ERLANGER, Ky. – With a thick, rubber band wrapped tightly around his arm, Austin Botts plunges the thin, sharp needle into his pulsating vein.
Immediately after he snaps the band off of his heroin-laced vein, the drug races through his bloodstream. It’s euphoria, it’s sensory overload and beyond any pleasure he’s ever known.
It is love at first high, at the age of 16. He is a junior in high school.
And like countless addicts, Botts, 25, would spend the next seven years chasing that first-time high, ultimately handcuffed to the elusive heroin mistress that would make him into a self-described monster.
“It's like the most amazing feeling you could ever imagine mixed with an orgasm and times that by a thousand. I mean, it's the most comforting and relaxing feeling, honestly, it's really indescribable,” he said.
“Heroin became the love of my life.”
Until, that is, he met another heroin addict. Now, he and Amber Woosley, 31, are engaged to be married and in addition to sharing their hopes for the future, they share a dark past.
Heroin has made a vicious and deadly comeback in the last two years in the Tri-State, leading to record-breaking overdose deaths in Ohio and Kentucky. State and local officials are calling it a siege that knows no economic, social or political bounds.
Enter Botts: A suburban-raised kid with two ‘perfect’ parents, from Florence, Ky., who never wanted for anything.
“Life was good as a kid,” he said. “[But] when the monster gets ahold of you, you turn into one of the most demented people you’d want to meet.”
Deaths from heroin overdoses have skyrocketed in Kentucky and Ohio. Up by 37 percent in 2012 compared to 2011 in Ohio and up by more than 20 percent in Kentucky.
Botts and Woosley have personally known about 30 people who have fatally overdosed in the last few years, including 10 just in the past year, they said.
‘A Perfect Storm’
The escalating use of pain pills – and then laws to restrict their use – has lead to the resurgence of heroin, which is trafficked from Mexico to Kentucky, officials have said. For many pain pill addicts, heroin is easier and cheaper to acquire on the streets.
“Northern Kentucky is really the epicenter of the heroin epidemic as far as Kentucky is concerned,” said Bill Mark, director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force.
“We are where we are in 2014, because the prescription drug abuse, that we experienced in the 1990s and 2000s, created a very large number of individuals who were dependent on opiates,” Mark said.
The first inkling heroin was back on the streets in force came in 2002, he said. Organized criminal groups were able to move large quantities of heroin into cities and towns in the U.S. filling the void left by doctors who had once filled prescriptions for highly addictive pain narcotics like oxycodone.
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Mark said. “I think what we did with eradicating prescription drugs was by no means a bad thing, but the way that heroin has stepped in and filled the void was an unintended circumstance.”
But its consequences are being felt in emergency rooms, funeral homes, county jails and social service offices.
Consider these stark Kentucky statistics:
· In 2003, the Strike Force investigated 10 heroin cases and seized 64 grams. By 2013, there were 190 cases and 544 grams seized, with a street value of about $75,000.
· In 2008, police officers arrested about 250 people for either possession of or trafficking in heroin. In 2012, that number jumped to 1,300 arrests—a 500 percent increase.
· Sixty percent of Kentucky’s heroin prosecutions in 2011 were in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, which makes up less than 8½ percent of the state’s population, according to “N.Ky.’s Collective Response to the Heroin Epidemic: Our Plan for Recovery”.
· People suffering overdoses admitted to the emergency rooms increased from 252 in 2011 to 545 in 2013, according to St. Elizabeth Healthcare.
“People are literally dying every day,” Mark said.
“At least with oxycodone, there was quality control. If someone was going to snort 80 milligrams of oxycodone, they knew what to expect,’’ he added. “With heroin, literally, you don’t know what you’re going to get.
“You put your life in your hands every time you put that needle in your arm.”
Basic Supply and Demand
The most common types of heroin circulating in this region are black tar and brown, known on the street as ‘dog food’. About 90 percent of the region’s heroin is brown and imported from Mexico—both equally as deadly, Mark said.
The interstate system makes the distribution of narcotics easier for organizations, like the Sinaloa Mexican Cartel, to set up shop in urban cores like Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
“It makes it easier to move these narcotics, same as it is to move any other commodity,” Mark said.
The drug-trafficking trade is driven by the demand from the consumer, he continued. And the consumers in this region demand heroin.
One gram of heroin is the size of a sugar packet and costs about $200 on the street. In the height of his addiction, Botts shot up more than three grams a day.
From Marijuana To Heroin
But it didn’t start that way. He traces the addiction back to his 12th birthday before it ended with a cop’s gun pointed to his head and a needle in his arm, in a parking lot in Covington.
