Baltimore County family struggles with impact of heroin's grip

By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Bird River Road bends and gives up its memories.

"That's where Adam's real dad lived," Christine Samuels says, nodding out the car window as she heads down the familiar road.

She was 17 and still in high school when Adam was born. "We grew up together," Samuels says. "I was a kid when I had him."

She is 43 years old now. As she continues down the road, a more recent landmark looms to the right: the Our Lady Queen of Peace church hall that Adam's younger brother Cameron burglarized about a year and a half ago.

Cameron used the money to buy heroin, the drug that had snaked its way from older to younger brother, tightening its hold even as Christine battled desperately to reclaim them.

Adam Guido Jr. was a popular athlete, part of the 2008 Eastern Tech lacrosse team that advanced to the state semifinals. But after graduating that year, he descended into a seemingly unshakable heroin addiction. In 2012, Christine took him to the airport for a flight to California for yet another attempt at rehab.

But even then, she said, he managed to shoot up one more time before boarding.

"I hate you," she remembers raging at him when she realized what he'd done. "I hate the person you've become. I hope God brings back my real son."

When Adam returned, looking better than he had in years, she thought her prayers had been answered. He found a job as a forklift operator, and his life seemed back on track.

But that proved fleeting. Now, when she drives down Bird River Road, past where Adam's biological father lived, past the place Cameron burglarized, her destination is Holly Hill Memorial Gardens.

"Sometimes," Christine says, "I sit here for hours."

Statewide plague

In the quiet, windswept cemetery, Christine can remember her son as he once was, rather than as the heroin addict he became. She can sit on a bench engraved with her nickname for him, "Sunshine," and polish the tombstone depicting the boy who wrestled and played lacrosse and football at Eastern Tech, a magnet school in Essex.

Adam was 22 when he died of an overdose in October 2012, part of a wave of heroin deaths that public health and law enforcement officials say has reached epidemic proportions.

Heroin has a long, almost mythic history in Baltimore, taking root in the postwar years among the jazz musicians and hepcats in the black entertainment district of Pennsylvania Avenue. Since then, though, whatever dirty glamour once surrounded heroin has long since been replaced by the gun violence, gang activity and destroyed neighborhoods left in its wake.

And if heroin once was considered a drug that solely plagued the inner city — an oversimplification, even in the past — it has clearly extended its grasp to every corner of the state.

In September on the Eastern Shore, former Gov. Harry Hughes' grandson Andrew D. White was arrested. A suspected member of a heroin ring, he was accused of stealing a quarter-million dollars from his grandfather. After a plea deal and a personal appeal from Hughes, White, 27, received an 111/2-year sentence with all but three years suspended, and a chance of work release after six months.

In November in Western Maryland, a federal judge sentenced a heroin dealer from Thurmont, the bucolic town near the presidential retreat of Camp David, to seven years in prison and ordered him to pay the funeral costs of a customer who fatally overdosed.

And in February, as Gov. Larry Hogan announced measures to deal with the crisis, he revealed that a cousin had died of a heroin overdose.

Cheap, highly potent heroin — which can be smoked, snorted or injected — has been flooding Maryland and other states in recent years, officials say. That has created new addicts even as the drug proves fatal to so many of them, particularly when dealers have laced it with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller prescribed to cancer patients.

In 2013, the last year for which complete data are available, 464 people died of heroin overdoses in Maryland, a staggering 88 percent increase in two years. Fatalities, which declined in 2009, crept up the following year, and then in 2011 increased alarmingly.

Preliminary numbers from 2014 indicate that the death rate has yet to peak: 428 people died of heroin overdoses in Maryland during the first nine months of 2014, compared to 324 people in the corresponding period the previous year.

There has been no shortage of government responses — from studies to task forces to broader access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone — but officials have yet to get a handle on the crisis that has devastated Maryland families. Last week, a task force created by Hogan began a statewide series of information-gathering meetings with residents.

