Family unable to free Dallas teen from 'cheese' heroin's grip

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by By DIANNE SOL?S / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:17 PM

Sergio Aviles kneels to pour dirt into a hole, onto a wooden box holding the ashes of his daughter Sarah. "You are safe now," he says. "You are home."

MELANIE BURFORD/DMN
A portrait is one of the few things Sergio Aviles has left of his daughter Sarah, who died of a 'cheese' heroin overdose in January at age 17.

Sarah's mother, Maria, weeps for the 17-year-old she saw as her best friend. Wind chimes play a gentle song. Their youngest, 8-year-old Jessica, places a yellow daisy on the grave.

But no one in this family is resting in peace.

Sergio and Maria Aviles live in flashbacks now, trying to understand Sarah's addiction to "cheese." It's a friendly name for a drug that's particularly deadly to children: heroin cut with Tylenol. It's cheap, diluted and highly addictive.

Authorities have linked cheese to the deaths of at least 32 young people in the Dallas area since 2005. Sarah was one of the latest. She died Jan. 12 at the Palomino Motel and Trailer Park in West Dallas.

A pretty girl with a heart-shaped face and a "thug life" tattoo, she died after two years of addiction, two stints in drug treatment, and fights with parents who tried to save her, achingly described in her journals.

Sarah wrote about a family fractured by divorce, a stunted education, and a childhood stolen by drugs. While her mother called her a goofball who made everyone laugh, Sarah called herself a gangbanger and homita, a homegirl.

Toward the end, as an exercise at her drug-treatment center, she wrote her own obituary:

"A 17-year-old Hispanic female was found died. She went to Emmit J. Conrad High School and was in the 9thgrade. Her name was Sarah Alejandra Aviles. Sarah was a beautiful young women but had problems hanging with the wrong crowd.

"A lot of her friends were gang banger and they sold drugs. She had a 21-year-old brother, and a 8-year-old baby sister, a loving, stugeling mother but a father that wasn't realy there."

Loved to act

Sarah Alejandra Aviles was born on March 25, 1991. She was the second child of Maria Sue Aviles, a 20-year-old Italian-American from Kentucky married three years to Sergio Aviles, an immigrant from central Mexico.

Maria learned Spanish and rituals of Roman Catholicism, though she was Baptist. Maria got her child's name from a Bible story about a beautiful woman. When Sergio saw his daughter, "he looked at her and fell in love," Maria says.

Sarah was a child who loved to act. One day, she'd be a teacher with students represented by scattered papers. Another day, she'd play the grocer, handing out cans of vegetables and sauces. She liked to help with housework - a trait that pleased her mother. She also liked to do landscaping work with her father, telling him how wonderful it was that he liked nature.

But by the age of 11, Sarah's life began to unravel. Her mother was jailed for cocaine possession, serving 154 days. Her parents separated, and Maria lost their house in Garland, unable to make the payments.

Maria explained to her daughter that the family wouldn't be together as it once was. "I can't make him want to be with me, Sarah," Maria remembers telling her. But Sarah took it hard. By the time she was in middle school, says best friend Jessica Perez, Sarah was experimenting with cocaine.

"...It hurted a lot. That's when I started doing a lot ofcrapand living on my own and growing up too fast."

Dealing drugs

On Sarah's 15th birthday, Jessica Perez gave birth to a little girl. Sarah's brother was the father.

Soon, Sarah met Franklin Guevara, who went by "Chino." She moved in with him and his parents. And she began dealing drugs on the streets, mixing drug concoctions for herself, according to her journal and her mother. Maria pleaded with Sarah to come back and live with her. Once, they even got into a fistfight.

But Maria's home was less than ideal. She lives in northeast Dallas' Five Points neighborhood. The area is the city's worst for violent crime, police say. And while it may look pleasant enough in daylight, there are signs of trouble. At Maria's complex sits a truck with a decal of Jess Malverde, the Mexican folk saint of the drug runner.

Sarah was enrolled three times in ninth grade at Conrad High School and Lake Highlands High School. Her parents said they tried to keep Sarah in school. They blame her truancy on her boyfriend. "She didn't like discipline," Maria says. "She wanted to be free."

And there were drugs. In "trap houses," slang for places where people use drugs.

