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updated: 4/4/2014 5:30 PM

An addiction shared by two suburban brothers

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  • According to "Scott", a recovering heroin addict from South Elgin, caps such as this one are commonly used to transform powder heroin into an injectable liquid.

      According to "Scott", a recovering heroin addict from South Elgin, caps such as this one are commonly used to transform powder heroin into an injectable liquid.

 
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Dec. 23, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

Kevin Riggs was out in the garage tinkering with his dirt bike when his younger brother, Tim, walked up and asked, "What's that white stuff you've got in your desk drawer?"

The white stuff was heroin, broken up into snortable lines on a CD jewel case and hidden in a drawer in his bedroom in their Warrenville home.

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Kevin, then a 17-year-old high school senior, said he tried to warn his 15-year-old brother away from the addiction that had overtaken him.

" 'You better not do any of it. It's really bad stuff,' " he recalls telling Tim. " 'You better not do any.' I think I actually told him it was coke. I thought heroin was such a big deal. I couldn't actually tell him it was heroin."

By the time Tim asked the question, it probably already was too late.

Tim Riggs soon admitted he'd already snorted part of a line or two of his brother's dope.

" 'Tim, no. Tim, this is really bad stuff,' " his brother says he told him. " 'I'm having a problem with it. I can't even stop. It's really bad. It's heroin.' I told him everything about it. 'I've only been doing it a couple of months and I can't stop. I'm addicted already.' "

"Let me try some. Let me try some more," the high school sophomore begged.

Curiosity overpowered Tim. Heroin now had its hold on two brothers. One eventually would die from the drug; the other struggles to live with his loss and his role in his brother's death.

"If I could do anything different ... I think not keeping it out in my room would've done it," said Kevin, who has joined the military and moved to another state to boost his chances of staying clean. "It was his choice, too. I realize that. But I realize that I had a lot to do with it."

Kevin Riggs and his mother, Cindy McLaren, say the boys' troubles with drugs began after her second husband abruptly left them and their 15-year-old sister, Jamie.

The children already had lived through the divorce of Cindy and John Riggs, who split up after a 10-year marriage that began when McLaren was 18.

Kevin was born when McLaren was 19. After the divorce at age 29, McLaren kept custody of their three children. She remarried about a year later.

After nearly eight years, McLaren's second husband left. He had been a father figure and wrestling coach to the boys. His sudden departure left them all reeling.

Kevin said he remembers his mom would "drink a lot." She "didn't come out of her room much for a couple of weeks."

McLaren acknowledged her struggles.

"Was I as observant as I would've been? No. Emotionally, I was having a tough time. I was depressed."

Still, she said, it is too easy to write off her sons' problems to divorce.

"A lot of it is a group of guys getting around, 'Hey, let's try this. It's a great high.' That's peer pressure."

John Riggs, who lives in Winfield, five minutes from his children's primary home, said he already had been having trouble getting his teen sons, especially Tim, to follow visitation arrangements, complete chores and meet his expectations for their grades. He said he believes his sons' drug addictions occurred because McLaren did not impose enough discipline and oversight.

His sons had too much idle time and opportunity to use drugs, he said.

"All of our hearts were destroyed by this," he said. "Children fall between the cracks."

Learning from loss

Blame and grief abounds in this family, five months after Tim Riggs died at age 17 of a heroin overdose. But Tim's loved ones also are trying to learn from the loss and to steer others away from experiencing similar pain.

John Riggs said he has been talking to officials involved in DuPage County's divorce court with the hope of convincing them they must be more willing to force counseling on family members when one or more members believes things aren't going well.

"You don't really raise children every Wednesday and every other weekend," he said.

Kevin Riggs agreed to be interviewed for this story to try to help others avoid addiction's trap. McLaren has talked to her son's drug counselors, faculty, parents and students at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School and District 200. She has shared Tim's story for the district newsletter and intends to keep pushing for a stronger drug education curriculum at more suburban schools. She calls her effort "Today is Mine: Educating Today for a Drug-Free Tomorrow."

"Instead of falling apart, I'm trying to help," she said. "We need something for adolescents here."

McLaren believes she raised her children right. They grew up in Naperville, and she stayed home with them for the first 10 years of their lives.

