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A journey to disaster; Painkillers have a deadly, almost unbreakable grip on addicts

Police figure that William Jakobi died first.

Then Victoria Eikenburg, and last, Adam Tafelski.

"I was called to the scene," said Niagara Falls Detective Capt. William M. Thomson. "It was horrible."

Tafelski, 22, was found collapsed in the hallway outside the second-floor bathroom.

Eikenburg, 25, was kneeling beside the bathtub.

One of her arms was wrapped around Jakobi, 27, who was lying in the tub in his underwear and T-shirt.

There was no sign of struggle, just dried blood around their noses -- the telltale sign of a drug overdose. Also at the scene were remnants of chewed fentanyl patches.

"Fentanyl patches are not designed to be chewed. They are supposed to be placed on the skin, and the medication is time-released," Thomson said.

For too many, this is how opioid addiction ends.

The explosion of prescription opioids -- particularly fentanyl, oxycodone and hydrocodone -- sent more than 2 million people to hospital emergency rooms across the nation from 2004 to 2009, with the number treated for oxycodone and hydrocodone now exceeding the number treated for cocaine in a single year.

Prescription opiods kill more people than cocaine, both locally and nationally.

There were 113 drug-related deaths in the Buffalo Niagara region in 2008, with 86 involving opioids, according to the most recent available data collected by the national Drug Abuse Warning Network.

That's 25 more drug-related deaths than the year before.

Jakobi, of Niagara Falls; Eikenburg, of the City of Tonawanda; and Tafelski, of North Tonawanda, are among those who died from prescription opioids.

Other fatalities include Zachary Crotty, 19, of Colden; Matt Rybinski, 17, of Lancaster; Eric Fischer, 19, of Amherst; Brandon Kopacz, 23, of Elma; and Jeffrey D. Schmidt, 19, of Niagara Falls.

For most of them, it was the end of a years-long battle with an addiction that often started with smoking pot, progressed to prescription opiates like hydrocodone and oxycodone, then spun out of control.

For others, like Alane Butler, 48, of Amherst, it was the end of an addiction that began with painkillers their doctors prescribed.

Butler suffered from lower back pain. The Lortabs her doctor prescribed helped for a while, but when the pain broke through, Butler supplemented her prescription with pills bought over the Internet.

Within a week after beginning outpatient detox, she died of a drug overdose.

>Three met in rehab

Jakobi, Eikenburg and Tafelski had all struggled with drug addiction for years. In fact, they met during their 28-day stays at a drug rehabilitation facility in Lewiston.

"He went to the rehab voluntarily at Mount St. Mary and could have left at anytime. I was surprised he stayed," Todd Tafelski said of his son, Adam. "We visited him in rehab."

Tafelski completed his stay a couple of weeks before Jakobi and Eikenburg. They were released May 29, 2009, according to police.

Eikenburg's family was thrilled to see her that day and happy that she seemed to be doing so well. She told her family that evening that she was going to the movies.

At some point, however, Eikenburg hooked up with Jakobi and Tafelski in Niagara Falls.

The three went from bar to bar, along with Jakobi's 43-year-old mother, Leah, according to police.

They started their evening at Culbert's, a tavern on Buffalo Avenue, then moved to Clancy's at 16th Street and Pine Avenue, then across the street to Club Joey, then back to Culbert's, according to police.

At the end of the night, Leah Jakobi went home, thinking her son would be moving back in with her. But he and his friends, after a brief stop at her house, ended up at Jakobi's grandmother's house, where the grandson had lived before entering rehab, according to police.

The next day, William Jakobi's grandmother, Barbara Eisenhardt, shouted up to the second floor for her grandson.

No answer.

The 69-year-old woman, on prescription pain medication -- fentanyl -- for a bad back, made her way up the stairs.

She was the first to find the bodies of her grandson and his friends.

Toxicology tests showed the three ingested fentanyl patches -- stolen from Eisenhardt's medicine cabinet. Other prescription drugs were also found.

Inside one of Tafelski's pants pockets were 11 hydrocodone tablets; in the pocket of blue jeans strewn on the floor in Jakobi's bedroom were seven small blue pills and two white pills in a sandwich bag. And inside Eikenburg's purse were two prescription bottles, one with ibuprofen and the other with Seroquel, an antidepressant.

"We believe Billy probably was the first to go. He had the highest amount of fentanyl in his system. Victoria had the second highest level, and Adam had the least," Thomson said.

The deaths shocked the families.