For these families, the crisis is a personal and often lonely one, navigated without a road map or sense of what response might ultimately work. And so it has been with Christine, who has struggled to save first one son, then another. It is a battle that has seemed so hopeless at times that a third son, Brandon Snavely, found his own solution: He moved away, joining the Army, only to deploy to Afghanistan, the country that produces 80 percent of the world's heroin supply.

There has been no escape, though, from the loss of Adam, which 2 1/2 years later still ripples through his family and friends.

Travis Crane, 24, thinks about his former lacrosse and football teammate "all the time," trying to find comfort in the fact that the turmoil of Adam's final years is finally over.

"He is in a better place. He was really struggling," says Crane, who became co-captain of the 2013 Penn State team that went to the NCAA championships and who now coaches lacrosse locally. "But you think about all the future weddings and occasions that he would be a part of."

That the athletic Adam would die of a heroin overdose just four years after graduation still baffles and saddens those who knew him. Crane and Eastern Tech coaches say they saw no signs that Adam used heroin as a high school student.

"I don't recall one person saying a bad word about the kid," says Marc Mesaros, Eastern Tech's football coach. "And when you do my kind of job, you hear everything."

Still, Mesaros remembers a boy who despite being outgoing and having "a ton of friends" didn't fully let people into his life.

"Adam was a master of showing you only what he wanted you to see," he says. "It was like facets of a jewel — you didn't see every side."

One of those hidden sides, it appears, was an addiction he masked behind the sunny facade he presented even to those close to him.

"I would have liked to have helped him," Mesaros says wistfully.

For Adam's family, there is both grief and dread. After having fought for but ultimately buried Adam, they feel themselves heading down an all-too-familiar path with Cameron: The startling call from the police or emergency room. The money that disappears from purses or even younger siblings' savings. The repeated rehab stints, the seemingly inevitable relapses. The broken promises, the lies.

Still exhausted by her losing fight for Adam, Christine in particular seems unable or unwilling at times to muster the energy for a second battle on Cameron's behalf.

"I'm just expecting the other shoe to fall," Christine said bleakly at a low point last year. "I don't have any hope at all. It's like watching someone kill themself."

The roots of addiction

It sounds like family lore, but Christine's mother confirms it: They descend from moonshiners in West Virginia. Christine remembers childhood visits to those relatives, and how carefully her parents drove the family back to Baltimore to avoid a police stop that might reveal the hooch they were bringing home.

But she doesn't have to go that far back in the family tree to find possible genetic roots of her sons' struggle with illicit substances.

As a young mother, she was addicted to Xanax and painkillers, and used cocaine. Those were wild years, she says, with days spent asleep on the couch while the kids fended for themselves. She's been through rehab a couple of times and acknowledges having "fallen" on occasion.

"My kids grew up seeing this," she says. "I feel guilty for this."

Born within five years of each other, her sons Adam, Brandon and Cameron grew up as closely as their alphabetized initials might indicate. After Christine divorced Adam's father, for a number of years she lived with but didn't marry a man with whom she had her next two sons, now 22 and 20.

"Us three stuck together," Brandon says. "We took care of each other."

Family photos show Adam growing from toddler to young man, his trademark ear-to-ear grin remaining constant throughout. He is the obvious and beloved firstborn, carrying younger siblings piggyback, or draping protective, muscular arms around them. In photos from high school, he is the one invariably mugging for the camera at sporting events, the beach or graduation.

Brandon says things were sometimes "crazy" at home growing up, but he always felt his mother was trying her best. His grandparents picked up some of the slack, and he and his brothers watched out for one another.

About 14 years ago, Brian Samuels came into their lives. A fourth-generation Bethlehem Steel worker, he met Christine at a bar in Dundalk, and almost immediately they became inseparable. They eventually married, and her friends and family credit Brian, now 41, with bringing a measure of stability to the lives of the single mother and her three young boys.

They are something of a contrast: Christine is heart-on-her-sleeve voluble, soft-faced and generous but as likely to turn confessional as confrontational. Brian, beefy and good-natured, is straightforward, a mechanic with a fix-it approach to life as well.