"About me doing drugs I ain't gone lie. I know a relapse is bound to come. I used to just sit in a trap hustlen and getting high..."

'Cheese is heroin'

Drug-treatment centers in the Dallas area report that cheese is a leading addiction. The drug is snorted rather than injected, making it seem less dangerous. Hispanics are hit hardest, they say, especially Spanish-speaking families with immigrants.

"Everyone has to remember that cheese is heroin," says Lt. Andrew Acord of the Dallas Police Department's narcotics division.

Users don't realize how quickly they can get addicted to heroin, even heroin that's diluted, says Dr. Bryon Adinoff, a drug-abuse specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "These kids aren't even aware of it because they are taking it every day. , Then they find themselves going into withdrawal. , Everything hurts and everything aches and you just want to die.

"It is a very, very difficult drug to get away from. Once you get addicted, it has changed your brain."

Federal officials are monitoring the Dallas problem - an unusual one due to how young the victims are. The drug is particularly cheap, at $2 to $10 for a packet.

Sarah played Bonnie to Chino's Clyde, says Jessica Perez, who says she begged Sarah to "upgrade" her friends.

A losing battle

In September 2007, Sarah was arrested after a purse snatching in Garland. When juvenile court authorities realized she was an addict, they sent her to Nexus Recovery Center, a residential drug-treatment center for women and girls. Sarah spent much of the last of her 16th year there. She was aware she could relapse. And she missed Chino, who was in jail for theft.

"...I've been in treatment for 6 months and if I go back with him, I might put my self in danger and in a relapse situation again. I am so scared that I'll go back to the same old [expletive] and do drugs ..."

Sarah lost that battle. Shortly before her 17th birthday, she confessed she took cheese heroin while at Nexus, according to her mother and her journal. Maria went to the probation officer, asking that a complaint be filed with the state, she said. Nexus officials wouldn't confirm that Sarah was a patient.

But Nexus Executive Director Becca Crowell warned: "We have seen an increase in each of the last few years of girls using cheese as the primary drug that they use."

Sarah's journals describe how as she turned 17, her friends at Nexus serenaded her. The staff brought a cake. A week later, she was released. Sarah was eager to renew her relationship with her little sister, Jessica. She feared her JJ would turn out like her.

"I love my baby sis so [expletive] much I would try my hardest to make her happy and forgive me through all this time I've been away. I thank god for her and I pray that she stays strong and doesn't feel lonely in this world. I love my JJ."

Despite her troubles, Sarah's journals are full of decals of Tinker Bell and tiaras, and script in hot pink. Little hearts. And a prayer:

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. ... lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. , "

'I got you, girl'

"Hey, little mama, what do you need?" says a drug dealer.

"I just got jacked, man," Sarah responds.

"I got you, girl. I got you," he says.

So began Sarah's final descent.

She had returned to Nexus for one more stay but ran away after two months. Her parents took turns trying to care for her. Sergio took Sarah on his landscaping jobs. Maria tried to replace her cravings with sweets. But Sarah craved heroin.

After one failed drug buy, Sarah met a dealer who invited her to a house in a West Dallas neighborhood known as Los Altos. Following her was a protective Jessica Perez, who recounted what happened.

"He pulled out a big old mirror and they did a couple of lines," she says. "They exchanged numbers."

Sarah called him again and again, her family believes.

Maria last saw Sarah on the afternoon of Jan. 11, when she told her she was going to take the train to eat. Maria remembers her pony-tailed daughter, waving goodbye.

At 2:30 in the morning on Jan. 12, Maria awoke, believing something was wrong with her daughter. Sarah wasn't home. She called her cellphone, leaving messages. "Where are you at, baby?"

In his separate apartment, Sergio awoke with a similar sense that something was not right.

Sarah was found dead that morning. Her rosary, a bracelet with images of Catholic saints, a ring and her phone were never found, though when Maria called the phone days later, a man answered.

She lay in a coma for hours, according to the Dallas County medical examiner, who ruled the death an overdose of heroin and cocaine.

Sarah's birthday is next week. She would have been 18.

Burying Sarah

At the cemetery, as Sarah's ashes are buried, her family remembers her. And the wind strums the chimes.

"Hopefully, it won't happen to others, other kids," Maria says.

"We will always love her," Sergio says. "God will forgive the things she did and the bad things we did."

"Amen."

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