Tim played goalie on a community hockey team and toyed with wrestling, but he didn't stick with either one. Like his big brother, he struggled at school.

McLaren may not have been as strict as her ex-husband believes she should have been, but she said she demanded her children treat each other and others with respect. She said she taught her children proper manners. She said she raised them not to steal, cheat or lie. Soon her sons were doing it all - under the influence of heroin.

It wasn't long after McLaren's second husband packed up and left that a high school friend of Kevin's asked him to try heroin.

"It was like perfect timing. I was going through all this pain at home," Kevin said. "I had never been depressed my entire life. I was always a really happy and upbeat kid. It just happened to hit me at the wrong time. I wasn't depressed; I was just in a rut. I had never really thought about heroin. The word sounds evil. It never even crossed my mind that I would ever use it. I felt really apathetic then, didn't really care about much.

"I was totally out of focus at school," he said. "I didn't care anymore. I was always ditching class and going out to smoke pot."

Life-and-death fight

On that first experiment snorting, Kevin said, "No joke, within 20 minutes I was mentally addicted to it."

A few months later, after their talk in the garage, Tim also was addicted.

Kevin confronted him. Why do you keep going in my stuff and taking it, he asked?

"Dude, I like it a lot," Tim answered. "Can you get me some?" The older brother said he persuaded his younger brother to quit taking heroin for a while once, but it didn't last.

It was Christmas Day 2000, and Tim and Kevin were supposed to drive in the brothers' car to meet part of their family for the holiday. But Kevin was in the throes of withdrawal sickness, so he took Tim with him to the West Side of Chicago to buy some blow - a term that once meant powdered cocaine but now means heroin.

Tim never had been to the neighborhood known for its brazen street dealing. They drove along I-88 to I-290, and as they approached the city, Kevin told Tim to close his eyes and duck down in his seat. It was a futile attempt to try to keep the kid brother from knowing where to return to buy drugs on his own. Of course, Tim figured out where they were and found his way back with his own friends.

"I basically showed him how to get it; I showed him how to do it" his brother said. "This is the biggest mistake I ever made with Tim."

For the next few months, the brothers used more and more heroin. Already, they both needed the drug to stop "dope sickness," Kevin said. But early in 2001, McLaren said, Kevin told his parents he had a cocaine problem. They got him to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and soon he admitted it really was heroin that had him hooked.

"We were crushed," McLaren said. She knew little about the drug, thinking "only prostitutes and homeless in Chicago did that."

By March 2001, John Riggs said he borrowed money from his parents and spent Kevin's college fund to pay $20,000 for Kevin to enroll in an intensive treatment program in Oklahoma. McLaren said she began noticing a lot of calls to her house while she was at work during the day. She asked Kevin about it and, eventually, he told her Tim, too, was addicted to heroin. He'd been repeatedly calling Tim during the day to try to get him to stop using.

With Tim, McLaren found herself in an unending cycle of searching, denying, stealing, drug testing and lying.

Once, early on, she said, a parent of one of Tim's friends called and told her to search Tim's things because the friends had spent the night together and she'd found drugs on her son. McLaren began going through her son's clothes while he slept but had to stop, call the other parent back and ask what exactly to look for. She found the little foil packet under his bed with a mirror, took it to the police department and had her son arrested, she said.

She said she frequently tested his urine with over-the-counter kits. He always tested clean and repeatedly accused her of not trusting him.

Later, she found an eye drops bottle hidden atop the medicine chest. It was filled with the urine he used to fake the tests. Spoons used to cook heroin would disappear, as would cash and the power tools used by her third husband, a construction worker, McLaren said. John Riggs said Tim stole his second wife's engagement ring.

The Oklahoma program wasn't an option for Tim because he was too young. Besides, most of the money already had been spent on Kevin. Still, Tim was taken to a DuPage County treatment program for detoxification. Treatment providers asked permission to give Tim methadone, another kind of opiate the facility sometimes used to ease withdrawal sickness.

"Absolutely not," McLaren said she told the provider. "I don't think you mask one drug with another drug. If he's got to have diarrhea and stomach pain for two days, then maybe if he ever thinks about doing this again, he won't do it. I'm sorry, I don't want this to be a pleasant experience for my son."

