August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

Except for the setting—a smoky barroom in late afternoon—the family gathering in Windber, Pa., last May had all the trappings of a wake. One by one, over beer and chicken wings, relatives swapped memories of the late Bobby Wingard, a young man who, until drug addiction rewrote his life as a tragedy, had always taken a special pride in playing the family clown. “He would do the stupidest things to make you laugh,” says his aunt Susan Nolan, 27. “He was such a ham.”

But the Bobby Wingard who took his own life on Dec. 15 bore little resemblance to the comic character described in family lore. By then Wingard, 20, once a promising hockey player, had traded sports for drugs. Unshakably addicted to a relatively new and extremely powerful prescription painkiller called OxyContin, he did everything he could to maintain his supply, even stealing from the people he loved most. One after another the members of his tight-knit clan told him to straighten out his life. To that end, Wingard, who bought the drug on the street, had no shortage of plans. Most recently it was to join the Army. But when he was arrested for breaking into a home last winter, all hope that he might be accepted by the military vanished.

Finally, unemployed, broke and dependent on higher and higher doses of OxyContin just to make it through the day, Wingard left a message on his aunt’s answering machine on Dec. 11. “Hi, Sue,” he said. “This is Bob. I miss everybody. Hope you have a nice Christmas, and I’ll see you the next time I can.” But four days later he climbed a wooded hill and shot himself in the head with a stolen 44 Magnum handgun. “It wasn’t my son who did what he did,” says his grief-stricken mother, Vicki Nolan, 39, a home-maker. “It was the drug.”

When it was introduced five years ago, OxyContin was hailed by some as a wonder drug. A derivative of morphine, it is now used by roughly 1 million people to fend off chronic pain caused by injury or diseases such as cancer. The drug’s special time-release mechanism means a patient need take only one pill every 12 hours, a vast improvement for seriously ill patients who formerly had to take other pain medicines as often as six times a day. Furthermore, its maker, Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn., touted OxyContin as safer and less addictive than other drugs used to fight pain. “There are people in severe pain whose lives have been totally transformed by this drug,” says J. David Haddox, 48, Purdue’s senior medical director for health policy. But addicts soon learned how to put the drug to another use. “When the tablet is crushed and snorted, or dissolved and injected, the pill’s time-release properties are destroyed, allowing users to experience at once a potentially lethal dose of narcotic intended to last a whole day. Junkies say that only heroin is more addictive and, at current street prices, a $25 a day OxyContin habit can rapidly escalate to $500.

Word spread quickly, and today the color-coded tablets, commonly called Oxys or OCs, are cutting a ferocious path of crime, addiction and suffering through communities across the country. In Virginia last month, a 43-year-old man pleaded guilty to murder charges after injecting a lethal dose of the drug into the arm of a friend. In Florida, a doctor has been charged with first-degree murder for prescribing OxyContin pills to a patient who later overdosed. (The doctor will plead not guilty, says his lawyer.) More than two dozen pharmacies around Boston have been robbed of the drug, part of a nationwide wave of thefts that has prompted some drugstores and pain centers to post “no Oxy” signs in windows. And nationwide, the death toll from apparent overdoses is mounting: Coroners in the six states where OxyContin abuse is highest have reported 291 deaths involving the pill’s active ingredient.

For a taste of the drug’s destructive powers, one need only look at Wingard’s hometown of Windber, Pa., built above coal mines 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. Trouble on a Saturday night there once meant joyriding down Graham Avenue. No more. Last spring, county police busted 12 people suspected of dealing OxyContin and other drugs, and another suspect was apprehended in late July—all in a town with a population of 4,500. There have been three Oxy-related drugstore robberies in the surrounding counties, and regulars at a local tavern grimly refer to the bar’s pay phone as the “OxyContin Hotline,” since trafficking in the drug now seems to be the phone’s most frequent use. Worse, OxyContin has been blamed for half a dozen deaths in the county in the past year.

In response, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has created a multi-agency task force and adopted an OxyContin master plan, the first such effort ever mounted to stem the illegal trafficking of a prescription drug. “In 28 years in the field I’ve never seen another drug leave such a big footprint,” says Dennis Johnson, 54, of the DEA’s western Pennsylvania office. Neil Capretto, 45, medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa., estimates that his facilities have treated 1,000 addicts from the western part of the state. He adds grimly, “We have an epidemic.”

Colleen Carpenter explains why. “You feel it moving through every part of your body,” says the recovering addict from nearby Johnstown, Pa., “like a jolt of pure pleasure.” But in the end, she adds, it causes an equal amount of pain. Having done two months of rehab and remained sober for close to a year, Carpenter, 27, an administrative assistant, reports that the drug has ravaged her circle of friends, turning once-decent kids—and in some cases, their parents—into desperados with an inverted sense of morality. The father of one friend, says Carpenter, forced his 21-year-old daughter to deal OxyContin by threatening to take away her car. One regular user she knew died from an overdose after taking OxyContin at a party at a motel.

Carpenter’s own three-year dependence began in 1996 when a friend who knew she sometimes took pain pills recreationally offered her the latest kick. Then unemployed and living with her boyfriend, Carpenter was quickly hooked on OxyContin. Within months, the high was replaced by a burning need to find more drugs before the stomach cramps, fever and vomiting of withdrawal set in. Carpenter and her boyfriend, Dennis Sabo, now 29, spent nearly all his pay from building railway cars to buy Oxy on the street, at $50 for a single 80-milligram tablet and $200 per appointment to see a local doctor who prescribed the drug without asking many questions.

