Source: The Asbury Park Press
The white paper bags lined the stage like a field of gravestones. One hundred and seven of them.
They were blank but not nameless. One was for Raymond Farino, who was found dying on his dining room floor by his mother. Another was for Derek Russell, who was 21 and in rehab when he died with his head buried in a pillow he cherished since childhood. And another was for Steven Janson, who was from here in Stafford but died in Barnegat, found inside his red coupe. All died of heroin overdoses.
Roughly half those bags represented heroin deaths, and most of the rest represented those who died from overdosing on prescription painkillers.
Speakers shuffled past those markers — miked up, impassioned, their voices rising — and unreeled their dramatic or powerful or occasionally syrupy messages to prevent any more people from adding to the makeshift memorial on the stage of Stafford Township Arts Center, where Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato hosted the latest of his drug forums for parents and children.
“Some people say this is a war on drugs. I don’t think so. It’s a fight for survival,” Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato said.
Coronato, who took over as prosecutor in April, has spread his tentacles far and wide to reduce the deaths and abuse. He is making a strong, last-minute push to toughen the state’s drug-dealing laws and has jailed dealers. He is arming police officers with an opiate antidote to administer to overdose victims.
And then there are these forums. Coronato has enlisted a number of speakers to his awareness campaign, including Morella and former New York Giants running back Keith Elias, a Lacey native. On Thursday, he introduced his latest recruit — rocker Richie Sambora, who did not speak.
The forums are geared toward parents and young children who will soon be introduced to drugs if they haven’t already. Some have. The 800-seat auditorium was nearly filled on Thursday, many in the audience yet to hit a growth spurt or grow out of pigtails. That is the age, many say, the abuse starts — sometimes with drinking and marijuana and eventually prescription painkillers before leading to heroin.
“I thought I was savvy, but the way things are nowadays, forget about it,” said Placido Garcia, who brought his 12-year-old son and two of his friends. “Shooting up at 13? It’s crazy.” That is extreme, but the rising death toll in Ocean County has brought fresh awareness to an old drug that has claimed the lives of 17- and 18-year-olds as well as senior citizens from all ends of the county.
“In the past it would be like the stoner groups. Now it’s everybody — good families, bad families,” said Melissa Thompson, a student assistance coordinator for Pinelands Regional school district in Little Egg Harbor.
Noah Kanson, a 12-year-old in Superman-blue eyeglass frames, said he came to the forum at the urging of a middle-school teacher, but also “so I can learn not to take drugs. Of heroin, he said, “I don’t know what it does.” By the end of the forum, he’d be well aware that the heroin in New Jersey is in high demand for its great purity — 70 percent, Coronato said — and its bargain price of between $3 and $5 a bag. He learned the story of Jesse Morella, who could not make it to the forum because he recently suffered a grand mal seizure.
Maureen Morella, of West Milford, has cared for homebound Jesse around-the-clock the nine years since his overdose. She closed the forum, to pin-drop silence, with Jesse’s story and the family’s struggle. She turned to the rows of white bags representing death.
“I just can’t bear it anymore,” she said.