CINCINNATI – With the Tri-State and the country under a heroin epidemic, the term OVI – operating a vehicle while intoxicated – has taken a whole new meaning.
Drivers OVI on heroin are putting themselves – even their children – and other drivers in danger on the roads. There have been 148 OVI arrests for heroin in just the city of Cincinnati this year (that's one every two days) and 41 heroin-related traffic accidents, according to police.
A local mom, Bobbie Cizek, knows the danger. She told WCPO she was one of the mothers driving high on heroin with her kids in the car.
"I've went into a public bathroom and used or used at home and got in the car and drove - I mean, I've done it a thousand times," she told WCPO.
That was before she got busted.
Cizek knows from her own experience how heroin users think and why that makes them especially dangerous drivers. It's all about getting a hit no matter if you're driving, no matter if your kids are with you.
"Every single time I took a risk and didn't realize how much of a risk I was taking, because I thought it was just like I'm talking to you now, like I thought I was good," she said.
There have been so many reports of Tri-State driver high on heroin in 2015 that you're sure to remember some of them. Two drivers became social media heroes after posting video of erratic drivers and how they acted to stop them.
In August, Sam Haynes took a cellphone video of a driver weaving on and off I-275 and managed to block her car and force her to pull over. She admitted to using heroin and meth, police said.
In September, Sean French followed a driver speeding dangerously in the emergency lane on I-71 until the man crashed into the median. With his cellphone camera recording, French discovered a 1-year-old girl in the back seat, then reached through the window and snatched the driver's keys. French proceeded to berate and curse the driver, Troy Morsch. A Highway Patrol trooper said heroin was suspected.
WARNING: The following video contains profanity.
Back in March, Felicia Saylor admitted shooting up her husband, Larry Messer, while he drove on I-74 with their two kids in the back seat. Messer passed out and the car ran off the highway. Saylor told police she jumped into the driver's seat to step on the brake, but that never happened, her sister told WCPO.
In October, police found Julie Bates unconscious behind the wheel – engine running - at the busy intersection of Martin Luther King and Reading, Her baby son was in the back. She had her foot on the brake.
WARNING: The following video contains profanity.
The Tri-State has also seen several deadly incidents with drivers using heroin this year.
In Northern Kentucky, Kenneth Hartsock is charged with killing four people when he crashed head-on into their car in Fort Wright. Hartsock was high on heroin, the prosecutor said.
In Indiana, there was the tragic story of Lacie Shelton, who overdosed in her car – with her kids in the back seat – in June. Rescuers revived her with Narcan. In October, police said the same thing -- overdosing in her car with her kids in the back seat -- happened again. Except this time, she couldn't be revived.
At the time Bobbie Cizek spoke with WCPO and recounted how police caught her, she was serving six months on house arrest for an endangering children charge. She received permission to meet for an interview away from her home.
Here's how she described how she got busted:
"I was in the front passenger seat, I was so sick, I had been at work all day, I was miserable, and so I tied off and shot in the front seat. I kind of turned to the side - I mean, my kids couldn't see me, not that that's any excuse at all - and the vice officer saw me in … the side view mirror of my car," she said.
At that moment her kids were taken away and she started a court-ordered drug treatment class trying to break the addiction that controlled her every hour.
"Wake up, do a shot. Afternoon comes, you start to come down. You need that boost of energy, what it was for me, Do another shot. Before bed, do another shot, so I don't wake up at 5 a.m. sick.
Craig McKee: Are you saying you were a functioning heroin addict?
Bobbie Cizek: "I felt like I was a functioning heroin addict. Hindsight is 20/20, and I know now absolutely not, absolutely no. I was endangering my kids every single time, everyone else who was on the road."
Some heroin addicts going through withdrawals say they're "sick." When they use heroin to feel better, they say they're "getting well." And for some the desire to get well overrides any sense of putting other people's lives in jeopardy - they get their next hit - sometimes free - shoot up to feel "normal" again and drive on without a thought.
Cizek says it's no surprise to her that we're hearing about more cases of addicts using and driving.
"I can pull into a gas station and two or three guys are at my car [saying], 'Hey you mess around? Hey, do you want a tester?' For free, just to try it because if it's good you'll start buying from them and that's how they're making they're money.
"You can be sick and have no money and drive St. Bernard and Mitchell [Avenue] in Cincinnati and get high all day for free."
Craig McKee: "How do you fight something like that?
Lt. Bruce Hoffbauer, Commander of the Cincinnati Police Traffic Section: "It is very difficult."
"The heroin user is so addicted to that drug they drive to wherever they buy their drug and they can't wait to get it in their system. They put it in their system and then they drive," said Hoffbauer, a 30-year veteran.
Cincinnati drivers are still four times more likely to get into an accident with a drunken driver than someone high on heroin, but heroin accidents are rising rapidly, according to Hoffbauer.
Part of the danger for Tri-State drivers, he says, is that the driver on heroin underestimates the power of the drug and how quickly it acts.
"No matter how little you ingest, it makes you impaired. It takes effect so quickly and so strongly they often pass out before they get to their destination," he said.
When drivers pass out from heroin, they're out cold and they don't react to the conditions, he noted. That's one of the ways police can tell when a driver in an accident has been using heroin.
"A lot of them are unconscious so they don't hit the brake or swerve and they typically run into something. They drift across the center line and they don't take evasive action to try to avoid a collision. You don't see any braking or skidding," Hoffbauer said.
The drivers who don't pass out are "very lethargic," he said. "With a drunken driver, you get the odor not only on their breath but on their person. You don't have that with heroin."
But officers usually find drug paraphernalia in the car, he said.
Hoffbauer doesn't equate using heroin with using alcohol, and he doesn't equate driving OVI with them, either.
"They are both dangerous when you're impaired. The difference is alcohol is a legal substance. You can operate a car with some alcohol without being impaired. Heroin is illegal, and once you ingest heroin, you are immediately impaired even at the smallest dose," Hoffbauer said.
For Cizek, "every day is a struggle," she said. And her struggle just got harder and longer.
Cizek tested positive for heroin during a random drug test.
"It's like this overwhelming sense of aloneness and sadness that, no matter what you do, you can't shake it," she said. "And the only way you can make it go away is to do another shot or do another line."
Craig McKee: "Because it's the new normal."
Bobbie Cizek: "It becomes the normal. That's exactly it."
Cizek wants the new normal to be a life without heroin. She says she's learning to take ownership for her addiction and learn more about her triggers.
Two days after she spoke with WCPO, she was sentenced to six months at Talbert House, which provides drug treatment and support.
Besides the 148 arrested for OVI on heroin in Cincinnati, many others got away. WCPO obtained the list of heroin calls for service. Those calls are up 172 percent over the last three years. On many occasions, the list shows, officers were dispatched but the driver was never found.
Craig McKee: "So it's almost like your officers are chasing ghosts sometimes to even combat the issue."
Lt. Hoffbauer: "They are. We find that with drug runs in general. I do think a large amount of these are going undetected and there's no arrest made on them."
Hoffbauer said officers are doing their best, following tips and working undercover to get heroin off our streets.
We asked Hoffbauer what drivers can do to protect themselves and others if they suspect someone is driving under the influence of heroin.
Aside from seeing someone hunched over in their car shooting up, Hoffbauer says watching for someone driving on heroin is the same as keeping an eye out for a drunken driver.
Look for erratic or slow driving.
Call 911 and report the vehicle and try to get the license plate number if you can safely.
Police will respond and hopefully stop the driver before there's a crash.
resources to help heroin users and their families.
SEE WCPO's complete coverage of Heroin in the Tri-State.