Heroin hits home

When her teenage son became an addict, suburban mom Kate Boccia became an activist.

Coming next week: When a tea shop owner in Candler Park took a trip to India, she didn’t know the experience was going to change her life and give it new purpose.

Asleep in her upstairs bedroom, Kate Boccia awoke to frantic voices and hurried footsteps descending the stairs. She flung open the bedroom door. Frank, her husband, carried one passed-out young woman in his arms. Daniel Jay, her 21-year-old son, carried another. They were joined by two disheveled young women.

They're overdosing! yelled Frank, Kate's husband of 24 years. We have to get them to the hospital!

Hands trembling, she dialed 911.

“I was in my pajamas, on the garage floor, performing CPR on one girl,” recalled Kate, 55. “One of the girls was performing it on the other girl. The dispatcher on the phone counted with us. It was this whirlwind of confusion, a surreal dream.”

Meet the Boccias.

They live in the Windward community, a 2,500-home enclave of upscale homes in Alpharetta, their nest for nearly two decades. It’s one of metro Atlanta’s most coveted addresses, generally considered free of so-called inner-city ills. When the kids were young, Kate was a devoted soccer and PTA mom. Frank was a successful financial planner. Their children, Paige and Daniel, didn’t hunger for anything.

Life, by many measures for this foursome, was solidly traditional. Foundations, though, can unravel quickly. For the Boccias, it began long before that April night when they found themselves saving the lives of two teens who’d shot up heroin in their home. And it was just one more tragic event in their son Daniel’s descent into drug addiction and incarceration.


A childhood interrupted

Family traditions and holidays — especially Thanksgiving. That’s what Daniel loved growing up. He was gregarious, had plenty friends and was always loyal to his girlfriends. A dog lover, he rescued and trained pit bulls. Kilo, his current dog, is taken care of by his sister, Paige, a recent graduate of Valdosta State University.

As a youth, Daniel played football, lacrosse, soccer and baseball. Though smart, school never fit. He began drinking beer and smoking weed. When he was 15, he took his first pain pill.

“I was at my buddy’s house when I took 5 milligrams of Percocet for the first time,” he recalled. “I don’t know how it happened, but I developed an undying love for pills. That was my thing.”

Ultimately, heroin followed.

“I didn’t like it initially,” he said. “It wasn’t a scary feeling or anything. It just wasn’t my kind of high. I didn’t get an appreciation — and that’s a horrible word to use — for it until my second or third time trying it. But when I caught my charge, I started shooting up regularly.”

Initially, his parents thought the pot-smoking and occasional drinking would subside, that it was a phase and that Daniel would emerge on the other side, healthy and unscathed. He’d earn a degree, launch a career and raise a family. Just like anybody else.

Instead, Daniel dropped out of Alpharetta High School when he was 18. In 2009 he earned his GED and enrolled in the NASCAR Technical Institute in Charlotte. He loved cars and wanted to specialize in repairing BMWs. Months into the program, though, he was booted out for non-attendance. Then one day, the Boccias received a call from Daniel’s landlord saying their son had been stealing his painkillers.

“In my mind, I still didn’t put it together that he was really on his way to becoming an addict,” said Frank Boccia, 55.

“I think parents ignore the warning signs and they think they can fix their children,” Kate said. “We know when we shouldn’t do something for a child, but we still do it. Add that to being scared and embarrassed and wanting to fix things and yes — you enable them.”

When he returned home from school, Daniel abused his parents’ goodwill. His bedroom was a pigsty. He lied about where he was going, what he was doing. He attended Georgia Perimeter College briefly and held numerous jobs: Arbys. Olde Blind Dog Irish Pub. Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery. His most memorable gig, though, was as a “sign spinner.”

“He liked it, it was a cool thing and he was good at it,” Kate said. “If he had not become an addict, he could have been great at it. Great at anything, really.”

But three days after Thanksgiving 2011, hopes for Daniel’s future were derailed.

It was the day of the Georgia Tech-UGA football game, and Daniel had been invited to a Tech frat party. A friend tagged along. They arrived at the Alpha Tau Omega house around 10:30 p.m., mingled and drank at the party, then hung around campus for a spell. Around 1 a.m., Daniel was outside sitting in a referee’s chair on a volleyball court next to a fraternity house. He was looking inside the window, checking out a dorm room, when he began knocking on the glass to get someone’s attention. A Tech junior came outside to see what was going on. Words were exchanged and a fight ensued.

According to trial transcripts and surveillance footage, Daniel’s friend hit the victim in the back of the head with a piece of PVC pipe he found on the ground. At some point the victim tossed his wallet to the ground. The tape shows Daniel pick it up, riffle through it, take nothing and throw it down. He and his friend walked away but were stopped later by a campus police officer.

That weekend, Frank was in Hilton Head, S.C., playing golf with friends. His phone rang around 4 in the morning.

Hey, dad, Daniel said. I got arrested. I'm in the Fulton County Jail.


