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updated: 4/4/2014 5:36 PM

Just one use, and a future was gone for Arlington Heights teen

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  • Karen Schultz, 19, of Mount Prospect, died Feb. 3.

      Karen Schultz, 19, of Mount Prospect, died Feb. 3.

 
 
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Dec. 1, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

On Nov. 9, 2001, Karen Schultz scribbled a brief entry into one of the many journals she kept.

The item was labeled "plans for future," and it listed three goals: "a job in medical industry (nurse??); career and family; college degree."

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Less than three months later, at the age of 19, Schultz lay dead in her father's Arlington Heights apartment, killed by a heroin overdose.

That Schultz - an outgoing, friendly young woman known equally for her charm and occasionally hot temper - died just as she was planning for a successful future is a source of unspeakable heartbreak for her friends and family.

What makes her death bewildering, though, is that drugs were involved.

By all accounts, Schultz was not a drug user. Friends and family say she'd experimented both with alcohol and marijuana, but did not use either on a regular basis. They say her fatal experiment with heroin on Feb. 2 was the first time she'd ever tried the drug.

For those closest to her, figuring out why she tried heroin is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that's missing several pieces.

Certainly, Schultz knew about drugs, about how dangerous they are, and how seductive. At least two new acquaintances were regular users of heroin; Schultz watched as these new friends used heroin to escape their problems.

And Schultz, like many teenagers, did have problems of her own to confront. Her parents divorced when she was a child. She was taking medication at the time of her death to control the dramatic mood swings that she'd experienced since childhood.

Schultz also struggled in school. Years of difficulty with reading comprehension took their toll on her self-esteem, and Schultz started looking for ways to avoid going to school. Midway through her senior year at John Hersey High School, chronic absenteeism combined with occasional outbursts of temper resulted in her being asked to leave the school.

Despite these challenges, family members say Schultz had never been more focused or hopeful than she was in the months preceding her death. She was working hard to earn her diploma at Nipper Career Center in Des Plaines, and she was absolutely in love with her job at Kid Squad, a day care program run by the River Trails Park District. Those who knew her say working with children was Schultz's true calling.

Schultz generally seemed to be happy, her parents say. She was popular with peers and adults. She was a romantic, partial to movies like "Titanic" and "The Princess Diaries." She was a regular watcher of MTV and a passionate fan of the Backstreet Boys. Despite her problems in school, Schultz loved to read and write on her own.

So when asked to explain why Schultz would overdose on drugs, her parents can only guess.

"I think it was a moment of weakness for Karen," said her father, Marty Schultz. "She'd had a tough day, and maybe she thought using drugs would give her a temporary escape."

"We'll never know exactly what she was thinking," said Schultz's mother, Sandy. "It's something that will always haunt me."

Sandy and Marty Schultz today want other parents to know just how quickly drugs can end a promising life.

"We were given no warning," Sandy said. "We never dreamed this would happen to her. I don't think anyone who knew her well thought this could happen.

"Maybe by talking about Karen, other parents will start thinking about this."

Family's first girl

Schultz was born Jan. 3, 1983, in Lebanon, Pa. A remarkable 11 pounds at birth, brown-eyed Karen was the Schultzes' fourth child, and their first girl.

Sandy Schultz said she wept with joy when she realized she had a daughter. She loved her three boys, but she'd always wanted to experience the unique mother-daughter bond.

"I finally felt like I had a little me," she said.

Schultz's first years were spent in Okinawa, Japan, where her father was stationed during his 21-year career in the U.S. Army. The Schultz family moved to Mount Prospect in the mid-1980s, when Schultz was nearly 3.

Even at this young age, sudden mood swings plagued Schultz. A seemingly small incident would set off a temper tantrum; a short time later, she'd be cheerful and smiling.

"With Karen, she was either low or high. There was no middle," her mother said.

Then, starting in grade school, her reading problems surfaced. The problems made her frustrated and impatient; she resorted to guessing at the meaning of passages. Her self-esteem suffered.

During her middle school years, Schultz was pulled out of class to receive special tutoring. The tutoring helped, but her struggles with reading took their toll. Schultz started missing a lot of school, usually saying she was sick. Often, her complaints were legitimate, but her parents say that nearly as often, Schultz was trying to avoid school, where her reading problems made her feel anxious and stressed.

When Schultz entered John Hersey High School in 1997, she was tested in reading and placed in special classes for students with behavioral problems. She didn't enjoy the stigma of being in these classes, but the classes helped her.

At the same time, Schultz started seeing a psychiatrist about her mood swings. The doctor put her on medication. This, too, helped Schultz stay on track.

