our areas. We are all affected by it.''
As a father and a police officer, Huth has been alarmed by what he said is a cavalier attitude teenagers take toward prescription drugs, from Ritalin to Ambien to oxycodone.
Eric Richter, a 20-year-old from Franklin Lakes who now lives in Kinnelon, got addicted to heroin through oxycodone. "It started with pills,'' said Richter, who was arrested in February on possession charges. "It slowly progressed.''
Richter vowed he would never do heroin, but his pill addiction was too expensive to sustain. He was soon spending hundreds of dollars a day just to function. "Heroin was already around me, because there were a lot of people I know that did heroin.'' By the beginning of 2013, he was snorting several bags a day.
Officials say parents are often unaware of the risks of prescription drug abuse and are loath to admit that their child has a heroin habit. In February, an 18-year-old from Ramsey died from the effects of Ambien, Xanax and carisoprodol, a muscle relaxant."Everybody has a hand in this,'' Huth said. "They are just normal kids that just fall into this lifestyle. I see them start a lot younger.''
In March, Paramus police arrested a 14-year-old girl after she bought heroin at a local house known for drugs and parties _ she had asked her mother to drive her to "a friend's house'' at 1 a.m., police said, claiming to have left behind her hat. Questioned by a detective, she shrugged and said, "It makes me feel good.''
"It is not getting better,'' said Deputy Police Chief Ken Ehrenberg in Paramus, which has seen five overdose deaths from heroin or Oxycontin in the past 16 months. "It's starting to ramp up.''
Local police departments see death coming before the families or the addicts do.
Huth knows certain addresses by heart, the houses of frequent burglars who steal to feed their habit or where emergency responders have revived unconscious addicts with shots of Narcan, which counteracts the effects of opiates. Cops watch as mischievous 18-year-olds become tattered, desperate 20-year-olds, and they know it is only a matter of time.
"The kids using oxies in high school will sustain for a while, then they fall off,'' Ehrenberg said. "It starts as snorting, ends as shooting. And then there's a good chance they're dead.''
There was the 24-year-old former Don Bosco baseball player caught shooting heroin into the arm of a former Ramsey football captain in the back seat of a car in Elmwood Park. The 24-year-old granddaughter of a former Bergen County judge. The 23-year-old son of an Allendale doctor. A 46-year-old former local cop, who sustained an injury on the job that led to an addiction to pills, which soon gave way to heroin.
In contrast to the dealers, many of whom were arrested in "buy and grabs'' in Paterson, or swept up in nighttime raids, most of the addicts were brought in for what detectives call "interdiction'' _ tough-love intervention sessions with Prosecutor's Office detectives. Parents were often called, even for non-juveniles. In stark, windowless rooms in the detectives' bureau, as users began to go through withdrawal, the shakes and sweats of "dope sickness,'' addicts and families often confronted the reality of their addiction for the first time.
Some of those arrested became confidential informants _ introducing undercover detectives to dealers who have been swept up in arrests throughout Paterson. Others detoxed at Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus; a few headed to private rehabs out of state.
But many relapse almost immediately. In February, a 21-year-old from Franklin Lakes sneaked out of her family home and was back on the streets of Paterson less than 24 hours after she was arrested, detectives in the Prosecutor's Office said.
"People don't understand the drive behind that addiction,'' said Lt. Tom Dombroski, a leader of the Bergen prosecutor's task force. "There's something in their brain, and once that drive is there _ there will always be triggers that put them back in the need mode. Heroin is like medicine for some of these people.''
Lyn, a 24-year-old heroin addict from Tenafly, says she cannot function without her daily doses of the drug.
"The one time you try it, you get sucked in,'' Lyn said. She started experimenting with pills two years ago; after a month in rehab last spring, she turned to heroin. She was recently arrested on possession charges, but continues to inject up to 10 bags a day, worth $40 _ for this reason, she asked to be referred to only by her middle name.
She has exhausted her parents' patience, and her own savings; she has sold off cameras and laptops, and has shoplifted, "anything to get money so I can buy the drug.''
Heroin addiction is a constant state of unfulfilled need _ an addict will forever be ``chasing the dragon's tail,'' the elusive reclaiming of that first experience, a rush of euphoria and analgesia. It is a deeply physical, private drug, not what you take to go party, but what you take to escape.
"You used to think of heroin user in a dark alley with a needle sticking out of his arm,'' said Special Agent Doug Collier with the New Jersey office of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Back in the 1970s, Collier said, street heroin was maybe 6 or 8 percent pure _ today, the DEA data show heroin purity levels in New Jersey at 40 percent, down from a 2005 peak of 70 percent.
"Heroin has never gone away,'' Collier said, "Now, you can snort it, and it's chic, it's in vogue, it's fueled by opioids. The stigma of a needle is not there. We have seen 18- to 25-year-olds hooked because of trying a narcotic painkiller, and when that source runs out, why not buy a bag of heroin?''