By Glenna Whitley of the Dallas Observer
He also had a sweet side. He'd grown up going to church and carried a picture of Jesus in his wallet. He was drawn to beautiful, troubled girlfriends who needed rescuing. Luke Stone was your basic good kid.
But on May 14 a year ago, when Luke was a 20-year-old student at the University of Texas at Dallas, his daring nature killed him. The coroner's verdict: accidental drug overdose.
This isn't another "drugs are bad for you" story. It is a trip into another world, one far different from that of Luke's parents--even though they'd grown up in the '60s and '70s and had their own encounters with illegal drugs. David and Sondra Stone viewed their experimentation, particularly with marijuana, as a normal part of growing up. They didn't want their kids to become addicts, of course, but as long as they stayed away from "hard drugs" like cocaine and heroin, they figured the kids would come out all right, just like they had.
Luke Stone's parents know that isn't true anymore. They didn't realize the landscape of substance abuse has radically changed.
Today, kids Luke's age swim in a sea of psychotropic pharmacology--pills, potions and powders legally prescribed for everything from depression to attention deficit disorder. When they want to get high, they're more likely to turn to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs like Valium that treat anxiety and panic attacks. Instead of shooting heroin, they score synthetic opiates such as Vicodin, Percocet, Dilaudid or Tylenol with codeine. To get a buzz or pull an all-nighter for an exam, they pop pills like Ritalin and Adderall, amphetamines that treat ADD.
It makes sense. You don't have to find a drug dealer to get Xanax. You just have to rummage in Mom's medicine chest. You don't need to sneak around to score Adderall. A pediatrician prescribed it because you were driving your teachers crazy. Why not trade a few Adderall to your roommate, under the care of a psychiatrist for panic disorder, for some of his Xanax?
If you get caught--well, parents who discover a kid snitching a Lortab react differently from those who find a crack pipe or syringe.
The explosion in pharmaceuticals has been magnified by the Internet. Not only are there more psychotropic drugs to choose from, it's easier than ever to learn what to take, how much to take and what effects to anticipate. Luke scoured sites like erowid.org--"documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives"--for information and "trip reports" on everything from peyote to Percocet. From there, teens are one click away from an illegal online pharmacy, a cyber medicine cabinet offering quick, discreet delivery.
A 2004 study at Columbia University found that only 6 percent of 157 Web sites selling medications actually required a prescription. And last month the DEA arrested 20 people, from Tyler, Texas, to Bombay, India, as part of "Operation Cyber Chase," targeting an illegal international ring that used more than 200 Web sites to distribute prescription narcotics, amphetamines and steroids.
Web sites to replace them will pop up overnight like psilocybin mushrooms sprouting in a cow patty.
Fascinated by illicit pharmaceuticals, Luke created a "drug log" of those he'd tried and their effects. He wasn't alone. Most of his friends at UTD used pills--in addition to the college mainstays of pot and alcohol--and turned to Luke for information. He knew what medications could be taken together and what to stay away from. "Luke was so smart," one friend says.
Intelligence, experimentation and a young man's belief in his own immortality seduced Luke into believing he knew what he was doing and could control the outcome.
But dead people don't post trip reports on the Internet.
At age 13, Luke Stone spent 17 days in Australia and New Zealand, one of the kids chosen for a "student ambassador" program. "He came home a different kid, a world traveler, you know," says his mother, Sondra Stone Fishman, who works out of her Oak Cliff home doing computer billing for doctors. Talking about Luke, Sondra flashes between pride and sudden grief, in a place she calls "beyond tears."
The older of her two sons, Luke had never been ordinary: whip-smart, reading before he went to kindergarten, playing chess at 7. They finally put Luke in a Montessori school to challenge him more. An athlete built like a brick outhouse, stocky and strong, Luke was the kid who had to be the pitcher in baseball or the goalie in roller hockey. He thrived on being in the pressure point, the one who made the difference in the game.
"Luke had tremendous drive," says his father, David Stone. "Wherever he was going, he was going there like a steam engine. I was proud of him."