Brian was something of a big kid himself back then, with video games and an awesome "Star Wars" collection that endeared him to the boys. But only up to a certain extent, he says with a laugh: Adam, accustomed to being the man in his single-mother household, disapproved of the new guy kissing his mother.

The Samuelses went on to have a son and a daughter who are now 12 and 10, but Brian has no use for step- or half- prefixes when it comes to his blended family: He considers himself the father of five and all of them as full siblings.

Except for what he characterizes as youthful experimentation, Brian says he didn't and still doesn't use drugs. He was wary enough of Christine's usage that about two or three dates in, he asked how serious it was. She reassured him that it was just something she did for fun occasionally.

But at times, it turned out to be more. Six or seven years after they married, as they were getting ready to host a family Thanksgiving dinner, Christine suddenly disappeared for three days, he recalls. The incident, which Christine confirms, embarrassed and angered him.

"You either go [to rehab]," he told her, "or get your stuff and leave."

She got help, and they continue to weather the ups and downs of married life — and the ever-present challenge of sobriety, for her adult sons and herself.

"It's an everyday struggle for me," Christine says. "It's never one beer, it's never one glass of wine — I'll drink until it's gone. ... You're chasing this high that you're never going to catch."

A brother's footsteps

Now 22, Brandon still remembers how intensely bereft he felt when his family would drop Adam off for a visit with his biological father. "I remember crying my eyes out, I was so sad."

Adam was not just his brother but his best friend, Brandon says. And yet, to save himself, Brandon eventually had to break away.

As teenagers, he and Adam would smoke marijuana. Eventually, Adam turned to heroin, and Brandon would sometimes join him. In an odd way, he felt he was protecting his brother.

"I knew it was wrong, but I felt if he was doing it with me, at least I knew who he was with and he would be safe," Brandon says.

They thought drugs would simply be something they did as kids and gave up as they got older, Brandon says. But then he started noticing that Adam always looked sleepy and sick, and started stealing from family members to support his habit.

By then a senior at Kenwood High School, and short a credit or two because of his drug use, Brandon says he remembers thinking: "I can't do this anymore. I have to get out of Baltimore."

Through an internship with a military recruiter, he got enough credits to graduate. The recruiter told him that if he stayed clean, he could get into the Army. Brandon passed an entrance exam in December 2010 and went to boot camp the following year.

He had never been apart from Adam that long, and was thrilled when, after Christmas 2011, he was assigned to Fort Lee, Va., three hours from home.

But one of the last times Brandon talked to Adam, they fought. It was October 2012, and Adam had started using again after returning from rehab. Brandon's wife, Jes Heiser, a high school friend of Adam's, was about to deliver their baby. Adam was excited, saying he couldn't wait to buy his niece little shoes.

Brandon was angry about Adam's relapse and told him, "You know, I'm not going to let you around my daughter. I don't want her finding needles or touching needles."

About a week later, Brandon returned to the Baltimore area in anticipation of his daughter's birth. Exhausted by the drive, he fell asleep at Jes' house. Late that night, his phone started ringing over and over, and frantic family members told him to go to his grandparents' house, where Adam was staying.

When he got there, he saw police cars, and thought, "Oh God, what did he do now?" Then he saw his mother, crying in the driveway.

"He's gone," Brandon remembers her saying. Officers stopped him at the door and told him, "You don't want to see your brother like this."

Christine pushed through and saw Adam being zipped up in a body bag.

"I heard her scream," Brandon says, "this terrifying scream."

Two days later, as Hurricane Sandy blew up the East Coast, his daughter, Juliana Addy — for Adam — was born. Two days after that, Adam was buried.

Hidden torment

It is a cruel irony that addicts are more vulnerable to overdose after they've been clean for a while. Their tolerance for heroin has gone down, and using the same amount as before can prove fatal.

Relatives say they were told that Adam's body had very little heroin in it and that a single empty capsule was found near his body.

His death was crushing to those who had watched his descent but remained hopeful. "With Adam," his former teammate Crane says, "you always had this feeling that he would figure it out."

And indeed, when he returned from his last stint in rehab, he looked good and was working a lot of hours in his job as a forklift operator.

