CHICAGO — After the Bears squeaked by the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Sunday night four years ago, Donna Roberts texted her youngest child, Billy, to see if he’d caught the game. He didn’t respond, and then his friend called. Billy was at his home, and he wasn’t breathing.
John Roberts, a retired Chicago police officer, scrambled to his car and was within minutes of reaching his son when a paramedic came on the line: “Sir, you’ve lost him.”
William Michael Roberts died Sept. 20, 2009, of a heroin overdose. Soon after he said goodbye, Roberts began a crusade aimed at the drug that claimed his 19-year-old son’s life.
The Homer Glen, Ill., man partnered with another local father, Brian Kirk, who suffered a similar loss five months earlier. The dads formed the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization, or HERO, a charity whose goals include raising awareness and providing support for addicts and families.
“I call it the epidemic no one is talking about,” Roberts said. “People think ‘not my kid,’ and so did we, but this drug is so seductive, so addictive. It just swallows you up. It’s in all our communities. If we do nothing, we have yet to see how bad it can hit us.”
The Chicago suburbs are witnessing a growing toll of heroin fatalities. Authorities in DuPage and Will counties, in particular, reported record numbers last year. With nearly three months left in the year, DuPage, with 41 deaths, is close to surpassing last year’s total of 43.
The victims cross all social lines and include teens who experts say tried heroin for the first time after abusing prescription painkillers. Heroin is cheaper, easier to get, and now can be smoked and snorted as well as injected.
During 33 years as a Chicago police officer and homicide detective, Roberts was well aware of the drug’s allure. But he long believed law enforcement’s traditional lock-them-up approach was the way to win the war on drugs. Billy, he said, taught him otherwise.
Roberts, 61, now sees addiction as a disease, not a crime. He embraces efforts to cut off the demand through increased public education, access to treatment and alternative sentencing options for users — not dealers.
Roberts, who was named Cook County Forest Preserve District police chief in March, compares the impact of heroin on a family to a speeding bullet.
“It destroys everything in its path.”
John and Donna Roberts raised two girls and two boys in a bungalow. The kids attended a nearby Catholic school in the city’s Beverly neighborhood.
Their last child, Billy, was a “surprise,” his mother said. He was a budding entrepreneur who in sixth grade started Billy’s Lawn Care, complete with promotional fliers. Billy invested profits to buy his own equipment.
As captain of his eighth-grade soccer team, he was called “The Wall” by teammates. His trophies filled the bedroom he shared with his older brother.
The summer before Billy’s freshman year in high school, Roberts, who had recently retired as a Chicago police captain, moved his family into a bigger home in Will County. Each child had a bedroom and enjoyed a sprawling yard with a pool and view of a farm and pumpkin patch.
The parents now wonder whether their move to the suburbs during Billy’s formative years contributed to his drug use.
Their son, they said, was more of a leader than a follower, but he also was a daredevil who easily grew anxious and lost interest in things when he didn’t immediately excel. Once a popular athlete, Billy was now in the much larger Lockport Township High School District 205 and in search of new friends. At some point, he began experimenting with drugs.
The couple said they figured he was just trying to find a place to fit in and, perhaps, encountered some bad influences at school or through his part-time job, exposing him to marijuana and cocaine. At 17, he admitted using cocaine when his parents confronted him.
Billy spent 44 days in a residential treatment program, and for a while, his parents believed the worst was behind them. He held down a job and continued with the home schooling they set up after treatment.
Soon, though, one of his sisters said she heard a weird snoring sound coming from her brother’s room. Roberts calls it heroin’s “death rattle.” They gave Billy CPR until paramedics arrived.
“All the way to the hospital we were praying,” Roberts said. “When we got there, I dropped to my knees begging the Lord, ‘Please, spare Billy.’ ”
Their prayers were answered. That day.
When Billy was back home, the couple said, they sat at their kitchen table for hours trying to come up with a plan.
They began calling the phone numbers listed on a hospital handout of treatment providers. Some no longer existed. Others were closed for the weekend.
“We were scared out of our wits,” said Donna Roberts, 54. “We just thought, ‘How do we save our son?’ ”
Said her husband: “With all I knew as a police officer, and all we knew as parents, we still were so utterly lost on how to help him.”