One friend stole marijuana from his uncle and brought it to the party. Botts said the pre-teens raided his family’s liquor cabinet and got drunk and high. Then came selling his prescription Adderall to classmates. It was easy money he used to get his fix: Pokémon cards.
He was caught at school and expelled. He was homeschooled for a year.
By the time he turned 16, he turned to cocaine and then started taking Oxycontin, or “green monsters.”
And his opiate addiction was born. It didn’t take long for the pills to become scare, while his addiction grew to a $210 a-day-habit.
Then he got his hands on heroin. In between classes in his junior year in high school, he shot up in the school's bathroom.
“Austin was a senior in high school when we found out,” said is mom, Deborah Botts. “He had confided in his cousin, and she alerted us. She could have said, ‘He has cancer’, and I think the feeling would have been the same. Those are heartbreaking words to hear.”
Strung out, he managed to graduate from high school in 2007, after buying heroin that day with money he had stolen from his parents.
Botts’ high-school heroin use, while rare, is not unheard of. In 2011, 7.7 percent of 12th-graders in Kentucky reported using heroin at least once, compared to the U.S.’s 2.7 percent.
Eventually, he would spend $400 a day getting high on heroin. And he would do almost anything to feed the monster.
While Botts admitted to ripping off more than 75 dealers and breaking into dozens of homes, the biggest regret was the estimated $5,000 he stole from his own family.
“I lied through my teeth. I was a master-manipulator. I had to be,” he said. “I kept trying to be the actor running the show… telling everyone, ‘I’m OK’, [to] get what I needed.”
He was not himself, his mom remembered.
“It becomes all-consuming,” she said. “He was distant, moody, and at times, he was sullen. A lot of the time though, he was just angry. Angry at us, at the world, and I'm sure angry at himself.”
Near the end, he had dropped 75 pounds and was living on beef jerky and Red Bull.
PHOTO: One gram of heroin is the size of a sugar packet and costs between $150-250. While most use about 1/10 to 1/25 a gram at a time, Austin Botts was using at least 1/2 gram at a time and at his prime was shooting up more than three grams a day. Jessica Noll | WCPO
On a muggy summer afternoon, Botts and his buddy make their way to Over-The-Rhine, to a somewhat-sketchy alleyway.
“Hey, white boy!” the unfamiliar dealer bellows down from an apartment window a few stories up.
“You want dog food?”
“Yep…” Botts nods.
The man chucks a first-time freebie, wrapped in cellophane out of a window and into Bott’s unsteady palm. The neatly packed brown heroin is bound securely with a piece of tape, complete with a phone number written on it.
The two head back to Northern Kentucky and take the first exit off of Interstate 71/75, unable to wait for their long-awaited euphoria.
They slide into a parking spot at Willie’s Sports Café in Covington.
Botts rips into the packet, tying the rubber band around his right arm. Watching and waiting for the vein to bulge.
There it is.
He holds the hypodermic needle in his left hand, beginning to stick it into the vein. But before he can thrust the plunger down, he feels a cold, metal pressure against his temple.
It’s a cop. There’s a gun to his head.
PHOTO: Raising money when he was 14 years old for his Pokémon habit, Austin Botts said he took every pill in his house he could get his hands on to school for quick cash from classmates. Soon thereafter, he too became addicted to pills. Provided
It was July 14, 2010. He was 21. It was also the last day he would ever shoot up.
Botts calls the officer who stopped him that day, an ‘angel in disguise.’
Police told Botts, the heroin he was just seconds away from injecting into his arm, was likely laced with fentanyl, a mixture that is almost always an immediate death sentence—nearly 10-times more powerful than codeine, said Mark.
“An alarming trend we’ve seen recently is where heroin traffickers will combine the prescription drug fentanyl with heroin to make it more potent, and that’s been a direct cause of many fatal overdoses,” he said.
GRAPHIC: Over the years, the nation’s trends came in decade-long bursts of addiction. From opiates back to heroin, drugs have trended over each decade from the 1800s through 2014. Woosley’s and Botts’ own evolution of addiction syncs with national trends of the defining drug for the times, including pain pills, marijuana, eventually leading to heroin. Graphic by Bill Bullock | WCPO
That arrest, while it may have been his last bout with heroin, wasn’t the true turning point, he said.
While out of jail on a family visit, he bent down to scratch his leg and exposed his clunky ankle monitor.
He peered up to see tears running down his mom’s cheeks.
“Look at where you are. I just want my son back,” she said to him.
From Prom Queen To Junkie
As Botts was keeping clean, Woosley was in the final years of her addiction—which started with a high school party.