Sophomore year, Schultz's problems with absenteeism started up again. The school often called her parents, telling them Schultz was sick and needed to be picked up. Despite the medication, Schultz also occasionally had confrontations with teachers in which she would refuse to obey or cooperate.

"Karen liked school in a lot of ways, but she didn't always want to go along with the prescribed formula," her mother said. "She wanted to do her own thing, which wasn't always possible."

By the time she was a senior, the school and her parents presented Schultz with an ultimatum: Attend classes and work with the teachers, or leave. Her father signed the dismissal papers, and he gave the school permission to invoke them if Schultz missed another day.

Not long after, Schultz arrived at school with irritated, red eyes. She complained to the nurse, but stressed that she wasn't using the problem as an excuse to go home.

"She basically said: 'See? I'm still here like I'm supposed to be, even though my eyes hurt,' " her father said.

But then Schultz went to the principal's office and told them, falsely, that the nurse had told her to go home. When her deception was uncovered a few days later, Schultz's days at Hersey were over.

"It was a real wake-up call for her," her father said. "She called me, crying and upset. I calmed her down and said we'd talk about it later."

When they did talk about it, Marty Schultz told his daughter that leaving Hersey wasn't the end of the world, that what she did from then on out was up to her. Schultz vowed that she would earn her high school diploma.

"We suggested a GED, and she absolutely refused," Sandy Schultz said. "She was going to earn a regular diploma."

Caring for kids

While still at Hersey, Schultz started a job with Kid Squad, a program run by the River Trails Park District that offers day-care services before and after school. She worked with groups of children and, occasionally, as a one-on-one aide.

After leaving Hersey, she devoted more time to the program.

"This program was the greatest thing to ever happen to her," her mother said.

Schultz loved children. She loved talking with them, playing with them, helping them through problems. And the Kid Squad children responded accordingly.

"They absolutely adored Karen," Marty Schultz said. "They would flock to her. She really had an amazing ability to relate to those kids."

Both parents say there is little doubt that Schultz would have pursued a career working with children.

"It seemed like what she was born to do," her mother said.

During the course of her work with Kid Squad, Schultz was paired up with a little boy who suffered from manic-depression. The boy, now 10, was difficult to handle because of intense fits of anger and violence that often could be controlled only by medication.

The boy's mother is a teacher in Mount Prospect. She didn't want her name used in this story.

Schultz and the boy took to each right away, in a way that he has not related to anyone since, the boy's mother said. When he would suffer one of his "meltdowns," as his mother calls them, Schultz instinctively knew how to restrain him so he would not hurt himself or her. She also knew how to calm him down.

"She was so wonderful with him," the boy's mother said. "No matter if he bit or kicked her, no matter what name he called her, she never lost it."

Her son grew to trust Schultz completely, an astounding feat for someone with his disorder, the boy's mother said.

"We were both devastated when Karen died," she said. "He blamed himself for a while, which was very difficult. We've had other aides, but it's never been the same. Now I've resorted to keeping him at home."

Other mothers whose children Schultz had worked with appeared at her wake and funeral, telling similar tales. Their children brought pictures they had drawn, illustrating the sadness they felt now that Schultz was gone.

"Here I was, having just lost my daughter," Sandy Schultz said, tears welling in her eyes, "and I'm actually going from mother to mother, trying to comfort them."

Contact with drugs

When not working at Kid Squad or in class at Nipper, Schultz worked as an attendant at the pool at her father's apartment complex. She soon met new people, many of whom lived in the complex.

It was through these friends that Schultz became exposed to heroin.

Two of her new friends from the complex were heroin users. One of them, Lynsey, had already sought counseling to beat the habit.

Schultz was open with her parents about the things her friends did. Sandy and Marty Schultz both talked to their daughter about drugs, and about the dangers involved in being friends with those who used them.

"I told her that drug users will do what they have to get their fix," her mother said. "They'll steal. They'll lie. I didn't want Karen to get hurt."

None of those problems arose between Schultz and Lynsey, though. The two teenagers, who met about a year and a half ago, became close friends instantly. Schultz's parents describe them as "surrogate sisters."

"Karen actually would sometimes introduce me as her 'little sister,'" said Lynsey, who at 16 is about three years younger than Schultz. "We had such a ball together. I knew right away that she was a 'real' person, that she was someone I could trust."

The two friends did all the things that suburban teenage girls do. They saw movies, took shopping trips to Woodfield Shopping Center and talked for hours at a time about nearly every imaginable subject.