But David says his oldest son was always a challenge to raise.
Luke would debate anyone about anything. "His mind was so quick," David says. "Luke believed he could outthink you. That's what got him into trouble. He wasn't as smart as he thought he was."
David and Sondra married in 1983. After Luke was born a year later, Sondra became a stay-at-home mom and loved it. Sondra--not Luke--cried the first day she dropped him off at preschool.
The couple divorced in the mid-'90s after years of discord. One conflict, David says, was disciplining their strong-willed son. David, a military veteran, thought Luke needed tough love. A self-described former hippie, Sondra believed in a softer approach.
Luke's computer and math skills got him accepted at the Science and Engineering Magnet at Townview, recently named by Newsweek the sixth-best school in the nation for its percentage of students passing Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests. Luke wanted to study computer science and get an internship with Texas Instruments. If Luke was a bit of a nerd, though, he was also recognized as an outspoken leader.
Girls loved him. He was self-assured, cool, the guy who would instigate trouble at the back of the room then sit back and enjoy the fallout. By ninth grade, Luke had adopted a man-in-black persona. He got a couple of piercings and spent evenings flailing away on his drum set as rap or alt-metal music by Static-X and Rob Zombie blasted from his room.
He also went to a Disciples of Christ church with his mother and younger brother every week, and it was at church camp the summer after his freshman year that he first got caught with pot. Luke claimed the marijuana found in his backpack belonged to another kid. Though their minister and the camp director vouched for his story, Luke and the other boy were charged with possession. Luke and his mother had to attend counseling sessions once a week for a while.
Sondra and David had grown up in the '60s and were no strangers to drug use. They sometimes marveled that they were lucky to have made it through their teenage years more or less unscathed. Though she was upset, Sondra's attitude toward Luke's transgression was more laissez-faire than David's, "because I did it and enjoyed it thoroughly." Luke seemed to be maintaining his grades, so if he was getting high, he was handling it well. She was more worried about him smoking cigarettes.
David, who says he abused alcohol as a young adult, took a zero tolerance attitude. "Luke knew I had smoked pot," David says. "We'd sit down to talk about it. To me, pot can lead you on to other drugs. I never got through to him." Luke's argument: Marijuana is natural, no big deal, you-did-it-so-what's-the-problem. David looked for opportunities to challenge his son about his drug use, but only once or twice did he suspect Luke was high.
"I needed hard evidence before I confronted Luke," David says. "He only responded to hard evidence." Luke always had a one-word retort: hypocrite.
Even so, David saw Luke as a casual user. Like most parents, he didn't have a clue. Besides, Luke seemed to be on track to get into a good college, especially after passing a handful of AP tests and scoring a 1380 on his SAT.
His friends tell another story. By the end of high school, Luke was smoking pot regularly and occasionally doing mushrooms or sipping over-the-counter cough syrup containing dextromethorphan (DXM), like Robitussin. Luke loved altering his reality, not because he felt unhappy--though he was angry at his father about the divorce--but because life was amazing. He admired the edgy, dangerous life of his idols: rappers and rock stars, alive and dead. "Luke glamorized that whole lifestyle," says "Dennis," one high school friend. (All the names of students have been changed.)
"He wanted to try everything," says "Corey," another high school friend who smoked pot in high school to deal with academic pressure. "He did it first--and more."
Sometime after graduation in May 2002, Luke first snorted heroin, courtesy of "Tina," a girl he met through a friend at church.
Described as a "very hot chick" by Luke's buddies, Tina lived in North Richland Hills and was a year older than Luke. During high school, when neither could drive, they talked for hours online. After Tina got her license, she'd pick Luke up on Friday and he'd spend the weekends with her family. Sondra didn't know that Tina was a heroin addict who dropped out of high school.
"I thought she was real sweet," says Sondra, who remarried in 2002, about the time her son started dating Tina. "I thought she was a stable influence for Luke. I never suspected she had a drug problem. What I didn't like was that she wasn't doing anything. She didn't work or go to school. She lived with her parents."