"He looked so healthy," recalls Kristal Bevars, Christine's close friend and Adam's godmother. "He said, 'Aunt Kris, I feel different this time. I really feel like it's going to work.'"

But his intimates also say Adam had a way of deflecting concerns with his winning charm.

"He had this million-dollar smile," Brian says. "He would reassure you that nothing was going on."

Toward the end, though, the smile grew less convincing, and his eyes betrayed a certain weariness.

Christine believes Adam grew addicted to the pain pills he was prescribed after injuring his hand in high school, and eventually turned — as many have done — to cheaper heroin after he graduated. She says that he once told her he went through $300 worth of heroin in a day.

At times he would disappear, and Christine would look for him in neighborhoods where he had bought drugs in the past. She even drove him to what she thought would be one last drug purchase, on the promise that he would then go directly to a hospital for detox and ultimately rehab.

Instead, as she waited behind a grocery store, police reports say, Adam grabbed a woman's purse and knocked her down. He ran back to the car and they drove off, but police stopped the car a couple of miles away and arrested both of them. Adam was found guilty of robbery and received probation; Christine's case was not pursued by prosecutors.

After trips to rehab, Brian says, Adam would come back on a "pink cloud," the term that 12-step programs use to describe the euphoric state the newly sober find themselves in, thinking they're cured. It was a contagious feeling, especially for those who desperately wanted him to succeed.

"I was hopeful every time," Brian says. "He was really trying."

The night Adam died, he was supposed to help his grandmother with bingo games at church but said he wasn't feeling well. She returned later to find him in the basement, dead.

"I had one job — to keep my kid alive — and I failed," Brian says quietly. "I dropped the ball."

'The perfect storm'

On the day of Adam's funeral, Cameron used heroin.

"I didn't want to be sick and be there and look like a dope fiend," he explains later.

There is a certain logic to that, as heroin users look and feel their worst when they are in withdrawal. But even now, his parents can't understand how he keeps using the very drug that killed his brother.

Perhaps the question is: How could he not?

Scientists who have studied why some people become addicts say up to 60 percent of the risk can be linked to genetic factors.

"The search for the genetic bomb has been going on for decades," says Dr. Yngvild Olsen, a Baltimore-based addiction medicine specialist. "Part of the problem is it looks like it's not just one gene or genetic mutation, but close to 100 that have been discovered."

Olsen says those predisposed to addiction have differences in their brains' reward system, as well as greater sensitivity to stress and pain. Other risk factors include mental illness, living in an environment where drugs are accepted or available, childhood trauma and the age at which someone tries the drug — the younger drug use starts, the more dangerous to the still-developing brain.

"That sets up the perfect storm," she says.

Olsen, medical director for the Institutes for Behavior Resources/REACH Health Services, which works with addicts, has not met or treated Cameron. But, in many ways, she could be describing him.

Christine says Cameron had learning difficulties in school, and she placed him in an alternative middle school. But even there, she says, he sometimes would just put his head down on his desk because he didn't understand what the teacher was saying.

Cameron says he started skipping school in the ninth grade, and by the following year just stopped going. Instead, he hung out with like-minded friends, smoking pot and eventually graduating to harder drugs. He thought Adam, five years older, "always looked like he felt good when he was on heroin."

At 15, Cameron says, "I told Adam to shoot me up."

Eventually, Cameron says, his tolerance for heroin increased and he had to use more and more to feel something. And yet, insidiously, no amount ever seemed enough.

"It was never the same as the first high," Cameron says sadly.

Adam's death might have provided a scared-straight moment. Instead, it made him less motivated to change the path he was on.

"I just stopped caring about everything," he says.

Now 20, he still seems the baby brother, with a shy demeanor and a dimpled smile. These days though, he often seems disaffected, pale and prone to mumbling.

As Cameron's drug use worsened, his family was increasingly less equipped to help. For one thing, Brian lost his job when Sparrows Point finally closed in 2012 — and with it the generous benefits that paid for much of Adam's rehab. He had been injured shortly before the closure, and was unable to find work until last year. In the interim, they fell behind on their mortgage and bills, gave up their house and moved in with his parents, who lived across the street from them in Essex.

