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Tuesday, March 31, 1998

MTV documentary examines heroin use, Plano deaths

By PAM EASTON Associated Press Writer

PLANO, Texas (AP) - Barbara Shaunfield had a feeling her son Matt's life wasn't going to have a happy ending.

Her fears were realized early on the second morning of 1996 when Matt's college friends found the 220-pound, 6-foot-2 student slumped over in his bathroom, blue from lack of oxygen and about to die from a heroin overdose.

"They put a pillow under his head and covered him with a blanket and thought he would sleep it off," Mrs. Shaunfield said.

But Matt, 22, never woke up. Nor did a dozen other heroin users over the next 18 months in his hometown of Plano, a community of 188,000 about 10 miles north of Dallas.

The deaths of so many youths in a leafy suburb better known for corporate campuses than shooting galleries set off a shock wave that resonated all the way to the New York offices of MTV, the youth-oriented cable channel.

"Somehow there has been a gap in the education of this drug," said Laura Lazin, vice president of MTV News and Specials. "It seems like so many people in this generation don't understand how dangerous this drug is."

To hammer home that heroin's growing danger to young Americans, the network has produced a documentary that features Plano's ongoing battle against the drug.

"Fatal Dose" is the first in a new series called "True Life" that will tackle subjects from drugs to personal finances and women in sports. MTV plans to air a new documentary each Tuesday night at 10 p.m. beginning this week.

Ms. Lazin said the idea is to tell young adults' stories in their own words, from their own points of view.

"Fatal Dose" shows 19-year-old addicts Allen and Eric shooting up heroin in a gas station bathroom as MTV reporter Serena Altschul looks on.

The two had shot up at a dealer's house just ten minutes before entering the bathroom, saying, "it's time again." They purchased $100 worth of heroin and cocaine capsules that they said would last them about two hours.

The documentary shows the two using hypodermic needles to inject the drug into their arms and hands. They try to stop the blood oozing from the needle pricks by sucking on their skin.

"I'm making a mess of myself," Eric says at one point as he cleans blood from the gas station's bathroom sink.

Allen acknowledges that the scene is far from glamorous. He says the need for heroin consumes his life.

"I kind of feel like I'm already dead," Allen said. "Like, I'm just a shell."

Besides Allen's and Eric's story, the documentary also tells the stories of Brent, a young man whose girlfriend died after he provided her with the drug; Rob, an athlete who used only infrequently but ultimately died; Corey, who resisted peer pressure for years but eventually tried the drug, only to die three months later; and Mrs. Shaunfield's son, Matt.

Mrs. Shaunfield said her son became addicted to painkillers after knee surgery during high school. She said Matt's addiction escalated to cocaine and then to heroin by the time he was at Stephen F. Austin University during the spring of 1994.

"Matt told us he was on heroin," she said. "We weren't going to give up, but we knew we lost him."

Drug rehab, changing schools and his parents' love utimately couldn't conquer the craving that Matt fought every day. Matt overdosed the night he had been recognized by Narcotics Anonymous for 45 days of sobriety.

He died in Utah, where the Shaunfields had once thought Matt would be able to escape the drugs that surrounded him in Texas. Mrs. Shaunfield said she thought the Mormon influence and clean lifestyle in Utah would be the answer.

"But guess what?" she said. "Maybe they don't use caffeine, but they do use drugs. And that just goes to show it's everywhere."

Bob Weiner, spokesman for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, said heroin is quickly replacing crack as the nation's drug of choice. He attributes heroin's growing popularity to its low price and its ability to be snorted or smoked rather than injected.

To combat the drug plague in Plano, law enforcement, schools and churches are working to educate people about heroin's accessibility and addictiveness.

Mrs. Shaunfield said parents have to stop looking at drug abuse as a reflection of their parenting skills.

"I think there are a lot of parents who don't want to admit that their kids have a drug problem," she said. "They are still looking at it as some kind of a disgrace instead of accepting it for what it is, which is an illness."

Plano police recently announced the results of a seven-month drug sting called "Operation Rockfest." The investigation led to 84 drug cases against 33 adults and four juveniles, including 14 students currently enrolled in Plano schools.

The sting also showed that the community isn't unified in how best to fight the battle.

Victor and Angela Kollman say their 16-year-old son, Jonathan, who had been battling a heroin addiction for two years, tested negative for drugs 12 times last fall before meeting a female undercover officer. As part of the sting, the officer took their son to buy heroin six times.

"We feel like the Plano Police Department was our son's drug supplier," said Mrs. Kollman, a high school science teacher.

The result, the Kollmans say, was a rekindling of Jonathan's addiction.

Mrs. Shaunfield, who understands the Kollmans' agony, hopes "Fatal Dose" will help save kids like Jonathan.

"I'm hoping that it will make some young people aware of the tragedy of heroin," she said, "and the toll that it takes on a young person's life - even if they don't die from it."

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