Every now and then Tina dropped out of sight; Sondra would later learn her son's girlfriend had been in rehab during those times. She now believes that Luke learned a lot about drugs from Tina.
Luke didn't tell most of his buddies about trying heroin. They looked down on people who used heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. Stuff that junkies use, that can get you addicted. Though one close friend believed Luke turned to drugs because of depression, most of the others thought he just enjoyed getting high.
"I don't think he was addicted," says "Rosemary," who dated a friend of Luke's. "I think he was bored and cocky."
Among his circle of friends at UTD, Luke became known as the expert on illegal and legal drugs, which was saying something. All of them had bookmarked erowid.org, the Web site known for its broad and deep "vaults" of information on recreational drug use. Operated out of California by two people known only as "Earth" and "Fire," Erowid taps into the collective knowledge, experience and enthusiasm of users all over the world.
Plano police Detective Courtney Perot, who investigates overdoses--both fatal and nonfatal--consults Erowid regularly. "You have people using the drug talking about the effects right there," Perot says. "Some of the information obtained on these Web sites is beneficial--talking about the dangers of using various drugs. But there are so many different sites out there that advocate and encourage usage."
You can search Erowid for information on plants, herbs, psychoactives, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and new "smart drugs" that supposedly sharpen your brain. Consider this enthusiastic report from an OxyContin user: "The drug...gives me the most euphoric high I've ever felt. I have had a lot of experience with other substances and none compare to OC. I never take more than one 40 mg pill crushed and taken orally. The effects usually hit around 45 minutes...The euphoric high will last until I pass out. Smoking weed while on OC intensifies the opiate 'buzz' for me. I won't take OC without weed."
Many of the experience reports, however, are warnings. And the range of substances seems endless. Take this from a guy who crushed up morning glory seeds (yes, flower seeds), mixed them with water and drank the potion: "From my experience I CANNOT recommend their use, it was probably the single most unpleasant experience of my life. Ten hours of intense panic, (imagined) suffocation, seemingly endless, painful hurling accompanied by crazy delusions that you are going to die and that your organs went through a blender are not my idea of a good time."
Other popular sites for illicit use include dancesafe.org, which caters to the rave/Ecstasy crowd, bluelight.nu, junkylife.com, pillreports.com, shroomery.org, ecstasy.org, thedea.org, Lycaeum.org, crazymeds.com and maps.org (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). These Web sites weren't meant to be a source of trivia. Teen users and abusers do their research here, in the privacy of their bedrooms.
In a study released in April, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America reported that, for the first time in 17 years, teenagers were more likely to have abused prescription and over-the-counter medications than illicit drugs like cocaine, Ecstasy, methamphetamines, heroin and LSD. About one in five teens has abused a prescription painkiller to get stoned. Eighteen percent reported nonmedical use of Vicodin, 10 percent admitted they'd used OxyContin and 10 percent Ritalin or Adderall.
"The current favorite is Xanax," says Gayle Jensen-Savoie, director of Seay Behavioral Health Center, an adolescent psychiatric and chemical dependency unit in Plano. "It has a numbing effect. If you are overstimulated in so many areas, with Xanax you can handle it all. In the last three months, for the first time we had to detox several kids of Xanax, which we never had to do before. They were probably taking 16 a day. That's a huge amount. That's deadly, and then they drink."
In 2004 there were 10 fatalities from mixed-drug overdoses recorded in Collin County, surpassing those from cocaine or heroin.
One fascinating source of information is posted by the Drug Enforcement Agency: the Microgram Bulletin, which for 36 years was secretly published for forensic chemists and narcotics officers (www.usdoj.gov/dea/programs/forensicsci/m
The DEA decided in 2003 to make the Microgram Bulletin public after recognizing the explosion of information and misinformation about illegal drugs on the Internet. The DEA now advertises on Google. Plug in Percocet or Valium, and a sponsored link to the DEA pops up: "Read Our Consumer Alert Before You Buy Drugs Online. Learn The Law!"
Luke scoured the Internet to study medications and their effects and interactions. "If you wanted to know something, you asked Luke," says "Roman," a business major. "He was always known as the experimenter among us."