The self-proclaimed ‘social butterfly,’ who grew up in an Erlanger, Ky., suburb, was a cheerleader, volleyball player and a member of student council.
As a 14-year-old high school freshman she started to go to parties.
“I wanted to be fun and entertaining. I wanted to be how they were being,” Woosley remembered.
So she drank. Then she started smoking marijuana. Before long, that became her weekend routine—getting drunk and high at parties and not remembering much of it.
The member of the Drug-Free Club, was voted ‘Most Spirited’ and graduated in 2000.
Her life was looking up. She got a Volkswagen Beetle, her dream car, received a modeling contract, and enrolled at Northern Kentucky University in the fall.
That’s where she met a guy: A drug dealer by hobby, who introduced her to heroin.
“I didn’t care about anything else,” including finishing college, she said.
PHOTO: From cheerleader and prom queen to party-girl on the weekends, Amber Woosley’s high school days were a blur of alcohol and marijuana, until she went to college and met the love of her life: heroin.
“I was in love,” Woosley said of her affair with the opiate.
Over the course of her addiction, she stole nearly $15,000 in cash and possessions from her family, including her grandma’s heirloom jewelry. She also overdosed once and come close to overdosing more times than she could count.
By New Year’s Eve 2009 —without any insurance and thus unable to pay for treatment—she wrote her mom a ‘goodbye’ note, swallowed 50 Tylenol pills and chased it with two grams of heroin. She was 84-pounds and living on Swedish Fish candy and chocolate frosted donuts.
“Something kept me alive that day,” she said.
After a stint in the intensive care unit and the psychiatric unit, she was sent to jail for a month. After her release, she moved into The Brighton Center, a recovery center for women, for 16 months.
But her recovery was short lived.
It started with a drink.
And within weeks, she was back on heroin.
She returned to the Brighton Center—this time for 15 months. Seven months into her recovery, her mom died of cancer. Being in the center likely kept her clean during that unbearably painful time, she said.
“Had I not been there, I would’ve been buried with my mom,” Woosley said of one of many times that she said she should have been dead—recalling being chased by dealers with guns, and shooting up in a hospital bed while recovering from an infection caused by a dirty needle.
On Feb. 4, 2011, she graduated from the Brighton Center. She’s been clean since, she said.
One Day At A Time
But the road to recovery isn’t a flat stretch. It’s hilly and bumpy and lengthy.
Botts found solace not only in treatment, but also in Woosley.
“My mom had just passed away and he saw that I was heartbroken,” she said. “He made me laugh like I had never laughed before. He held me up when it felt like me world was crumbling.”
PHOTO: While they chalk up half their lives to addiction, Amber Woosley and Austin Botts, who are planning their September wedding, say they have the rest of their lives to make up for ruining one part of it. Jessica Noll | WCPO
Botts has been clean for seven years; Woosley, since 2011.
The couple has been together for three years.
“I need somebody who’s been through what I’ve been through,” Botts said. “She’s my crutch.”
The couple believes that their “darkest past is their greatest asset.”
“[I’ve] had the chance to dance with the devil and fly with the angels in the same lifetime,” he said.
In addition to telling their tale of addiction and recovery at town hall meetings throughout Northern Kentucky, the pair also visits schools and talks with students about the risk of drug use.
They plan to wed in September. Their first dance as a married couple will be to the song, “Lucky”.
“Every day is a blessing. Every day is beautiful,” Botts said.
“How come we are the lucky ones?”
PHOTO: Thanks to the Grateful Life Center, Austin Botts has been clean for seven years and attributing her sober status to the Brighton Center, Amber Woosley has been off of heroin, or any other drug, since 2011. Jessica Noll | WCPO
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community.
Resources For Addicts & Their Loved Ones
Northern Kentuckians are three-times as likely to know someone who has experienced problems from heroin use.
If you know someone or think you know someone struggling with an addiction, find resources below to get assistance for you and your loved one.
N.Ky. Hates Heroin-
741 Central Ave, Newport, KY 41071
Transitions- (Includes Droege House, WRAP and Grateful Life Center—)
WRAP—Women’s Residential Addiction Program
For women's residential intake information, call (859) 491.2090
1629 Madison Ave, Covington, KY 41011
Grateful Life Center- Pleasure Isle Dr, Erlanger, KY 41017
925 5th Ave., Dayton, KY 41074
For 24-hour access to crisis assessment/management, phone consultation, and brief treatment:
Northern Kentucky residents:
(859) 331-3292 or (877) 331-3292 toll-free
For Crisis/Emergency Mental Health Services (all ages):
859-331-3292 or 877-331-3292 toll-free
NKY Methadone Clinic
1717 Madison Ave.
Covington, KY 41011