Heroin stole 21-year-old's exuberance, then his life

  • Seth at age 4. Seth Lieberman of Warrenville, died of a heroin overdose at age 21 on February 17, 2002.

    Seth at age 4. Seth Lieberman of Warrenville, died of a heroin overdose at age 21 on February 17, 2002.

  • Seth Porter Lieberman, Warrenville man who died of a heroin overdose at age 21 on February 17, 2002.

    Seth Porter Lieberman, Warrenville man who died of a heroin overdose at age 21 on February 17, 2002.

Updated 4/4/2014 5:24 PM
Editor's note: This story originally ran on April 28, 2002 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of occasional reports about area teens and young adults whose deaths this year have been attributed to substance abuse.

When Seth Lieberman was a young boy, he was stung by a jellyfish as he swam in the Atlantic Ocean during a family vacation in Pompano Beach, Fla.


From the shoreline, his father spotted the boy jumping up violently in the water, flailing his arms as if he were drowning. Eric Lieberman rushed to his son's side.

For years afterward, the father began having a recurring nightmare. In it, he tried to save a drowning Seth, but each time the distance between the two grew wider and he was unable to reach him. He watched as his son's piercing blue eyes and beautiful blond hair disappeared into the ocean.

In January, father and son again found themselves at Pompano Beach. But it wasn't vacation that had again drawn them to the Florida shoreline; Seth had been tossed out of a nearby drug treatment center, a failure that was becoming all too familiar for the young heroin addict.

As the two walked the beach, talking about Seth's future, a feeling of impending doom welled within Eric. He knew Seth again was in trouble. This time, as in his dream, Eric feared Seth could not be saved.

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The fear proved prophetic on Feb. 17, just six days after his 21st birthday, when Seth Porter Lieberman died of a heroin overdose. He left behind his parents, a brother and a 6-year-old daughter.

Seth battled dual demons: He abused prescription and recreational drugs while suffering from depression, which first gripped him in his early teens.

He made numerous attempts at rehabilitation through treatment centers, but often was rejected from or thrown out of programs.

But even in the face of that, his parents never gave up on trying to save Seth. They spared no expense on treatment, and they researched their options obsessively.

"We were consumed with saving Seth," said his mother, Mary Kay. "It became our entire life."

The class clown

Seth was an artistic kid. He loved karate, but hated most sports. He took guitar, drum and violin lessons. He played in a band.


His parents describe him as sensitive, sweet and genuine. He loved movies, just as his mother did, and often acted out his favorite roles. Seth even did some modeling jobs as a kid.

But it was his sense of humor that most remember.

"Seth was a goofball," his mother says. "He was the class clown. He always got away with it because he had that charismatic, sparkling personality. People liked him so much they always gave him a break."

He had a typical suburban upbringing, too.

The family lived in Warrenville. Mary Kay worked as a paralegal; Eric was a lawyer, who frequently traveled while running a computer software business.

Seth's only sibling, Taylor, often baby-sat his little brother. Seth liked to tag along with Taylor and his friends. The two had endless adventures on their dirt bikes and go-carts at their grandparents' farm in Galena.

"We had a lot of great times together," says Taylor, now 23. "We always came up with some sort of adventure."

But something changed about the time Seth was 14. Eric and Mary Kay became worried that he was suffering from depression. His outgoing personality grew sullen. Seth refused to go to school and often hid away in his bedroom.

Mary Kay took Seth to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed Seth with major depression.

His schoolwork suffered, and midway through his freshman year, his parents took him out of Wheaton Warrenville South High School and placed him in an alternative public school in Naperville where he could get more individualized support.

In the midst of al this, and still only 14, Seth became a father. He and his girlfriend did not marry, but Seth was there for the little girl, whom they named Hailey. He saw her regularly and, with his parents' help, supported Hailey financially from the onset.

"One of the things that was keeping him going in the last couple months was trying to stay clean for Hailey," Eric Lieberman said. "He loved her very much."

Hailey now visits Seth at Glen Oak Cemetery in West Chicago. Her crayon-drawn pictures decorate his tombstone.

Insomnia, panic attacks

Mary Kay stumbled across marijuana in Seth's bedroom in his early teen years but thought her son was just experimenting. The parents never suspected their son's early pot use would be a gateway to other drugs.

But in May 2000, Seth was arrested for drunken driving. Tests also showed he had cocaine, marijuana and prescription drugs in his system.

That led to a three-month suspension of his driver's license, forcing Seth to quit his job as a heating and air conditioning repairman.

Meanwhile, Seth's health began to decline. He suffered frequent panic attacks and seizures. Doctors prescribed Ambien, a medication used to treat insomnia, and gave him the anti-anxiety drug Xanax for his panic attacks.

Seth overdosed on the Ambien in August 2000, and he was rushed to Edward Hospital in Naperville, where it took 10 employees at to control him. Afterward, he was admitted as an outpatient for three weeks to nearby Linden Oaks Hospital for treatment of depression.