From bad to worse

At the time of Daniel’s arrest, there had been a rash of robberies and stickups in the Tech area. The Fulton County district attorney’s office didn’t offer the Boccias a plea bargain. And they were fine with that.

“We never wanted to plea,” Frank said. “Here’s a child, his first offense and, to be perfectly honest, for a crime in which nothing was taken.”

While waiting for trial, Daniel’s life continued to spiral downward.

O.D. Night, as Kate calls it, occurred five months after his arrest. Four young women, all 18 or so, had sneaked into the house to visit Daniel after Kate and Frank had gone to bed. While in his bedroom, two of the girls injected heroin and passed out. That’s when Daniel ran to get his father.

“Their lips were blue,” Frank said. “We saved their lives.”

The women were taken to the hospital and later released.

The Boccias said they never heard from any of the women’s parents.

Fed up with Daniel’s behavior, his parents forced him to enter Penfield Christian Homes, a recovery program in Union Point. Prosecutors, they thought, might be impressed and look upon him favorably during the trial.

On Day 5 of the program, Daniel walked off the grounds and hitch-hiked 80-plus miles to north Fulton. He called his parents from a Publix near their home. His father issued an ultimatum: Go back to Penfield or pack your bags. Daniel returned to Penfield, completed the program and managed to stay clean a few weeks. But he was using again by the time his trial started.

On Oct. 24, 2012, Daniel was convicted of armed robbery, among other offenses. A week later, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with a mandatory 14 to serve.

The conviction and sentencing unhinged the Boccias, especially Kate. A location manager for Solera Salon & Spa, she’d often close her office door at work and cry at her desk. Eventually, they let her go. At home, she numbed her pain with wine every night, sometimes one bottle, sometimes two.

“It was the only way I could cope,” she said. “My friends felt a bit helpless and I am sure they thought I needed help, but no one ever really suggested anything. We did do a parents support group for a bit.”

One day a care package arrived from Enfield, Conn., Kate’s hometown. It contained checks, cash, cards and notes of comfort from friends.

“You are not alone,” one note said. “An army stands with you.”

That act of kindness inspired Kate to stop wallowing in her pain. She decided she needed to speak up and share her family’s story, to talk about heroin use in the suburbs and to find out what could, or was, being done about it. So, she wrote an essay and submitted it to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


Making noise

“When you first begin to realize your son is an addict, you go through stages,” Kate wrote in the AJC. “Fear, anger and denial are constant companions. Your greatest fear, besides death, is that your child will eventually get arrested and caught up in the criminal justice system with little or no hope of finding the help he needs. You and your child are on a path to a personal hell. It’s like trying to single-handedly stop a speeding train.”

For Kate, the essay was empowering. The shame and guilt that had crippled her began to vanish when calls from parents started coming in, providing evidence that heroin and pain pill addiction was more common than she realized.

“I started getting validation from other families,” she said. “It was the start of a journey of healing.”

After the essay was published, she learned that a colleague had experienced a similar nightmare but with a more tragic ending.

Brandon David Schiff, the eldest of six children, started smoking pot while a sophomore at South Forsyth High. His parents took away the car and tried other disciplinary tactics to make him stop, but nothing worked for long. By mid-2007, the hockey and lacrosse player had graduated to opiates and then heroin.

“I am sure he used opiates in pill form first,” said his mother, Sherry Ajluni. “He was heavily addicted quickly. He went to rehab for the first time in 2001 and then some sort of treatment every year after. He was never sober more than a matter of months.”

Eventually Schiff checked in to the Christian Drug Rehab Center in Albany and, upon completing the six-month program, chose to stay in southwest Georgia. He enrolled at Albany’s Darton College with aspirations of becoming a high school history teacher and coach. He also wanted to work with troubled youth. Like him.

In July 2010, during his second semester, Schiff was arrested on a shoplifting charge. He already had a criminal record related to thefts in Atlanta. He remembered the judge’s stern words: If Schiff were ever arrested again for theft, he’d face a 10-year sentence.

While out on bond, Schiff sold his bike and hanged himself in an orchard near the college. His mother refuses to accept the circumstances of his death, but she doesn’t worry about the details.

“I’ll find out what happened when I see him again,” said Ajluni, 47. “I know he’s in a better place.”


Activism and HOPE

Last November, about 40 people gathered in Dunwoody for the inaugural meeting of HOPE (Helping to Open People’s Eyes), a grassroots organization Kate has started to mount an awareness campaign about drug addiction among the young and its consequences. It was a mostly white crowd of parents, though some young adults attended as well. They hailed from suburban communities throughout the metro area, including Gwinnett, Forsyth, Fulton, Cobb and Cherokee counties.

After introductions, Kate asked participants to raise their hands if they knew one person who was an opiate addict. Then she asked how many knew three or four or more. Nearly everybody raised a hand.