The family was also drained emotionally.

Many of the long-ago fights with Adam are being replayed: Christine and Brian won't let Cameron stay with them as long as he's using. They don't want drugs around their younger children, and say they can't keep losing the money that tends to disappear with an addict on the premises.

But Christine's parents, Jean and Jim Braun, stepped in. They let first Adam and then Cameron stay at their house. The thought of her grandchildren having nowhere to live was just too much, Jean says.

"I'm the enabler," she says dryly. "That's what they call me."

Threat of prison

One Friday morning in November, the Brauns bring Cameron to a hearing before Baltimore Circuit Judge Jan Marshall Alexander.

He already has been found guilty in May of burglarizing the Knights of Columbus at the Our Lady Queen of Peace hall in 2013, receiving a one-year suspended prison sentence and three years of probation. He also was ordered to pay $1,500 in restitution and stay off drugs and alcohol as a condition of probation.

He has been in and out of rehab for the past several years, according to court records. The November hearing was called because he refused to submit to a urine test when he checked in with his probation officer a couple of months earlier.

(Later, away from the courtroom, Cameron says he had a few drinks, which he knew would turn up in the test.)

Cameron's public defender asks Alexander for a month's delay, saying there are some mental health, treatment and educational issues that need to be worked out. The judge grants it but, as he's been doing with other defendants all morning, tells Cameron in no uncertain terms that he's losing his patience. See your probation officer, he orders, and pee in the cup.

"If you don't do it," Alexander threatens, "I'm going to lock you up —"

"Yes, sir."

"— and you will stay there until you can't urinate any longer."

After the hearing, Cameron seems chastened. He says he does not want to go to prison and is full of plans: Maybe he'll try longer-term drug treatment. Maybe he can get a GED and a job.

"This is like my last chance. Before I didn't think I'd really go to jail," he says after the hearing. "I want to study. My brain is not so cluttered now. I can pick stuff up now."

He may well have meant it at the time. But just a week later, he skips his appointment with his probation officer, triggering another violation and another court date.

Celebration, worry

There are bushels of crab and beer, a hometown feast for Brandon on the night before he heads back to his base in Washington state.

Brandon recently returned from eight months in western Afghanistan with his Army unit, fueling Blackhawk and Apache helicopters.

It's noisy and festive on this December night as three generations of the family crowd into the small house in Essex, where Christine, Brian and their children live with his parents. Despite the hubbub, there's a certain unease in the air. Cameron in particular has retreated under an Orioles hat and behind a pair of earbuds.

Every time he heads out to the front porch, eyes follow him. "Is he meeting someone?" Christine whispers to Brian, meaning a drug dealer. Not this time, but they fear he's refusing to see his probation officer because he's using again.

Cameron says he's not meeting with the probation officer because he's going to end up in prison anyway. But of course, one reason he would be sent to prison is that he's skipping the meetings.

His bleak outlook frustrates — and saddens — his family.

"Cameron, he has a light in eyes. They're dead when he's on heroin," Brian says. "It's heartbreaking."

Some in the family think that going to prison for a while might be what Cameron needs. Christine wonders whether some time in prison might have allowed Adam to get clean — and stay alive.

But her mother, who also lives in Essex several miles away, is adamant about keeping Cameron out of jail.

"I think jail will just make a hardened criminal out of him," Jean Braun says.

She and her husband have housed him, given him money for chores and make sure he has food. But even their patience is being tried.

Once, after they'd left town for a couple of days, they returned to find money, jewelry and liquor gone. As they relate the story, Cameron buries his head in his hands muttering, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

When it comes to his grandparents, he seems genuinely stricken about taking advantage of their repeated kindness. "I don't want my grandmother paying for me anymore," he says.

Recently, they allowed him to stay in a mostly empty house that belonged to his great-grandmother, a property they were trying to rehab and sell. But somehow, trouble ensued anyway. Jim Braun says he went to check on Cameron and let himself into the house — only to have a dog charge him.