Donna Roberts said she asked Billy what it would take for him to stay clean. He suggested they move. The couple put their house up for sale days later. When it didn’t sell right away, Roberts moved into his mother’s South Side house with Billy to get him out of what the father considered a bad environment.
One month later, Billy was back in the hospital after another overdose.
As soon as he was released, Roberts put him in a car and drove straight to his sister’s Lake Geneva home. They didn’t even stop for a change of clothes. For the next six weeks, he and Billy lived there together. The father and son returned home withhope, but by now both understood heroin’s addictive power and that relapse is often the norm.
The parents helped their son get a job at a hotel and moved him into an apartment with one of his sisters, who tried to keep an eye on him. But it wasn’t long before he was slipping again. So the parents brought him back home.
Roberts said he stayed up most nights to check on Billy and analyze his cellphone for call patterns and contacts. The parents kept prescription drugs in a locked safe. There were written contracts, written confessionals, addiction counseling, heart-to-heart talks, nightly prayers and long hours spent in front of the computer or on the phone researching treatment programs and how to pay for them.
Donna Roberts said she asked her son to explain what goes through his mind when he uses heroin.
“He would say, ‘I’m not thinking anything. I’m just doing what my brain tells me it needs.’ ”
“We kept seeing signs he was getting through it,” Donna Roberts said. “We never lost hope. He was such a good, strong kid.”
The couple eventually came to the hardest decision a parent has to make. Fearing they were enabling him, they told him to get into treatment again or move out. They hoped the ultimatum would work.
That weekend, Billy went back to the South Side neighborhood where he grew up to see his old friends. He said he wanted to think about his next move. Roberts said he and his wife thought he’d be safe. They knew their son’s friends to be drug-free.
Then their phone rang. A friend told them Billy stayed behind when the others went to a Sox game. They found him unconscious on a basement couch. With his wife next to him, Roberts got there as fast as he could.
“He looked just like he was sleeping wrapped in his favorite blanket,” Donna Roberts said. “I remember saying, ‘OK, Billy, just open your eyes now. Just open your eyes.’ ”
The couple had their son’s body cremated. His ashes were scattered in Lake Michigan off Diversey Harbor in Lincoln Park — where the family often fished and swam.
One of the signatures in the guest book from Billy’s wake caught Donna Roberts’ attention.
The entry read, “Matthew Kirk’s father.”
Five months earlier, on April 3, 2009, Brian Kirk found his 18-year-old son in a fetal position in their Homer Glen home. Kirk, 58, said Matthew died of a heroin overdose weeks before his high school graduation.
“I helped put my son in the body bag,” said Kirk, an assistant chief engineer at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Kirk said he didn’t know of Billy Roberts until after the teen’s death when someone told him Billy and Matthew had been friends. Kirk felt compelled to attend Billy’s memorial service. When Donna Roberts saw his guest book entry, she remembered her son telling her about Matthew’s death and called Kirk so they could meet and talk. Sharing information, they tallied up how many local kids were in treatment or had died of a heroin overdose.
“A few weeks later, I called John and said, ‘We need to do something,’ ” Kirk said.
HERO was born. The group’s efforts include speaking at schools and community events and providing free counseling and grief support. Roberts also lobbied for a “good Samaritan” law that grants immunity from prosecution to those who call 911 for an overdose victim if the amount of drug is under a certain amount.
Roberts said he has learned that parents alone can’t save their children. An addict, he said, needs a daily support system of expert and family resources. Roberts encourages others not to let the stigma associated with addiction stop them from immediately reaching out for help wherever they can find it.
While her husband finds solace and strength in his activism, Donna Roberts said she struggles to cope with the loss of her son. At times, she finds it overwhelming. She fainted at HERO’s first event, and her husband jumped down from the stage to help her. She said she dreams of having just one more moment with Billy.
Her message for others fighting a similar battle: Never give up.
“Just because our story didn’t have a happy ending doesn’t mean yours won’t,” she said. “As long as they are alive, there’s still hope.”
Visit theherofoundation.org to learn more.