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Heroin's heartache: Four suburban friends tried it; two died...

Eight years ago this month, the Daily Herald's award-winning series "The Hidden Scourge" documented the rise of heroin and club drugs in the suburbs.

Fast-forward to 2009, and, sadly, little has changed. Heroin is not "hidden" anymore - low cost and availability are making it a drug of choice among substance-abusing suburban teens who fail to recognize how dangerously addictive it is.

Today and Friday, the Daily Herald updates the heroin crisis in the suburbs, how it's hitting home, and the efforts to battle this scourge.

When Mary Jo Capone opened her son's bedroom door in September 2008, what she saw was so disturbing that it took a full year before she could look into that room again.

The horrific sight was her 18-year-old son, Phil, slumped in a chair, unconscious. His head was hanging over a side table with a burning candle on it. The flame was singeing Phil's forehead.

His face was ghostly white. His lips were blue. His shirt was soaked in sweat.

"I can still remember that look," Mary Jo said, choking back tears. "I was screaming. The paramedics screamed at me to get out of the room."

If she hadn't trusted her gut feeling that something was wrong and gone upstairs to announce she was starting dinner, Phil Capone - a good son who never gave her trouble - would have died from a heroin overdose that night in his Vernon Hills home.

Among a group of classmates from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Capone was the lucky one. Heroin killed two of his friends and threatens to destroy the life of another.

Classmates Eddie Sivkov, 18, of Buffalo Grove and Nick Beinlich, 18, of Lincolnshire both died of heroin overdoses. Their friend Matt McGovern, 19, of Buffalo Grove, was most recently arrested in July and charged with heroin possession.

At McGovern's townhouse in September 2007, Beinlich took his fatal heroin overdose. Police didn't charge McGovern in connection with his friend's death, but the Beinlichs filed a $50,000 wrongful death suit against him.

The McGoverns, through their attorney Dayna Wheatley, declined to discuss the lawsuit or the two drug-related arrests McGovern has had since that night.

What happened to this small group of friends isn't unique to Stevenson High School or to the Buffalo Grove area. Heroin has found its way into Lake Zurich, St. Charles, Libertyville, Des Plaines, Elgin and almost everywhere else, creating what local officials call a "heroin crisis" in the suburbs. This year, heroin has killed more than 100 people in the suburbs alone, according to the county coroners.

"When I was a young police officer back in the '70s, heroin was an inner-city drug that you never saw in the suburbs. Now, everything's changed. The demographic of the heroin user has moved to a suburban, young, inexperienced user," said Bruce Talbot, a retired Woodridge police sergeant who now leads drug training programs at schools and police departments around the country.

This week, the federal government released its "Monitoring the Future" drug-use study, which showed no real change in heroin use nationwide in 2008. Heroin use also remains relatively small compared to other drugs like marijuana or Ecstasy.

But suburban police departments say they've seen a rise in heroin use recently. A few suburban emergency rooms, including Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, also report more heroin overdoses.

"It is not the street people. It's people with good incomes and access to money," said Jody Jess, the nursing director in Condell's emergency room. "This is becoming the new cocaine."

One reason for heroin's growing popularity in the Chicago area is that it's easy to get and cheap - cheaper than marijuana. A "dime bag," which contains 10 to 12 doses of 60 percent pure heroin, costs just $10, Talbot said.

The high purity means needles aren't necessary to get high. Just inhaling the fumes will do the trick, Talbot said, making the drug less scary for teens who don't recognize how deadly it is.

Beinlich died from snorting heroin. His mom, Chrystal Beinlich, says she didn't even think her son was using drugs until she got a call from Matt's mother saying they "couldn't wake Nick up."

Nick Beinlich never did wake up. He died five days later.

The most recent heroin death was Eddie Sivkov. The 19-year-old died in April, a few months after completing a two-week drug rehab program.

Once a happy, snowboard-loving kid, Eddie had sunk to stealing his mother's jewelry while she was at work and pawning it for drug money. On his MySpace page, Eddie listed his occupation as "Drug addict, Stoner."

A few weeks before he died, his mother, Marina Sivkov, moved her remaining valuables to a safe-deposit box and ordered her son to clean up his act or move out - his behavior had been frightening his elementary-aged sister.