Luke's first introduction to pills apparently occurred between high school graduation and the start of his freshman year in college, when he got a job at UPS. It was hard physical labor with attendant muscle aches; Luke hated the work but liked being around the blue-collar guys who he thought were tough, real, ghetto. UPS cohorts introduced Luke to Percocet, a combination of acetaminophen and oxycodone, an opiate-based painkiller.
Oxycodone has been around since the '20s, but its use exploded after 1996, when Purdue Pharma began producing the controlled-release pill OxyContin, which is highly addictive. (In 2003 talk-show host Rush Limbaugh went public with his addiction to OxyContin after his name surfaced in a narcotics investigation.)
Percocet quickly became Luke's drug of choice. Though Luke was still dating Tina, he quit using heroin--cold turkey. He was proud of his willpower. And the pills allowed him to rationalize, minimize and justify his use of narcotics. Percocet isn't as bad as heroin. I'm not addicted like Tina. I need something to handle the pressure.
Like Luke, who was majoring in electrical engineering, his friends at UTD were very smart, pursuing degrees in physics, math, engineering and computer science. All of them popped Adderall, an amphetamine, to stay awake through marathon study sessions. Despite its image as a study drug, no more potent than No-Doz, Adderall is a psycho-stimulant, says Jenson-Savoie of the Seay Center. "It increases heart rate, increases blood pressure. If you are snorting it, it goes right into your blood. You could blow your heart out."
"Jason" says "you don't do Adderall for fun. It just helps you concentrate and stay up two days, drinking energy drinks." But after the tests were over, Luke had to take something to bring him down enough to sleep. For many of the students, that was the major appeal of the drugs that offered sleep such as Soma and Ambien.
Corey, a physics major, was prescribed Adderall in high school for ADD but rarely took it then. "I hated the way it made me feel," Corey says. "It deadens the creative side of you but sharpens the analytical side. I need it to do things like physics, but I hate having to do it. For AP [test] week, I took it and stayed up for three or four days straight. Then I wouldn't take it at all."
During his freshman year at a college out of state, Corey quit taking Adderall, but he filled his prescriptions and sold or traded them to other students. A three-month supply netted 100 pills that he could sell for $3 each. Adderall was more highly prized than Ritalin. "Adderall lasts six or seven hours," Corey says. "It gives you a little high, which can be dangerous if you like it. Ritalin lasts two or three hours and doesn't give you a high."
When Corey moved back to Dallas and enrolled at UTD, the pills went for only $2 each. "The market's so saturated," Corey says. He sold it to his buddies for $1 apiece.
Luke was getting a variety of pills from several UTD students and a Dallas drug dealer whom everybody called "Porn": Percocet, Valium, OxyContin, Xanax, Lortab, Soma. He preferred opiates and benzodiazepines (sedatives, muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety medications), but Luke would try almost anything once.
"If you wanted it," Corey says, "Luke could get it." Luke wasn't trying to make a lot of money, just support his own use. "He wouldn't give us anything he hadn't tried himself."
Pills had several advantages over cocaine, heroin, meth and other drugs: easy to take, easy to hide and relatively cheap. Xanax and Valium could be purchased for $2 to $3, with the higher-dosage pills going for a few dollars more. You could buy an evening of Percocet euphoria for $5, though some pills could cost more, depending on supply and demand.
At first, Corey was afraid of the pills Luke was using, which often had been cut with filler and repackaged by his dealer into generic capsules. "Then I tried Percocet," he says. "I really liked it. You take it and there's no grogginess. I could forget about the anxiety, the depression. That little thing in the back of your head goes away."
By the middle of their freshman year, many of Luke's friends, even high school holdouts, were smoking pot, eating 'shrooms, drinking alcohol and doing pills. Luke only rarely drank. The same bottle of Chivas Regal sat in his refrigerator for months. Luke knew the dangers of mixing pills and booze.
"We all researched drugs," Corey says, "but Luke was especially vigilant about it. There's a whole underground, really, of Internet drug users who give their opinions. You learn to trust each other, because they are usually right."
