Heroin addiction is skyrocketing nationwide, but the largest increase of overdose deaths according to the CDC is right here, in the Midwest. It’s a devastating reality hundreds of metro-Detroit families face.
Like so many, Macomb County mom Lori Vernier was blindsided. She never saw it coming. Now, she’s desperate to know what happened the night her son died and determined to do what she can to help prevent other families from experiencing her pain.
18-year-old Matthew Vernier was many things... "The love of my life," says his mother Lori Vernier.
He went to church, played sports and "he was known for helping others, he was smart," says Vernier.
After graduating from high school in 2015, the St. Clair Shores teen planned to attend Macomb Community College in the fall. One thing Matthew was not, his mother says adamantly, is an addict.
"There was no signs of him ever using heroin. He was against it! I’m not gonna believe it. If he tried it that night, it was probably his first time," says Vernier.
That night, August 12th 2015, investigators say Matthew and two childhood friends - Joshua Conley and Andrew Justice - went to Detroit to buy and use heroin together. Matthew never made it home.
"Detectives came rapping on my door at like 7 in the morning, telling me that my son is dead. I’m like, well, he was with Andy! I called his mother and said what happened? Matthew was with Andy!"
Matthew was found dead in the back seat of his jeep, in a CVS parking lot in Sterling Heights all alone.
After a woman called 911 to report seeing two men drag a body through the drug store parking lot then put it in a vehicle. The medical examiner found both heroin and fentanyl in his system, declaring cause of death a drug overdose.
"It's the worst parents nightmare," says Vernier.
It’s a heartbreak Macomb County Prosecuting attorney Eric Smith is seeing all too often.
"In the old days it was bad kids from the wrong side of the tracks, now it encompasses all levels of society," says Smith.
As heroin use skyrockets in suburban neighborhoods across the country, Macomb County is dealing with it’s own epidemic. From 2010 – 2012 Macomb had 202 heroin overdose deaths, more than any other county in the state according to a recent health department report.
And the death toll continues to rise.
"Literally over a 100% in the last 4 years! It's unbelievable ..." says Smith.
Many deaths, like Matthew Vernier’s, could have been prevented.
"If either one of his friends had made a phone call to 911 or driven him to the hospital instead of dropping him off at his car, there's a good chance that Matthew Vernier would be alive right now," says Smith.
While the State of Michigan does have a “Good Samaritan” law offering legal protection to those who call 911 in the case of a drug overdose, it isn't a crime to stand by and do nothing.
Joshua Conley and Andrew Justice are currently facing misdemeanor charges for moving a dead body.
"It's completely disgusting. I feel like it's pretty much a legal murder," says Lori Vernier.
Prosecutor Eric Smith says, legally, that's all he can do. The state is currently considering a “Duty to Act" bill which would require a bystander to call for help when someone is in medical distress.
"And I'm in favor of all of that. It's the lowest thing you have to do, pick up the phone and call 911," says Smith.
While Lori Vernier searches for answers and hopes for change, she has a message to share.
"What I want to say to kids: Don't trust your friends. Don't mess with drugs. Because in the long run, they're going to cover themselves and the only one that's going to be left behind is your friends and family and a torn mother... a torn mother."
Macomb County is working to cut off the heroin epidemic at the roots through education and prevention programs. Families Against Narcotics is one of those programs, you can find resource and info on their website. http://www.familiesagainstnarcotics.org/