Only when she was arrested while delivering drugs to a friend on March 8, 1999, did Carpenter (who is still on probation) wake up to her plight. While she and Sabo went through rehab, she temporarily put the pair’s son Layne, now 4, in foster care. “We’re starting to put our lives back together,” says Carpenter, as Layne plays at her feet. “I’m not losing my son again.”

Experts on addiction are somewhat mystified as to why OxyContin abuse has exploded in areas like western Pennsylvania. One explanation is that drugs like heroin are not easily available there. Another is that local coal mining has produced a high rate of disease and injury and, with it, greater dependence on drugs in general. Indeed, Andrew Clark, a roofer raised in Windber, doesn’t deny that his father, who worked in the mines for 19 years, and his mother, who suffered from arthritis and anxiety, never seriously discouraged him from getting high. “Prescription drugs and alcohol—it was accepted in my family,” he says.

But Clark, 34, takes full credit for introducing OxyContin to the mix. After returning home from Maryland last year to escape a bad romance, he moved into a housing project on a bluff overlooking a tidy grid of streets and church steeples. “I had a little money and some of the people up there said, ‘Do you want some Oxys?’ ” At first Clark snorted the drug until somebody showed him how to inject it. Marijuana, cocaine and other prescription pills were all available from local dealers, he says. But OxyContin was the first pick, so much so that neighbors bartered anything of value, including food stamps, to get their hands on it.

Meanwhile Clark found a way to subsidize his own Oxy use by joining in the illegal drug trade. After realizing that his mother, homemaker Mary Baxendale, had been prescribed OxyContin for arthritis pain in her back, Clark began siphoning off her pills, selling some and keeping others for his own use. “I manipulated her,” he admits. Evicted from public housing for nonpayment of his $48 rent, Clark moved in with Baxendale, where mother and son became addicted together. In a matter of months Mary Baxendale went from savoring walks in the woods near the family’s rented hilltop farm outside Windber to spending most of her day sprawled on a couch, lost in a chemical oblivion.

Clark managed to escape OxyContin addiction by checking himself into rehab, but Mary Baxendale died of heart failure at age 56 on Feb. 20, four days after falling into a coma. Some family members feel her time had simply come, and an autopsy report showed blood levels of OxyContin higher than therapeutic doses but lower than toxic levels. Clark, however, once again employed and living with his son and stepfather, is convinced his mother overdosed on OxyContin. “She died so I could live,” he says. “That’s the bottom line, because if she hadn’t died, I would still be sticking needles in my arm.” (Her death is under investigation, according to Somerset County coroner Wallace Miller.)

Under pressure from the federal government, Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, have recently taken several measures designed to curb illegal use of the drug. They include rewriting safety warnings and instructions to emphasize its proper use. Purdue, which has aggressively marketed its $1 billion-a-year bestseller through a network of 1,000 sales representatives, has also begun distributing tamper-resistant prescription-writing pads with safety features designed to make forgery impossible. But Cambria County, Pa., chief detective Rod Miller is among many law enforcement officers who have called on the pharmaceutical company to reformulate the medicine so that addicts can no longer inject or snort it. Purdue says it is working on it, but that it could take years.

In the meantime Bobby Wingard’s mother will continue to sound the alarm. “A lot of his friends’ mothers have called, and I tell them, ‘Don’t leave your kids alone,’ ” says Nolan, who shares a home with her fiancé, auto mechanic Jeff Yost, 40. “Handcuff them to you, do what you have to do to keep them away from this stuff.”

The result of a high school romance, Wingard was the oldest of her three children. Bobby spent much of his early life at the hockey rink and traveled the state playing for local teams. “That boy was fine on the ice, a real show-off,” says Nolan. But in 1996 Wingard, then 16, suffered an emotional setback with the death of his maternal grandmother, June Wingard, who had financially supported his hockey-playing and knitted socks to match each of his uniforms. Bobby’s interest in the sport seemed to die with her, and at about the same time his mother discovered that he was smoking pot. Still, Nolan wasn’t terribly concerned. “I figured all kids went through that stage,” she says. Then she noticed that sedatives prescribed to help control her heart rate (Nolan had surgery to repair holes in her heart in 1991) were missing. Bobby came home visibly high one evening, and Nolan confronted him. “Mom, I took the pills,” he said, contrite. “I promise, I promise. I won’t do it anymore.” It was an empty vow. When OxyContin became available on the street, Wingard’s affable personality seemed to change. “He was just hateful when he was coming down off of those pills,” says Nolan’s sister Trisha Gvozdich, 31, a dietitian at a retirement home. Then Wingard started selling off his collection of hockey memorabilia, including trading cards signed by heroes Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux, to finance his habit. It wasn’t long before he was robbing relatives of cash, jewelry, a VCR.

Wingard tried to wean himself from OxyContin, going through rehab three times only to fall back on old friends and bad habits. He told an aunt that when he was high on Oxy he could picture himself as a star hockey player, the center of attention. The reality, of course, was altogether different. Vicki Nolan says she lived in her pajamas for a month after the dreadful morning she learned that her son had killed himself without leaving a note. She says now with deep regret, “I thought one day he’d come around.”

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