After injuring his hand at UPS, Luke was out of a job. His mother gave him $100 a week for spending money so he wouldn't have to work; his father was paying his tuition and rent. Though he bought Luke groceries, David resisted giving his son money, trying some tough love to get him to buckle down.
"He wasn't going to class," David says. After getting his grades, David tried to take Luke's car away from him. When Luke refused to give him the keys, David grabbed his son from the front seat and tried to pull him out. Luke backed down. David made Luke sign a contract that he would take at least 13 hours and pass 10, or Dad was ending the room and board.
The ugly confrontation distressed Sondra. "It got his attention," David says. "But Sondra thought I didn't love Luke."
Luke used his father's supposed stinginess as an excuse when he bumped up his sales of pills and weed, mostly schwag, low-grade pot purchased through a guy at UPS. Then Luke converted to selling hydro; one ounce of the high-grade pot could sell for $350 to $400. It meant higher profit and lower risk. (Possession of less than two ounces is considered for personal use, not distribution.) But pills were the most profitable.
Luke and all his buddies heard they could buy pills on the Internet, but none of them did it. "Anthony" once ordered pot on the Internet from Canada; it worked, but he didn't repeat it. He didn't want a drug charge on his record.
A business major, Anthony finally tried Percocet out of boredom. "It didn't seem to be hurting Luke," Anthony says. "He said it made you feel great. He was so knowledgeable. He'd rattle off bad combinations and chemical structures. He was a walking pharmacist. That was part of the appeal to him. The other appeal--you're not supposed to do it."
But Anthony didn't want to get in too deep. "People aren't meant to feel that good all the time."
Luke at first struck "Christopher," an art and film major who transferred to UTD in September 2003, like a character in a comic book: larger than life, with a goatee, spike earrings, sideburns and an "I'm-a-tough-drug-dealer-don't-mess-with-m
"Then I realized he was a pretty smart guy," Christopher says. Luke could talk about anything, tailoring his conversation to whomever he was with: art, music, traveling, math, film and computers.
Luke turned Christopher on to Percocet. "I took my first one and painted for the better part of a day," he says. "It was like being stoned but not lazy." A day and a half later, Christopher took another one, but his body's reaction turned sour. "The entire world felt like different shades of gray, like a dull ache in my head."
He kept using it anyway. "It was almost like a ritual," he says. "You smoke pot, you do Adderall to study, then do pills, then alcohol on top of it." Nobody worried about overdosing, Christopher says. "Anyone in command of their faculties can keep from overdosing."
After partying his way through freshman year, Luke had focused on his studies with the help of Jason, a highly motivated student who tutored him in calculus and several other courses. "He was very intelligent," Jason says. "His only delusions were chemical."
By the end of 2003, Luke started making good grades and liked the feeling. Before winter break, he broke up with Tina for good. She'd been in and out of rehab, in and out of jail. "She used to love me," he told one friend. "Now she loves heroin." (Again in jail for possession of narcotics, Tina was unavailable for comment.)
Luke and a friend from high school spent a week over winter break in Amsterdam, stoner Shangri-la for its shops where pot and mushrooms are legally sold. Luke thought it would be fabulous to travel to a place where he could openly indulge in his favorite pastime. His mother knew that was one reason he was going, but thinking it was a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience, she gave him money anyway. She didn't want Luke smoking pot in the United States because it was illegal, but in Amsterdam, that wasn't an issue.
At the time, neither Sondra nor David saw any sign that Luke had a serious drug problem. When he told his mother about Tina's addiction, Sondra asked point-blank if he was using hard drugs. He denied it.
From Amsterdam Luke brought back photos of rainy streets, bars, old buildings and some of their purchases--leggy 'shrooms and marijuana buds with names like Super Silver Haze, Poison, AK-47 and Buddha's Sister--to show the guys back home. He wasn't scoring any pills, though: too risky, he thought.