Seth was in and out of hospitals in the coming months for treatment of seizures and, in December 2000, he spent a week at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield because all the prescription and recreational drugs he was taking had destroyed his stomach's lining.

At this point, Seth's parents began suspecting their son's drug habit had graduated to heroin. The doctor treating Seth said illicit drug use can cause a deterioration of the stomach's lining. Mary Kay researched the common side effects of heroin and, more than a month later, got Seth to admit he was snorting the drug.

The heroin had changed Seth's once outgoing and open personality. He had no motivation and often stared at the television for hours. He called his mother "the FBI" for her frequent questions and searches of his bedroom. Mary Kay once took apart his entire mattress looking for drugs.

"He actually made me scared," Mary Kay said. "This was a child that was so warm and loving. Now I was frightened by him. I couldn't find him in there."

Seth also began stealing from his parents. Mary Kay's credit cards would disappear. Bills later would show thousands of dollars in unexplained charges. Several $165 roundtrip taxi charges appeared. Seth was using taxis to drive him to Chicago's West Side, where he'd buy heroin and return home.

"We were both so besides ourselves about what to do," Eric Lieberman says. "Our life became totally involved in trying to figure out what was going on with Seth. Every day was a crisis."

The drugs had taken over Seth, and in April 2001 he admitted himself to a 28-day program at Central DuPage Hospital. He got kicked out after four days for breaking a phone.

Through all the lying, fighting and stealing, Seth's parents never threw him out of their home. It was a daily crisis. Seth at times would call at 2 a.m. and tell his parents he couldn't remember where he had parked the car. He got into six accidents. Luckily, no one was ever injured.

But the family suffered terribly. Mary Kay and Eric argued over the appropriate discipline. Taylor, for one, struggled with feelings of love, hate and anger for his little brother.

"Truly, he did have his problems," Taylor says. "But he knew right from wrong. We were both raised in the same home. Toward the end, absolute hate, anger, resentment. You name it, I felt it. My goal was to minimize the damage he was doing to the family."

Finally, by last fall, the Liebermans had reached their breaking point. They packed Seth's belongings into garbage bags one evening and kicked him out.

That lasted one night. Seth came home crying the following morning. He told his parents he could not beat his addictions alone.

The family made him a deal. No drugs. No stealing. No more lies. And Seth needed to get into a treatment program. They made him sign a contract and posted it on the refrigerator.

For six or seven months, things seemed to go well. Seth became an outpatient at CAP of Downers Grove, a clinic where patients can use the controversial drug methadone to curb their cravings for heroin.

Seth helped his mom with her business. He earned his high school degree and, after Sept. 11, tried to get into the Army. Seth's entry was delayed after he tested positive for pot.

The turnaround didn't last. By November, he was abusing his prescription drugs and again stealing to feed his habit. By this point, Mary Kay was like a seasoned detective. She found credit cards and pharmacy receipts. She even had contacts at local stores calling her if Seth showed up with an excuse to get more prescription drugs.

Terrified, she called facility after facility to get help for her son. Nearly a half-dozen turned her down because Seth was on methadone - a treatment option that isn't accepted by many care providers.

Finally, Mary Kay thought she struck pay dirt with Hazelden, a renowned private treatment facility in Minnesota. The center demanded $15,800 up front. The expense didn't matter: Anything to save Seth.

He left for Minnesota in late November 2001. He told his parents, "I'm going to do this."

He lasted four days. Hazelden kicked him out for threatening someone with a spoon and, fearing he posed a threat to himself and others, transferred him to the mental ward of nearby Fairview Hospital.

His parents were furious. They argue Seth, who had a dual diagnosis because of his mental illness and addiction, was not given proper treatment. He had been placed in a youth facility in Hazelden rather than with adults who shared similar drug addictions.

Eric Lieberman flew there to get his son out of the mental ward.

"It was obvious when I got there no one could agree on anything," he said.

Hazelden officials, like those at other treatment centers, said they could not comment on Seth's case because of federal confidentiality laws.

The hospital was mandated by law to hold Seth in its mental ward for three days. The Liebermans spent $11,000 for Seth's four days of treatment.

His parents then got him into the Wellness Resource Center in Boca Raton, Fla., where Seth seemed to flourish for the month he was there.

His mother and father visited him in December 2001 during parents weekend. They went to the zoo, out to dinner and shopped. Seth also had a girlfriend, Camilla. He had met her at Hazelden, where she too, got tossed out of the program and was now seeking treatment at the Wellness Center.

"We had one of the greatest weekends we ever had with him," Eric said. "Our guy was back."

But four days after they returned home, they received a phone call. Seth again was being kicked out for being violent. This time, he became angry after someone accused him of being a bad father. This brief excursion cost the family $8,000.

