‘He was like a ghost’: Sister of late heroin user speaks out

Sitting at her kitchen table one recent morning, Fathom Whiteley wrapped her hands around a cup of coffee, stared into it and cried.

She was overcome with remorse and guilt for cutting her younger brother out of her life months before he died of a heroin overdose.

“I gave up on him. I did,” she said, in between sobs. “And I wish I wouldn’t have, but I didn’t know what else to do.”

A few years ago, just before Christmas, Brenyer Haffner’s girlfriend told Whiteley she found methadone in his bedroom. Haffner was crushing it up into powder and snorting it. There was also an empty RedBull can and tinfoil — he was smoking it, too.

It was the first time the Haffner family realized he had a drug problem. Despite their efforts to get him into rehab, Haffner’s addiction only escalated. Methadone, a painkiller that is used to treat heroin addiction but can also be used to get high for newcomers, turned into an OxyContin problem. OxyContin then led to heroin.

“There were times when (Brenyer) was doing good, and he was staying off it,” Whiteley, 31, recalled. “And then you could see him get more distant, not talking as much, not doing everything he used to do, like hanging out with the family. And then we knew he was back into it again.”

Despite its geographical isolation, Juneau is not immune to the heroin epidemic sweeping large swaths of the nation, wreaking havoc not just urban centers but small mid-western farming communities and quiet coastal towns on the East Coast. The rate of heroin related overdose deaths has nearly quadrupled in the U.S. between 2002 and 2013, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. More than 8,200 people died in 2013.

Haffner, who grew up in Juneau the son of a retired AEL&P worker and a driver and the youngest of three children, stayed with his sister and her family at their home on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Mendenhall Valley for a time in 2012. He promised to get clean, but Whiteley still saw signs he was using. With a young son at home, she had no choice: She asked him to leave.

He moved back to his parents’ house, and they, too, struggled with what to do. They didn’t want to enable him, so when they found heroin in the home they kicked him out. It only lasted for a week, though, Whiteley said, because they didn’t want him sleeping in his car or on the streets. They suspected Haffner began keeping his stash in his car after that.

In the past six months, things got worse. Haffner drifted further and further away.

“He was like a ghost,” Whiteley said through tears. “Everything was in the dark, very secretive. My parents knew the coming and goings, but I don’t think they really knew the extreme of it.”

She saw him with heroin residue still in his nostrils about four months ago. That was her breaking point.

“I couldn’t stand to see him like that,” she said. “I had to cut him out of my life.”

On a Friday morning early last month, a 47-year-old man was driving to Fred Meyer and noticed a car parked on the side of Glacier Highway. He pulled over to see if it was broken down, peered through the window and saw a young man lying on the seat. When he knocked on the car window, the man didn’t respond. The passerby had his wife call 911.

Haffner’s sister knew he had been using heroin steadily for at least a year by smoking or snorting it. She and her family didn’t know, however, that he had also been injecting it with a needle until one was found with his body inside the car on Sept. 4. He was 26.

Police say there weren’t any obvious signs of foul play, but the family can’t help but wonder if something more nefarious happened. Did someone shoot him up with heroin and then leave him to die? Why was his body positioned the way it was when it was found? Who gave him the heroin?

“He wasn’t thinking he was going to die that night,” Whiteley said. “He was thinking he was going to come home. He left his Facebook open, he left his iTouch at home. There was no note saying, ‘I’m leaving,’ or anything like that. I think he was thinking he would get away with this one last time.”

As the family searches for answers and police continue to investigate, the Haffners are among a growing chorus of community members calling for action to address heroin addiction in the capital city. Six people, including Brenyer Haffner, have overdosed on heroin in Juneau since February.

That number in such a small time frame is unheard of, Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell said. Historically, drug overdoses were considered “fairly rare,” she said.

“We’ve always felt there were plenty of drug cases for us to work, but we weren’t seeing the overdoses,” she said.

Like hundreds of thousands of people across the country, Haffner used OxyContin, an opioid prescription pain killer that was being overprescribed, before he switched heroin. As prices for OxyContin soared and the pills reformulated by pharmaceutical companies in 2010 to make them harder to abuse, heroin emerged as a cheaper and easily available alternative.

Heroin use around the country skyrocketed, even among demographics that had historically seen low use, such as women, the privately insured and those with higher incomes, the CDC says. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates the number of people in the U.S. who used heroin doubled from 373,000 users in 2007 to 681,000 in 2013.

In Alaska, SAMHSA estimates less than 500 people on average used heroin within the past year between 2002 and 2005. That figure quadrupled to 2,000 for 2010-2013.

The Haffners felt helpless as they watched their loved one sink deeper into addiction. They begged him to get help; he always refused.

“It was always, ‘No, no, no, I’m fine, I can get help,’” Whiteley said.

“You can’t force somebody to (go to rehab), and unfortunately we don’t have that good of a system here, and he definitely didn’t want to leave town,” she added.

The family grappled with what to do about Haffner’s addiction in private, or “behind the scenes,” as Whiteley put it. Now that he’s gone, they’re taking a different approach. They’re now a part of a newly formed group of Juneau residents concerned about heroin addiction. At a group meeting last week, the family stood up and introduced themselves as the family of “Victim Number 4.”

While Brenyer Haffner’s and Fathom Whiteley’s parents declined to be interviewed for this article, they wanted their daughter to share their story with the public.

Being open about what happened to her brother is only way to prevent another heroin overdose death, Whiteley said.

“I just don’t want this to happen to any other families,” she said.

• This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting heroin addiction in Juneau. If you’d like to be a part of the series, contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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