A vacation video shot by a friend shows Luke firing up fat blunts, smoking and laughing, smoking and laughing. He seems to be having a great time, except for a hacking cough and one vomiting episode. Too much booze, or withdrawal symptoms? In Dallas, Luke was taking two to four Percocets a day. When he couldn't get the drug or something similar, Luke experienced bouts of vomiting, stomach pains, cold sweats and migraines.
When he returned to Dallas, there were other signs that his pill habit was getting out of control. "He'd start gradually and take one Xanax," Rosemary says. "Now one doesn't feel as good, so he'd take two." Rosemary noticed that Luke was popping different drugs at the same time to see how they interacted with each other. He once passed out with a cigarette in his mouth and burned himself and a couch.
Still, none of his friends confronted him. Their attitude was: He's Luke. He knows what he's doing. "I don't think any of us felt it was our place to say something," Jason says. "Luke was going to do what he was going to do."
And most of his friends were doing it, too.
When Luke asked his father for funds to go to Mexico over spring break, David refused. "The only reason to go to Mexico," David told him, "is sex and drugs." Luke responded with "Well, why did you let me go to Amsterdam?" David had no answer.
"It hit me like 'wham,'" David says, hitting his forehead with a smack. "I knew we had a big problem."
Christopher remembers thinking sometime after spring break in 2004 that Luke, Jason and "Shelley" were taking so many pills, it was like they were in a "race to see who would screw up first."
Shelley had been Luke's close friend for four months before they started a romantic relationship in April. Drug use brought them together at first. On Friday nights, everybody would hang out, pop Percocet and play video games like City of Heroes. Shelley liked Luke because he was so straightforward and happy-go-lucky. But like some of the drugs they'd tried, Shelley and Luke were a volatile combination.
From a small town near Austin, Shelley had struggled with depression most of her life. When she was 9, her mother shot herself to death, leaving Shelley to discover the body.
Though very anti-drug in high school, Shelley had since struggled with addiction. During her first semester at UTD, she and her roommate smoked pot one night. "That's what started it," Shelley says. "I have an addictive personality."
That led to a brief fling with cocaine abuse. In 2002 Shelley, her roommate and their boyfriends were arrested and charged with possession. The terms of her probation--monthly drug tests, staying away from other users--kept Shelley sober for almost a year.
But when she started hanging out with Luke in January 2004, Shelley was again using multiple drugs--some illegal, some prescribed for her by a psychiatrist. Diagnosed as bipolar at the beginning of her sophomore year, Shelley was taking Xanax for panic attacks; Lamactil, a mood stabilizer; Ambien and other sleep aids for insomnia and night terrors; and a high dosage of Seroquel, an anti-psychotic. Sometimes she took them as directed; other times she would crush a pill and snort it for a more immediate reaction. If she had a month before her next drug test, Shelley might smoke pot.
"I used to have hallucinations," Shelley says. "I kept darting my eyes around because I was seeing things. There were times when I had to throw away my car keys or I'd fly away."
When she got to know Luke, he was regularly using Valium, Percocet, Adderall, Xanax and, of course, smoking pot.
"I saw him take at least nine Adderall a day," Shelley says, "some in the morning, then a couple of Valium, then more Adderall." Luke used some of Shelley's medications, too. And when no Percocet was available, he sipped liquid codeine, the active ingredient in prescription cough syrup, sometimes called "sizzurp" and popular in hip-hop culture. One night before they hooked up, Shelley saw Luke crashed on his couch during a party, wiped out by Valium and sizzurp. The next day he didn't answer his phone. Shelley finally drove to his apartment and pounded on the door until he answered.
"He was so white, so pale," Shelley says. "He looked terrible. I think that was the first time he might have accidentally OD'd."
Shelley later urged Luke to go to the university counseling center. He brushed her off. "I don't think it was a physical addiction that drove him," Shelley says. "It was psychological. Stopping would bring him down, so that he'd think there was something wrong with his head. He thought he might have a disorder like mine."
Both knew they needed to quit. Adderall suppresses the appetite, so they weren't eating, and their sleep schedule had turned upside down. If they could just get through the end of the semester, then they could make some changes.