“My family’s story underscores what we are facing in this country — addiction, incarceration, lack of rehabilitation and lack of re-entry programs for prisoners once they are released into society,” she told the group. “The only thing my family didn’t face out of all this is a suicide and overdose. But I know a lot of people who did.

“When I grew up in the ’70s, kids did hash, Quaaludes, speed, marijuana and mushrooms. But kids weren’t dying. Prescription pharmaceutical opiates are the most dangerous drugs out there because they lead to heroin. This really isn’t about race, political affiliation or where you live. It’s about saving our kids.”

And that’s what Kate is trying to do.

For the past year, Kate has repeated the story of Daniel’s addiction and incarceration to anybody she thinks has the power to bring about change — district attorneys, law enforcement officers, Gov. Nathan Deal and his lieutenants. She even wrote to President Barack Obama.

She’s appeared on WSB-TV and GPB programs devoted to the topic. She’s become involved with the Power of Peace Project, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youth and young inmates, and she serves on Fulton County Chairman John Eaves’ Smart Justice Advisory Council, a group trying to improve the criminal justice system.

Indeed, Kate seizes every opportunity to talk about illicit drug use in the suburbs, the attempt by some community leaders to downplay its scope and the lack of resources for parents of addicts.

Others share her concern. Attorney General Eric Holder recently called an increase in heroin-related deaths an “urgent and growing public health crisis.” The number of overdose deaths involving the drug increased by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In metro Atlanta, statistics regarding heroin-related deaths are spotty. The Georgia Department of Public Health claims Fulton County had six of them in 2013. But Kate says she can rattle off the names of at least a dozen that occurred in north Fulton alone that same year.


Looking to the future

For now, Daniel is inmate No. 1000946150 at Central State Prison in Macon. His daily routine includes “stand-up counts” at 5 a.m., 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. His cell must be swept and mopped by 9:30 a.m. and remain “inspection ready” most of the day. Free time is spent reading or listening to music.

“Every day is whatever you make of it,” he said during a telephone interview. “I work out and read.”

He’s clean now and plans to stay that way. His mother holds faith his drug days are done.

“My son, being sober at 19 months, has less of a chance of relapsing,” she said. “After two years, he’s less likely to relapse.”

People like Chris Zollman, 25, offer her hope. Zollman once sold drugs to support his $300 a day heroin habit. At one time, Daniel Boccia was a customer. Today he is director of operations at LifeLine Atlanta, a residential recovery program.

Ultimately, though, Kate has no control over Daniel’s sobriety. So she does the one thing she can control — spread the word about the dangers of heroin and its power to ravage families.

“Her worse days with her son have become a blessing for other people,” said Kit Cummings, founder of the Power of Peace Project. “There is a lot of stigma and shame to these issues and she is trying to remove that and say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ For other people, when there’s an overdose, suicide or incarceration, they never recover and God bless them. She is one of those people who decided to do something about it.”

The Boccias have filed motions for a retrial; a hearing is set for Sept. 9. Still, they consider Daniel’s incarceration a good thing, a bittersweet respite. The worst thing that could happen in jail, they figure, is not remotely close to what could happen in the streets.

They tell themselves that, anyway.

“He’s doing better with the structure he has in prison,” his father said. “But it’s really sad. What’s especially sad is when I go to see him, I drive by all these little colleges and technical colleges, and I think, that’s where he should be — in school, not in prison. He should be playing golf with me on Sundays, you know?”

Most weekends, Kate or Frank make the 226-mile round trip to visit their son. Daniel calls and writes them when he’s able. And in his sober, incarcerated state, he recognizes how lucky he is.

“Nothing will ever trump the love I have for you,” he wrote in a recent letter to his mother.

“You have helped me every step of the way, unconditionally. And just so you know, not every mother does the same for their child. I am blessed, as are you. I love you Momma.”

Kate Boccia emailed me last October to tell me about her family's ordeals. I suggested she write an opinion piece that told Daniel's story but also challenged the community to step up for the sake of our children. It was her springboard to activism. As months passed, Kate kept me abreast of significant meetings, connections and interest she'd receive from elected officials, activists and, most importantly, parents of drug addicted, incarcerated children. After several months of back and forth, I suggested that the Boccias – Kate in particular – share their story with a wider audience. Today's article is the culmination of numerous phone conversations, emails and face-to-face chats. I sense there's something in this tale for all of us, especially parents.

Rick Badie
Opinion staff writer

About the reporter

Rick Badie joined the AJC in 1997 after working at The Gainesville (Ga.) Times and Orlando Sentinel, holding down practically every beat at some point. Previous jobs at the AJC include  columnist for the now-defunct Gwinnett edition and feature obituary writer. He's currently on the AJC's Opinion staff. Rick is the father of two — Miles, 18, and Olivia Melody, 11.

About the photographer

Brant Sanderlin has more than 20 years' experience as a photojournalist, including 15 at the AJC. He shoots a variety of assignments, including front line action during the Iraqi war, sporting events, breaking news and human interest stories.