Seth was sent to Columbia Hospital's mental ward in West Palm Beach, Fla. Eric again flew to be with his son. Seth's parents had two options - put him in another residential treatment center in Florida, this one costing $20,000 a month, or get him help back home.

They chose the latter, and Eric and Seth lived in a hotel in Florida for a week while Mary Kay searched for help in her own community. They didn't want Seth coming home until they had some sort of help in place. Seth came home Jan. 5.

Mary Kay had contacted experts at 15 different drug treatment programs. Mary Kay said someone at the DuPage County Health Department advised her to leave Seth on his own in Florida.

He didn't qualify for many of the in-patient programs, Mary Kay said, because he had been drug- free for 2 1/2 months. As the search continued, Seth attended support meetings. He found a sponsor, got a job and moved into his own apartment in West Chicago. He was trying.

Ten days before his death, Seth relapsed with Xanax, one of his prescription drugs. Police found him sleeping in his car on the side of the road. He failed field-sobriety tests and was taken to Central DuPage Hospital.

Instead of charging him with a crime, West Chicago police officer Chris Shackelford worked with the family to get Seth some help.

Seth did a two-day detox stint at the Start Here Addiction Rehabilitation and Education, or SHARE, program in Hoffman Estates. But he again was refused inpatient care because his relapse wasn't considered serious enough, Mary Kay said. SHARE officials declined to comment.

Experts in the field say admission policies vary greatly among programs.

"There is no best-established practice for treatment of heroin addiction," said Dr. Wilson Compton, a division director for the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Maryland. "Residential treatment is not the only effective level of care. It's all well and good to be clean and sober in a residential program, but you're going to come home eventually and you need a good network locally for that treatment to be successful."

For months, Seth had been trying to get an appointment with the DuPage County Health Department, which the Liebermans thought would be best suited for advising Seth what type of treatment might work.

With Shackelford's help, Seth got in to see someone in the department's crisis intervention unit on Feb. 15. Seth was prescribed antipsychotic medication, but was not given any treatment advice for his addiction, his parents said.

Seth died of a heroin overdose two days later.

"That's the evilness of this drug," his father said. "He knew he was loved. We found him every kind of support. There was no limitation to what he could have done with his life. But, he got caught in the clutches of that drug."

Seth's last photo

The call came shortly before 3 a.m. Feb. 17. Seth had overdosed hours earlier.

A coroner's inquest April 11 unveiled the details of Seth's final hours.

His new girlfriend, Camilla, told authorities she and Seth drove to Cicero around noon Feb. 16 and bought four $10 bags of heroin and returned. Each bag contained about one gram. They decided they were going to get "really messed up one more time," West Chicago police Detective Sgt. Lazaro Perez said.

Camilla told the officer she awoke around 1 a.m. and dialed 911 after finding Seth unresponsive.

An autopsy revealed he had swallowed heroin and Xanax. He also had a small amount of marijuana in his system. Tests showed Seth did not take a lethal amount of either of the drugs, but experts believe it was the combination that killed him. The coroner's jury ruled Seth's death accidental.

An estimated 300 people came to say goodbye. They swapped stories about the gregarious young man who loved to make people laugh. They tried to imitate his robot dance. Grown men cried. Young women told Mary Kay of the crushes they had on her son.

His parents buried him with a wooden chip he received from AA to mark a drug-free month. His daughter Hailey placed a stuffed animal similar to Seth's pet Rottweiler next to his body. A picture she drew of herself and Seth lay across his chest. "I luv u dad" was scribbled across the drawing.

At Seth's services, Eric Lieberman photographed his wife as she looked over the sea of flowers. In the background, her youngest son lay in an open coffin.

"Take drugs, and this could be the last photo with your mother, too," Eric warns others.

Searching for answers

Could Seth have been saved?

Perhaps, his family wonders, if he had just one problem he might be here today. Seth grappled with much more.

His parents realize much of the blame lies with their son. He rarely told the truth to those who were trying to help him - a neurologist, psychiatrist, family physician and substance abuse experts. For example, his psychiatrist never knew Seth had a drug problem. He manipulated the system, just as he did his parents.

"You can combine whatever psychosis he had with recreational drugs, prescribed drugs and the inability of the medical community to see the whole picture," Eric Lieberman says. "He presented problems no one could get their arms around."

They're angry that the treatment system can be so difficult to navigate and often, in their own personal experience, lacking compassion.

Today, the Liebermans are trying to get on with their lives. Mary Kay and Eric hope to help other parents by sharing Seth's story. Drug addiction, they say, can happen to any family.

Eric thinks back to the last time he and Seth found themselves at Pompano Beach - the scene of Eric's recurring nightmare. It was in January, right after Seth had been kicked out of the Wellness Center. The two talked for hours about Seth's problems and what his future held.

The father felt a sense of impending doom. His feeling proved prophetic. This time, he could not save Seth. And as hard as Mary Kay tried, she couldn't either.

Six weeks later, their nightmare came true.

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