In early May, Luke took Shelley to a doctor's office for a routine appointment. After grabbing a bunch of cards from a Rolodex-type dispenser that described various medications, he cut and pasted the cards into a flip-type notebook, creating a log of seven drugs he had taken and more he wanted to try, complete with each medication's purpose, dosages, dangers and how they affected him.
At their Mother's Day lunch on May 9, Luke gave Sondra a lovely vase filled with yellow roses and a sweet card. Happy and full of enthusiasm, Luke talked about changing his major to law. With Jason's tutoring, Luke was making better grades.
Sondra saw no sign of drug use. But finals started the next day, and Luke was popping Adderall like M&Ms.
David Stone got the phone call from a Dallas police detective at about 2 p.m. on May 14. "You've lost your son," said the officer, calling from the Collin County Medical Examiner's Office. "It's a drug overdose." David had no idea what he was talking about.
"It's not Luke," David insisted. "How do you know it's my son?" The officer had found a drivers license in a Richardson apartment. The photo of Sean Lukas Stone, age 20, matched the body found there.
Still in disbelief, David called Sondra, who was in her car, and asked her to pull over. When he told her, Sondra's reaction was the same: "It can't be Luke."
David picked up her and their younger son, and they drove to the medical examiner's office in McKinney. Seeing Luke's body on a gurney through the morgue window, Sondra screamed. She refused to believe Luke had accidentally overdosed. Someone must have done it to him.
Over the next few weeks, his parents heard more details from Luke's friends and pieced together what had happened in their son's final days.
On May 12, Corey, Jason, Roman, Anthony and Luke had lunch together at The Abbey, their favorite pub. "We were talking about graduating and what we wanted to do," Corey says. "Luke was serious about [Shelley], as happy as I'd seen him in months. A real happy, not an opiate happy."
Luke pulled an all-nighter, studying with Jason for his calculus and history exams. In addition to Adderall, Luke was using Xanax and Valium. His on-campus connection hadn't been able to get Percocet for weeks.
"You could tell he'd been studying and was strung out a little," Jason says. "At that point, you see shadow people." Recently Luke had been acting paranoid, saying that three undercover cops lived in his complex.
The next day, Luke aced his calculus final. He made two trips to Wal-Mart, the second with Shelley. His mother had given him about $180 on Sunday. They bought some cleaning supplies, a small table and some DVDs. Late that afternoon Luke dropped Shelley at his apartment and apparently made a run to see Porn.
While Luke was gone, Shelley cleaned the apartment--it was the end of the semester, and Luke's lease was almost up--then took a Seroquel, her prescribed medication for bipolar disorder, and zonked out.
She was still asleep on the couch early that evening when Christopher and several other guys dropped in. Luke had returned with lots of weed and three fat gel caps of morphine, a drug he didn't much like because it gives a "dirty" high, making him feel rotten after it wears off. But morphine was the best his dealer could offer. He later told Shelley it took his last $30. No matter; he'd recoup it quickly by selling the pot.
Wearing a black tank top and deep into the game City of Heroes, Luke looked gaunt and hollow-eyed. "He had been on Xanax the entire week," Christopher says. "He had gone from swallowing it to dissolving it in water or snorting it. It hits your bloodstream all at once." Christopher bought some weed but declined Luke's offer to share the morphine.
At 10 p.m., Shelley woke from her nap. Luke emptied one gel cap of the morphine and separated it into two lines. He snorted one, and Shelley snorted the other. It hit Shelley hard, and she stumbled to bed.
Shelley roused around 9 a.m. on May 14 and found Luke half on, half off the bed. She pushed him back onto it and draped his arm around her. It fell limp. Alarmed, Shelley pressed her ear on his chest. His heart was beating, faint and slow but not irregular. She went back to sleep.
Later that morning--she doesn't remember the time, but it was probably close to noon--Shelley got out of bed and started to tidy up. They were going to UPS that day to look for work. A few minutes later, when she tried to rouse Luke, he didn't respond. Shelley pulled the covers off the bed, joking around. She saw with a shock that the top of his body was deathly pale and the bottom half looked bruised. Shelley flashed back to discovering her mother's body; her blood had settled on the side where she'd fallen, making her appear bruised. Shrieking, Shelley ran through the apartment and found the three gel caps on the counter, empty.
