Young adults in East Iowa are using heroin and dying from it

Counselors, police say problem has increased in recent years

Jon Jelinek lost his son, Sam, to a heroin overdose March 22. Jelinek keeps his son's ashes in an urn in his apartment.
Jon Jelinek lost his son, Sam, to a heroin overdose March 22. Jelinek keeps his son's ashes in an urn in his apartment. Photo taken Thursday, April 18, 2013, in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Jon Jelinek wishes he had been angrier and little less brokenhearted when he found his son, Sam, dead on the Friday afternoon of March 22 — on his knees, face in a pillow on the bed, a syringe needle stuck in his hand between two fingers, some heroin still in the syringe.

“I should have taken a picture and taken it over to ASAC (the Area Substance Abuse Council’s treatment program) to show it to those kids,” Jelinek said this week. “?‘Look. This what happens to you: This is my son. I understand addiction. But this is what you do to your parents, and brothers and sisters and your best friends. This is how you’re going to end up if you don’t quit.’”

A few words can be worth a 1,000 pictures.

Jelinek, a former building contractor and a bedrock believer and business owner in the city’s up-and-coming New Bohemia arts and entertainment district, says his 23-year-old son’s entanglement with heroin in Cedar Rapids stretched over 18 months and featured a couple inpatient drug-treatment efforts to get him off the drug and away from the drug’s local suppliers.

Jelinek said his son, a 2007 graduate of Xavier High School, had wanted to be a writer, but his drug struggles had gotten in the way. So the son was working alongside his dad in dad’s ongoing post-flood renovation work on commercial buildings next to and near his Parlor City Pub & Eatery in the heart of New Bohemia.

In the end, Sam Jelinek was more than himself, say his dad, local law-enforcement authorities and the Area Substance Abuse Council. He, too, had become part of a quiet trend — a trend of young Cedar Rapids adults using heroin, some of whom also end up in an obituary that usually doesn’t spell out a cause of death.

“Was he proud of that? No,” Jelinek said of his son, one of four children. “Did he hate himself for being that way? Yes. ... But as parents you do everything you can to help.”

Even now.

“The thing is I don’t want to have that happen to some other parent, to have them have to bury a child because they said, ‘It can’t be my kid,’?” he said.

Numbers rising

Dedric Doolin, senior deputy director at ASAC in Cedar Rapids, said this week that the number of those who come into treatment addicted to heroin or having used heroin is increasing. He added that the majority of heroin users entering treatment are young adults and, as often as not, middle class and upper middle class ones. And he said some of them are dying from heroin overdoses.

“It’s an unfortunate reality,” Doolin said.

In total numbers, those entering ASAC’s treatment programs who cite heroin use are a small percentage of the agency’s overall caseload. But even so, the increase in the drug’s use is “significant,” said Doolin. He said a decade or so ago, few people came to treatment because of heroin, but now that is not the case.

In 2009, 25 people from Linn County entering ASAC treatment cited heroin as their primary problem drug, and by 2012, the number had grown to 69. In 2009, 56 from Linn County cited heroin as one of the top three drugs they used, and by 2012, that number had grown to 104, according to ASAC figures.

“We’ve been discussing this (at ASAC) for the last few years,” Doolin said. “We continue to see the numbers rise of people (using heroin) coming through our doors.”

He had no hard numbers on the number of heroin deaths. But he said he and his staff know those numbers are up because of clients and former clients who have died.

Crack cocaine, methamphetamine and an assortment of synthetic drugs all are making their presence felt in the Cedar Rapids area, Doolin said. But he said heroin continues to live up to its reputation as difficult to get off once on it because “you get sick, you start feeling like you’re going to die” if you go without it.

Police response

Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Dave Dostal, who is heading up the department’s on-street drug team, pointed out this week that heroin overdoses often don’t kill people because they are rescued by friends or family before they die. It’s particularly difficult, Dostal said, in getting heroin users, even those who overdose and survive, to name their drug suppliers because “they don’t want to make their sources go away,” he said.

Dostal said heroin use in the Cedar Rapids area picked up in the mid-2000s, but he said a federal prosecution of heroin dealers in Cedar Rapids back then sent some dealers to federal prison and resulted in a drop in local heroin sales. The presence of the drug has now increased again in Cedar Rapids, he said.

Dostal said some who begin to use heroin first have used opiate-based prescription pain killers like hydrocodone and oxycodone that make their way to the street. Sometimes a hit of heroin can cost less than the pills — as little as $20 to $25 for one-tenth of one gram of heroin — which can help a drug user try heroin, he said.

Police Capt. Steve O’Konek, who heads up the department’s Investigative Division, said a problem with heroin is that levels of drug purity on the street can change from deal to deal, leaving users at a loss to know what they are taking on. Overdoses result, he said.

A death like Sam Jelinek’s, O’Konek said, becomes an incentive to investigators and a window into the local drug trade.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, whose department is handling the Jelinek death case because it occurred in the Jelinek home just outside of Cedar Rapids, agreed this week that heroin abuse is becoming more prevalent in the Cedar Rapids area. As a result, a law enforcement Heroin Task Force has now been set up in the Cedar Rapids metro area to try to curtail heroin sales and use, the sheriff reported.

Technology impact

Jon Jelinek, ASAC’s Doolin and the Police Department’s Dostal all said that the day of the addict driving over to the street corner to buy drugs has been replaced by texting and smartphones and suppliers coming to the user.

“Those dealers are customer-friendly,” Doolin said. He said they also can pick up when an addict leaves treatment and may be a high risk to be lured back into drug use. Sometimes the first new hit of drug can be a free one, said Dostal.

Dostal said most heroin coming into Cedar Rapids comes out of Chicago, and Jelinek said his son told him that his supplier got the heroin from Chicago — “Highway 30 heroin” from Chicago, Jelinek called it.

He doesn’t worry for a minute, he said, that a heroin dealer will seek reprisals against him for talking publicly about his son’s death.

“You just can’t let the death of your child go without doing something about it,” Jelinek said. “If I got to die making this crusade, then that’s the way it is. At least there’s somebody up there waiting for me.“My son wasn’t an under-the-bridge heroin addict. He was a good kid. He was trying his hardest to kick it, and it killed him. He was a good kid, and I got to make his name stand for something.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.