Final attempts

Tim's parents enrolled him in Rosecrance, a residential facility in Rockford, but he was quickly kicked out for being absent without leave and for bringing drugs into the facility. Tim denied it all. Eventually, he was facing multiple charges for theft. On his 17th birthday last summer, Tim Riggs was homeless.

He had run away three weeks before but was keeping in contact with friends.

One of them agreed to help McLaren and police by persuading Tim to show up somewhere at a designated time.

He was arrested for violating probation and put into DuPage's juvenile center. There he detoxed again, learned about what triggered him to want to use, and wrote about his experiences in journals. He wrote letters to his mom and his brother, Kevin, whom he had quit talking to - angry that he had "narced" him out to their parents.

Kevin said he kept calling and writing, encouraging his younger brother to get clean, stay clean, make plans, have goals. Play hockey again, get a job, fix the dirt bike. "None of that really sunk in for him," Kevin said.

After a few months at the center, Tim was released. In two more months, McLaren said she noticed things were going missing again.

And Tim ran away again. A few weeks later, Tim was facing a felony charge of stealing a Sony PlayStation. McLaren said she got him to meet her at a restaurant. It was the only time, McLaren said, that her son looked ill, like a drug addict in trouble. She said she persuaded him to turn himself in and start facing his problems.

Tim moved from jail to a treatment facility in Woodridge called Cornell Interventions. He graduated from the restricted area to the part of the facility where recovering addicts are allowed to come and go for school or work.

Kevin had come home from boot camp once and wore his dress uniform to pick Tim up for a visit at Interventions. Tim greeted him with a hug.

"I felt for the first time he was proud of me," Kevin said. "I had done all this stuff to corrupt him and finally I did something he could look up to."

Kevin talked to Tim about following in his positive footsteps -about joining him in joining the military. He gave Tim his recruiter's number and the two thought perhaps court officials would consider his military intentions as a positive development.

But at least once, McLaren said, his urine tested dirty and he was moved back upstairs. By now, Tim was a high school senior. He ran away from Interventions for several hours on the day he should have graduated high school last June. In July, McLaren said an Interventions employee called late on a Friday afternoon and told her to come get Tim.

He was being kicked out for testing positive again for drugs. McLaren said she kept Tim glued to her side for days, restricting all his movements until he earned her trust.

Eventually, she said he was allowed to look for a job, go to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, hang out with his sponsor and visit with friends who didn't use drugs.

He went out one night with his sponsor, or at least that's what McLaren thought.

She went into his room the next morning to wake him. She found the light on and her son sprawled face down on his bed. She nudged his leg. Nothing. Turned him over and saw his color wasn't right. She dialed 911. She said she thinks she remembers hearing someone say, "We have a pulse." But Tim died.

McLaren found the needle he had used to shoot up hidden under a drawer in his room.

John Riggs got a message that Tim wasn't breathing when they took him to the hospital. When he arrived, he found his dead son lying with some sort of medical brace still holding his mouth open for air. He gathered Tim up in his arms. He was still warm. All the emotions suffocated John Riggs.

"It was the culmination then," he said. "It's rage and anger, peace, sorrow, sadness for him, me, all my family, all those who loved him and tried to help him so hard."

Tim's parents and brother thought he was going to make it. He had begun talking about goals, plans to move to California and buy a car. But, they all said, there were so many times he talked of being scared to death of prison time for that felony charge. He lost hope, they said.

McLaren said she now will spend her time working on drug education and prevention. She said she believes suburban teens need to be taught more about coping skills, true friendship and the raw truth about drugs. She said she believes more adolescent-only treatment facilities are needed and that more schools should start support groups for drug-addicted teens.

She said she understands now her children also were depressed at the loss of another father figure and chose the wrong way to deal with their feelings.

"Things happen in our lives that hurt us," she said. "We choose how to cope."

Kevin Riggs wore his dress uniform to his baby brother's funeral and gave a eulogy.

He doesn't remember much of what he said. He continues to try to cope by submitting himself to the discipline and danger of a military career.

"Every day I live with it," he said. "This is the hardest thing I'll ever have to go through."

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