Heroin use was one thing they did not share. Schultz didn't like Lynsey using the drug, but she supported her friend as best she could.

"Karen was always there for me," Lynsey said. "Sometimes, when I was really bad, she'd start crying, asking me why I did it. But she always tried to help me."

Often, that help came in the form of money. One time, Schultz sold her VCR so that Lynsey would be able to buy drugs. Sandy Schultz said that action illustrates just how far her daughter would go to help a friend who was in pain.

"Karen would do what she had to, even if it wasn't absolutely right," she said. "When Karen cared about someone, she would do anything for them."

On Saturday, Feb. 2, after watching Lynsey struggle with heroin for months, Schultz decided to get high with her. That choice might seem strange, but Lynsey said it mirrored her own first encounter with the drug.

"A friend got me into it," she said. "I had seen her use the drug so often that it just became part of life. At that point, it's like, why not? I think it was probably the same with Karen."

After getting high, the two met Schultz's mother at the store in which she works. Sandy Schultz had planned to spend the evening shopping, but the two girls said they wanted instead to take her car to a movie.

As they drove from the store, Schultz and her mother got into an argument, which quickly escalated into a full-scale shouting match. Schultz stormed out of the car, and called her brother for a ride back to her father's apartment, where she was living at the time.

At the time, the fight seemed to Schultz's mother to be just the kind of flare-up caused by her daughter's mood swings.

Schultz went back to the apartment, angry and upset. She called her father - he was away taking care of his sick father - and he calmed her down, like both he and Sandy Schultz had done many times before.

"It just seemed like another of the blowup fights Karen would have with us from time to time," her father said.

Schultz had taken the rest of the drugs home with her. Lynsey pleaded with her not to get high again.

Marty Schultz found his daughter in the apartment the next morning. A copy of "The Princess Diaries" was in the VCR. MTV was on the television. It seemed to him that his daughter, still upset about the fight she'd had with her mother, had deliberately surrounded herself with her favorite "creature comforts" in an effort to feel better.

When Schultz's father tried to rouse her, she was unresponsive. He called 911, but it was too late. She was dead.

Sandy Schultz recalls exactly how her ex-husband told her that their daughter had died: "He just said 'Karen is gone.' "

Sandy called Lynsey to tell her what happened. Lynsey screamed "No!" and dropped the phone. Sandy said she could hear Lynsey saying that word over and over.

At the time, it never occurred to Schultz's parents that drugs could be responsible for their daughter's death. Months later, they learned the truth.

The Cook County medical examiner's office ruled in July that Schultz died of an accidental drug overdose. In addition to her other "creature comforts," Schultz had turned to heroin in an effort to feel better that night. The desire for a temporary release from her pain that night ended up killing her.

Trying to move on

Today, Schultz's death doesn't make any more sense to her loved ones than it did when she was found on Feb. 3. But her parents have accepted it, and they're trying to move on.

With the pragmatism of a retired military man, Marty Schultz takes a matter-of-fact approach.

"She died how she died," he said. "There's no getting around that, but I don't think you should dwell on it, either. She was a wonderful person and the best daughter you could have. She lit up every room she entered. That's what I'm focusing on."

Sandy Schultz was nearly overwhelmed by guilt in the wake of her daughter's death. She felt like the argument with her the night before was somehow to blame for what happened.

After the guilt subsided, anger took its place. She was angry at Schultz for getting involved with something as dangerous as heroin, and for stealing her own promising life from herself and her family.

Now, while traces of those early feelings remain, Sandy Schultz primarily feels a simple but unrelenting sadness.

"She was special to so many people," she said. "I feel her every time I hear one of her favorite songs on the radio, or when I see a movie she liked on TV I have this great emptiness now."

Sandy keeps in touch with Lynsey today. She wants to help Lynsey stay sober and keep her life on track.

Lynsey went through a six-month rehab program shortly after Karen died. She calls the program "a miracle," and says she's no longer using.

But part of her knows how easy it would be to go back to the drug.

"I'm not very confident right now," Lynsey said, a sadness in her eyes making her look, for a second, much older than 16. "It's a war, a battle I'm constantly fighting. Heroin is evil. It turns you into an evil person. When you're using, you'll hurt anyone in your way, and not think about it."

Sandy Schultz knows no one could replace her daughter, but she feels that if Lynsey is able to put her addiction to rest forever, then Schultz's death will not have been in vain.

"Lynsey has her own life, so I've taken a proper back seat," she said. "But we both know we're here for each other. I think that allows us both to continue having a bit of Karen, too."

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