The dog's owner came out of a bedroom and demanded to know who Jim was and what he was doing in the house. He asked her the same thing.

The woman told him she had rented the house from Cameron.

A battered family

In January, the Brauns bring Cameron back to Circuit Court. Christine says she was told Cameron didn't want her to come, but later she discovers that might not have been the case.

Misunderstandings and other conflicts have been the norm in recent years, as family members have differed on how to handle Adam and Cameron. The tensions that flare up regularly seem to ebb away just as regularly, although in the end, family members seem to lurch from one crisis to another.

"This disease just tears everyone up," Christine says.

She has had a difficult time letting go of Adam's death, and that has caused problems with Brian. He tells her that she has four other children to care for.

Christine agrees, and yet it's hard: She will come across one of Adam's shirts in the back of a closet, or a stash of baby pictures. Every once in a while, she visits a psychic to "hear" from Adam — prompting some eye-rolling from Brian, although he tries to be supportive because she finds great comfort in it.

He accompanies her to a support group for parents who have lost children to addiction. And he helps Christine with what she hopes will be an annual fundraiser in Adam's name for Eastern Tech students.

But they seem at a loss at how to help Cameron.

On the morning of Cameron's court appearance, Christine says she chatted a bit with him on Facebook. He told her he didn't have anything, no cigarettes, no money. Christine offers him the couple of cigarettes she keeps in the house in case she needs to calm down, and the few dollars she had at the time. She puts everything in a bag, with his name on it and leaves it outside her door for her parents to pick up on their way to court.

"She will give you her last dollar," says Steve Jones, a friend of her sons. "Adam was the same way."

It may well have been Christine's last dollar for Cameron, at least for a while. At the courthouse — as promised the last time he was there — he is handcuffed and taken to the Baltimore County Detention Center.

'Just a sad place for me'

From the county jail, Cameron dreams of California, or Florida.

"We don't have no windows," he says glumly of his surroundings.

It's not just sunshine that beckons, but the idea of a new start.

"Baltimore is nothing but dope," he says. "It's just a sad place for me."

Cameron has agreed to let The Baltimore Sun interview and photograph him, and he is escorted into a room usually used for training officers. He is wearing a short-sleeved navy blue jumpsuit, exposing a forearm tattoo of his dead brother's name in an elaborate script.

There is a sentiment, really a mantra at this point, that comes up when officials discuss the heroin crisis: We can't arrest our way out of this. But the alternative is unclear, even as there have been calls for more preventive efforts, more treatment options and a better understanding of what works and what doesn't.

For now, says corrections Capt. Gail Watts, who keeps watch on Cameron during the interview, the vast majority of those in the jail are there because of drugs: They've bought or sold them, committed crimes to get money for them, or gotten in a beef over them.

"I pray they find a solution," she says with a sigh. "It affects people from all walks of life. No one is exempt."

Cameron, looking even paler and speaking even less audibly than usual, is subdued. He fluctuates from resigned to hopeful, adrift to determined.

"It's my 26th day here," Cameron says. And counting: He's there indefinitely as legal options are weighed. His public defender declined to comment on his case.

If given the chance, Cameron says, he'd like to try rehab again, and "do what I have to do" to stay out of jail. He attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at the jail but doesn't like the church-like overtones. (NA calls itself spiritual in nature rather than religious.) Plus, it makes him think more, rather than less, about drugs.

"I'm a drug addict," he says, and talking about it just "makes you want to get high."

His family has been visiting regularly. Christine is oddly upbeat about him and how good he looks, but it is testament to the fears and uncertainty of the past several years that jail seems the safest place for him. She says that after a recent visit — when Cameron surprised her with the beginnings of a beard — he told her he's been working in the kitchen and enjoying it.

During the interview with The Sun, Cameron's eyes cloud when he talks about his older brothers, the one he lost, and the one who now worries about losing a second sibling to the same demon. But Cameron says he's been off heroin for a while, and now thinks he can stay off it for good.

"To me, it's the greatest feeling," he says of the drug he has craved but now fears. "I can't live a normal life. You see where it got me."

jmarbella@baltsun.com