"We tried so many things," Todd Tafelski said, speaking at his home in Wheatfield about his son, Adam. Counseling. Drug therapy. Rehab.

"I spoke with him every day for two weeks [after he left rehab] to make sure he wasn't getting high," Tafelski said.

"I don't know how these kids are getting the drugs," Leah Jakobi said. "He just got out of rehab, and I was with my son." She declined to comment further.

Thomson said the scene was somewhat reminiscent of an incident a year before.

"We got a call at about 4:30 a.m. at a Cedar Avenue apartment building. Someone had discovered two kids passed out in a hallway," he said.

One survived. The other, Jeffrey D. Schmidt, 19, of Niagara Falls, did not.

"It was only because someone found them in time to save the one," Thomson said.

In that case, hydrocodone was involved, Thomson said.

>Easy access to opioids

All too often, the drugs that are killing people are coming from family medicine cabinets. Sometimes they are combined with the drugs obtained from doctors and drug dealers as well. Sometimes the prescription pills lead to even stronger addictions.

"When every medicine cabinet is like the corner of Hudson and Busti, we have a problem," said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

The extent of the problem is evidenced by the number of drugs turned in during prescription drop-offs organized to remove unwanted and unnecessary medications from people's homes.

Nine such drop-offs conducted in Western New York between October 2008 and November 2010 collected 652 pounds of controlled substances.

That included 124,050 individual doses of narcotics. Among them: 48,883 doses of hydrocodone, often prescribed as Lortabs; 16,393 doses of oxycodone, often prescribed as Percocet or OxyContin; and 2,287 doses of fentanyl.

The prevalance and easy access of these drugs, Sedita said, means the problem is everywhere, not just in the city neighborhoods where street drugs are typically found.

"We have a wider problem," Sedita said. "This no longer is an urban problem."

It is, as the death certificates show, a problem hitting suburban and rural areas as much as cities.

Zachary T. Crotty was from Colden, a rural community in southern Erie County.

His journey to disaster was typical. He smoked marijuana in middle school, then got introduced to Lortab and OxyContin in high school. By senior year, he had developed an expensive opiate habit that led him to heroin, a cheaper but more potent opiate, unlike the synthetic prescription pills.

He made attempts to get clean, even going to an addiction doctor who prescribed Suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addictions.

In the final weeks of his life, Zach's parents have learned, he was also seeing another doctor, a psychiatrist who prescribed anti-anxiety and depression medicines -- some of which the Crottys say Zach should not have been prescribed given that their son was on Suboxone. The psychiatrist declined to comment, citing the doctor/patient relationship.

Zach's journey ended Oct. 26, 2009. An autopsy determined that he died from an accidental overdose of methadone and that other prescribed drugs in his system may have contributed to his death.

It was a similar journey for Matt Rybinski, who was just 17 when the Lancaster teenager overdosed on heroin in 2009.

Like Zachary, Matt moved from marijuana to painkillers such as Lortab and OxyContin, then switched to heroin because it was a cheaper addiction to feed.

Brandon Kopacz, of Elma, also got hooked on OxyContin. The one-time star wrestler from Iroquois High School and recent University at Buffalo graduate fought hard, going cold turkey several times as he sought to free himself from his addiction. But he relapsed.

Brandon's mother, Debbie Kopacz, said one of her son's friends told her about Brandon's addiction.

"I approached [Brandon], and he said: 'Yes. I am addicted and I need help,' " Kopacz recalled.

The family did everything it could, Debbie Kopacz said, helping Brandon get therapy, and trying their best to provide whatever support he needed to get and stay clean.

"He would tell us we couldn't understand how hard this was for him," Debbie Kopacz said.

Though Brandon was 23 years old, the family rarely left him home alone during this time, and Debbie Kopacz and her husband, John, were only gone for a short time on Oct. 16.

"We were gone for a couple of hours," she said. "He had no car, no wallet Somebody brought him something. As much as he was trying to stay away [from drugs], somebody brought him something here. He took it. We found him dead on his bed."

Opioids also killed Eric Fischer, of East Amherst.

He was 19 when he overdosed on prescription pills last April.

An autopsy determined he died from a mix of drugs, including OxyContin, methadone and morphine.

Fischer's mother, Kolleen, said she's unable to talk about her son's death.

But the Crottys undoubtedly speak for all the families who lost their children, when they talk about Zachary, their youngest child and only son.

"I want my son back," Zach's mom, Suzanne Crotty, said, fighting back tears. "But it's not going to happen."

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

e-mail: sschulman@buffnews.com

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