21-year-old addict hid drug abuse until his death

Natasha Korecki
Daily Herald Staff Writer
Updated 4/4/2014 5:36 PM
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Nov. 21, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

To at least one friend, Tony Devita, in his early years, goes down as a legend - Ferris Bueller-style.

In high school, he pulled all the pranks. As one story goes, Devita was working at a video store when a school official he recognized walked inside and rented a pornographic movie.


Devita and his friend photocopied the receipt containing the official's name and the title of the movie. Back at school, he slipped copies under classroom doors.

The kids howled.

He got in trouble.

Whether the tale is tall or real doesn't matter. People liked to believe it was true.

"It was part of his legacy," his friend Benjamin Dahlin said.

Tony's tales continued as he grew older, but they led to a different kind of legacy. He's not around today to pull any more pranks.

When Tony told stories to his friend at work at the Downers Grove White Hen Pantry, his blue-gray eyes came alive. His pierced lower lip and studded tongue sometimes distracting, he described his days using drugs in colorful detail.

A favorite story was how Chicago police arrested a friend for having heroin on him. Tony was driving with a group of people when it happened. When police pulled them over, the friend still had a needle sticking out of his arm.

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Tony laughed about it.

"He liked to say he did every drug there is. He loved talking about getting high on heroin," Dahlin said. "But it was always in the past tense."

Dahlin never knew if those stories were true, but after Jan. 31 this year, he got a better idea.

Tony asked to borrow Dahlin's car for a quick trip to the bank. Dahlin thought he was clean; Tony talked about having twice gone through rehab. He gave him the OK.

Hours went by.

Tony didn't arrive for his 4 p.m. shift as planned and Dahlin was now stuck at work.

He had a friend take him to Tony's home and found his car on the driveway.

No one answered the door. The shades were drawn.

Dahlin finally left.

Inside, Tony was already dead.

Hypodermic needles were found where he collapsed on the bathroom floor.


Innocent childhood

Anthony J. Devita died of a heroin overdose, a DuPage County coroner ruled.

Tony was 21, but a coroner who examined his body noted in a report he looked older than his true age. He would have turned 22 on Nov. 11.

The coroner's office listed the cause of death as "opiate intoxication due to intravenous drug abuse."

It was an accident.

"The speculation is he had built up a tolerance to the drugs and needed more to get high on," said Downer's Grove evidence technician/patrolman Anthony Kucaba at a coroner's inquest in March.

It is unclear what led him into a life of drugs. Coroner's reports and accounts from friends indicate it continued, even after he sought professional help.

As a baby, loved ones handled Tony delicately. He was born prematurely into a loving family and needed surgeries to keep him alive, friends say.

During his childhood he loved baseball and football and the movie "Rambo." He collected figurines. He liked Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

When he entered high school at Benet Academy, he played football his freshman year and took part in Amnesty International and Genesis, a writing club. He later got into trouble and floated to different high schools in the Downers Grove area.

It was in those early high school years that friends believe Tony got into drugs. It started with marijuana and progressed to other drugs, his friends say. Eventually, he got hooked on heroin.

More and more, authorities are finding heroin addicts today span different segments of the population, said Dr. Gregory Teas, of Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Care in Hoffman Estates.

That has much to do with the ability to snort the drug rather than inject it with a needle, which can be more intimidating to experimenters. Once someone is addicted, he or she often switches to needles for a faster high.

"The stereotypical heroin abuser 20 years ago would be a prostitute, an impoverished individual ... or someone who is kind of a criminal," Teas said. "But now people of all types and all backgrounds are experimenting with heroin and many of them get hooked."

The people most likely to use heroin have high-risk personalities, those who challenge authority and people with conduct disorders, Teas said.

"They kind of defy authorities in general. They like to experiment," Teas said. "It doesn't mean other people don't get involved in drugs, but (risk-takers) are more likely to fall into this group."

Devita's addiction happened despite a healthy upbringing and despite people around him trying to lend a hand.

He grew up with a somewhat high-profile mother and father. They later divorced.

His mother, Sharon Devita, is an accomplished romance novelist. At one time she was a USA Today best-selling author. She contributed to a book written by former Chicago Police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek, "Addicted to Adultery: How We Saved Our Marriage and How You Can Save Yours."

Contacted in Tucson, Ariz., Sharon Devita did not want to comment on this story. Tony's family in Downers Grove also did not want to comment.

Tony's father, also named Anthony, is involved in local politics. He is a longtime York Township Committeeman and in 1990 also made a failed attempt at a seat on the DuPage County Board.

It was that run for office that first introduced the elder Devita to DuPage County Coroner Richard Ballinger. Ballinger has remained a family friend since then. He never thought his office would end up handling Anthony's son. He never thought it would happen to a family he said was so together.

"When you have a problem with drugs it happens to everyone," Ballinger said. "There's no discrimination between people that are well-to-do or that are poor."

Hidden abuse

People around him knew Tony had used drugs. They thought he was beating it at the time of his death.

He went to rehab once and it didn't work out. He went again and said this time, he was over the addiction.

He didn't let on that he was slipping back into his old patterns.

That's in part because of his personality. He seemed put together. He was passionate about his writing and his music. He played guitar and seemed to know a little bit about every kind of music.

Dahlin thought after the rehab Tony had moved back to "less severe" drugs, like pot.

"He was always really outgoing and friendly," Dahlin said. "He seemed really under control. He was really smart, quick-witted. There's nobody quite like him."

Even as some of his friends admired Tony for his pranks, Teas of Alexian Brothers warns that young people often carry a certain bravado, believing they're invulnerable to addiction and thinking, "it won't happen to me."

"Here's a kid who was admired by his peers, who maybe other kids in a peculiar kind of way respected. He seemed to have a lot of control over his life," Teas said. "But he died from using heroin."

"What is a greater example of not having control over one's life than putting a drug in your body ... and dying?"

Ballinger said his family tried to urge Tony onto the right track.

"They were trying everything they could to aid him in his abuse problem," Ballinger said.

Ballinger said people closest to Tony had a positive outlook on his recovery. "Unfortunately (a turnaround) was not the case," he said.

When investigators came to his house the night of his death, they found remnants of Tony's productive, creative side.

They also found remnants of the secret Tony harbored.

In a portion of the basement cordoned off with a white sheet, they found a book with extensive writings, poems and songs. There was a guitar he always meant to play with his friend Ben.

Nearby, there were also ceramic water pipes, bongs, needles, syringes in a box, and some marijuana and rolling papers, according to coroner's documents.

It was a world he hid so deep, neither his friends nor his family could save him.

Ballinger was the one to give the elder Devita a call Jan. 31 to confirm an autopsy was needed.

"I could hear in his voice how difficult it was," Ballinger said. "You know the old adage: You're not supposed to bury your children. They're supposed to bury you."

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