Hysterical, Shelley called Jason's cell phone. When he didn't answer, she dialed his roommate Christopher and screamed at him to wake Jason. "He's not breathing!" she sobbed to Jason. "Get over here now. Luke's dead!"
Jason raced to the apartment. One look was all it took. Weeping, incoherent, Shelley insisted they had to get all the pot and paraphernalia out of the apartment. She didn't want his parents or the police to know Luke was dealing drugs.
"Luke's dead," Jason told her. "He's not going to jail." He realized, however, that Shelley's probation could be revoked for being around illegal drugs. Jason gathered up the dope, bongs and scales--inadvertently leaving behind a tube containing mushroom spores from an unsuccessful attempt to grow 'shrooms--and carted the stuff out.
Shelley called 911 about 12:30 p.m. Two Dallas police detectives arrived in minutes with the paramedics.
The news of Luke's death flashed through cell phones, leaving his friends shocked and bewildered. With their limited knowledge of pharmaceuticals, they debated the cause. Did the Adderall, an amphetamine that can cause heart irregularities, interact with the morphine, which can suppress respiration? Finally aware how little they really knew, the tragedy snapped them out of their own pill habits.
For a while.
As they awaited the autopsy results, Luke's parents lived in a kind of suspended disbelief that lasted seven weeks. "I couldn't fathom that it was a drug overdose," Sondra says. "Luke was so smart." She was convinced there had been foul play.
Sondra agonized that Luke might have survived if Shelley had immediately called 911. Shelley's grief and drug use had resulted in different stories. There's no doubt, however, that when Shelley woke up the second time, Luke was beyond rescue.
The autopsy results surprised everybody.
Dr. William Rohr, the Collin County medical examiner, ruled that Luke died of mixed-drug intoxication--the combined effects of morphine, amphetamine and at least three benzodiazepines. While the morphine alone wasn't a lethal dose, the chemical cocktail in Luke's body shut down his respiration.
Rhor noted that Luke had an undiagnosed disorder called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which affects hormone production. The disease was “significant,” he said, but he couldn’t quantify how much it had to do with his death. According to Dr. James Griffin, an endocrinologist at UT Southwestern Medical School, it probably played little role. But it illustrates how people who seem healthy and robust, oblivious to underlying health problems, can be playing Russian roulette with their lives by taking powerful medications.
Luke’s blood also showed traces of diazepam (Valium), temazepam (a sleep aid) and oxazepam (anti-anxiety). Had he taken the benzos that day? The night before? Perhaps Luke had gotten to the point where he couldn't remember what he took when, and even his carefully organized drug log couldn't save him.
Six of Luke's longtime friends served as pallbearers at the funeral. After Tina told Sondra the name of one of Luke's suppliers, she was shocked to find the dealer's signature in the funeral home guest book.
Luke's drug-using friends were there, too, and some of their lives have changed. In the last 12 months, Shelley has moved to a university out of state. Using journal entries from their month together, Shelley wrote a short one-woman play about falling in love with Luke and then finding him dead and performed it for her theater class. She no longer takes any psychotropic medications. "When I stopped abusing my prescription drugs," Shelley says, "I was able to stop using them [altogether]."
Most of Luke's friends say they've stopped using illicit medications. "None of us ever thought the pills were that dangerous," Christopher says. "I didn't want to be part of it anymore."
Corey says he's stopped smoking pot but still does Percocet. "I think we're all more cautious," he says.
Jason was scared, but also angry. "It seemed like such a waste," he says. "It scared me, and it still does. I have a lot of friends who are doing what he was doing. They moderated it at first. But Luke understood. Moderation isn't possible."
Anthony feels like he grew up a lot in the last year. "It was like I left 'La La Land'--drugs are fun, they won't hurt us, we're so young--and realized death was real," he says. "I think about Luke every day."