Garret Bethke’s last words to his mother came in a late-night text: “I’m OK, Mom.”
Hours later, he was dead of a heroin overdose at age 28.
“When people say, ‘It could never be my child,’ don’t believe it,” said his mother, Deb Noethe, a resident of St. Bonifacius in western Hennepin County.
Bethke’s death last October was one of 50 deaths in 2014 from heroin overdoses in Hennepin County. Six people died of heroin overdoses last year in Anoka County.
Meanwhile, nearly 5,200 people sought treatment for addiction to heroin and other opiates in the Twin Cities metro area.
Hoping to help others learn about the dangers of heroin, Noethe has started a foundation in honor of her son. Along with community leaders, she’s sponsoring a community forum on drug use on Thursday.
“I can’t save my son anymore,” Noethe said, tears running down her cheeks. “But there’s still hope for these other kids.”
Bright and athletic, a talented musician and artist, Bethke was using heroin for several years before his mother found out.
“Heroin use is easy to hide until it really progresses,” she said. “They can just say, ‘Oh, I’m tired.’ ” About four years ago, his girlfriend at the time persuaded Bethke to confess his drug use to his mother.
“I grew up in the ’70s. I’m not ignorant,” Noethe said. “But I couldn’t believe it. I thought heroin addicts were homeless, living under bridges. Middle- to upper-middle-class suburban kids are the face of heroin now. They’re the ones who are dying.”
The statistics bear her out. The typical heroin addict in Hennepin and Anoka counties is a white male between the ages of 18 and 34, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Around 2000, heroin and other opiates like codeine and OxyContin overtook cocaine as the most lethal drugs in the Twin Cities, said Carol Falkowski, a drug use researcher who for nearly 30 years has published an annual report on Twin Cities drug trends.
“It’s definitely a demographic of young, white males,” Falkowski said. “And it’s often affecting kids of affluence — kids who, if they steal $20 from Mom’s purse, she might not necessarily notice. It’s fueled by the use of prescription opiates, and it’s fueled by huge quantities of high-quality heroin coming from Mexico.”
Rick Weible, mayor of St. Bonifacius, said heroin use in the suburbs is a major concern of public officials. He said the forum is intended to look at different approaches to dealing with the issue.
“We want to dive down into the addiction part, not the criminal approach,” he said, adding that addicts need more than short-term detox: “Thirty days in a rehab center isn’t going to give them the life skills they’ve lost through years of addiction.”
On Noethe’s dining room table are hundreds of photos of her son that she’s been sorting through since his death. There he is in his Cub Scout uniform; there he is playing baseball, casting for fish, strumming his guitar.
When your child dies of drug use, “you question everything you’ve ever done, everything you’ve ever said,” Noethe said. “He was the easiest baby, the happiest kid.
“I struggled with my enabling,” she said. “But it’s your kid, so you go with your gut. I know if I had thrown him out, he would have been dead earlier.
“You don’t see old heroin addicts.”