Then one afternoon, Marina Sivkov got a phone call at the Riverwoods nail salon where she works. It was her 72-year-old mother, who lives with them. "Eddie's laying on the bathroom floor and he's not moving," she told Marina.

Marina instructed her mother to call 911 and then rushed home, but Eddie was already gone.

McGovern, now 19, has been arrested twice on heroin-related charges. In July, he was arrested in Lincolnshire and charged with possession of heroin. The arrest occurred after McGovern's 20-year-old friend from Wheeling - also allegedly high on heroin - crashed the car they were riding in, police said. The case is pending in Lake County circuit court.

Before that, in January 2008, River Forest police found McGovern in a shopping center parking lot, slumped over the wheel of his car with a needle dangling from his arm. On Nov. 10, he received two years' probation.

Why isn't McGovern in jail, or getting help?

"Getting jail time for a minor amount of drugs is pretty unusual," said Buffalo Grove Cmdr. Steve Husak. "Usually, (the judge) tries to get the person help."

Lake County circuit court Judge John Phillips, who presides over the drug and mental health division, says the solution is rarely as simple as throwing drug users in jail or ordering them into rehab. If they're not ready or able to get clean, they'll just go back to drugs when they're out.

"People don't understand addiction. Addiction is something that's in the brain. The fact that I'm ordering them not to use drugs doesn't mean a lot," Phillips said. "With this age group, it's extremely tough. They're not ready for change. They think they're invincible. ... Regardless of the tragedies they see, they are just not ready to call it quits yet."

Experts say most drug users go through rehab seven times before it works. Even though addicts know the drug is bad for them, and is hurting them and their loved ones, they're powerless to stop.

"There's no, 'Let's just send them to treatment and it'll be OK,'" said Bruce Johnson, director of NICASA, a substance abuse treatment agency in Round Lake. "As with all alcohol and substance abuse issues ... you can go through detox and get treatment, but it doesn't end there. It becomes this lifelong struggle. It takes a huge support system."

Breaking a heroin addiction is a long, difficult, and sometimes costly process, but the alternative is death. Sadly, hundreds of suburban parents have lived that nightmare. Their beautiful, normal teenagers suddenly got involved with heroin and ended up dead.

Life-destroying addictions can begin in a matter of days, Johnson said.

That makes it tough for parents to catch the warning signs. Mary Jo Capone, for example, never thought to question why her teenage son wore long-sleeved T-shirts in summer. He did it to cover up needle marks on his arms, as she now knows.

Phil Capone recently completed a one-year stint in a $5,400-a-month private rehab facility in Arizona. He's now back in Chicago and staying clean, but it hasn't been easy, his mother said. When he came home in September, he was shocked to find that some of his former classmates, who watched all this happen, are still using heroin.

"Everyone thinks it's not their kid," Mary Jo Capone said, "but the kids using heroin now are not the kids you'd think. It's good kids from good families."

• Coming in Part 2: Why heroin is so popular, and what parents are doing to combat the problem

Warning signs

Indications your teenager might be using heroin:

• Withdrawn, depressed, tired and careless about appearance

• Relationships with family members deteriorate

• Hanging out with a new group of friends

• Missing school and work

• Losing interest in favorite activities

• Red-rimmed eyes and a runny nose, even without a cold or allergies

• Changed eating and sleeping patterns

• Avoiding eye contact

• Secretive behavior, including lying and locked doors

• Hyperactivity or unusual aggression

• Finding things like pipes, lighters and rolling papers in teen's possession

• Disappearing money, valuables and prescriptions

Where to get help

What to do if someone you love is using heroin:

• Educate yourself about drugs and drug addiction at and, where there's an "Is it a problem?" quiz

• Intervene, either using a health care professional, a police officer, a group approach or a one-on-one discussion

• Find a local drug treatment program, such as NICASA ( or Rosecrance (

• Attend local support groups so you can learn from other parents who have been through the experience.

Source: Partnership for a Drug-Free America

Heroin-related deaths in 2009

According to coroners, the majority of deaths are single, white men under age 50.

Cook County*: 117

DuPage County: 24

Kane County: 5

Lake County: 28

McHenry County: 15

Will County: 28

* includes Chicago

Kane County statistics through Oct. 28; Cook County through Nov. 6; others through Dec. 16.

Source: County coroners and medical examiners

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