In Northwest Indiana, a coroner tries to reach heroin addicts before they reach his morgue
By Michael Majchrowicz
When the coroner arrived, the parents were in hysterics. No, they told him, their son didn’t use hard drugs. Definitely not.
The smell hit Chuck Harris’ nostrils even before he opened the bedroom door. He stepped across the sea of dirty laundry, noted the Xbox controller on the bed and saw the body.
The man’s feet were still planted on the ground, his upper torso folded so that his face met the mattress. He had died standing up.
He was 21. He’d had just enough time, before the heroin stopped his heart, to stash the syringe inside a slit in the mattress.
No autopsy would be necessary.
The scene was one Harris knew well. In Northwest Indiana, heroin is becoming more pure, more accessible and more affordable. Over the past six years, 74 people in Porter County have died of heroin overdoses.
As the county’s coroner, Harris is usually called to the scenes. The bodies — bloated, dotted with track marks, foaming at the mouth — are often found in bedrooms. Sometimes a syringe is still clutched in a lifeless hand. Sometimes a needle is transfixed in a vein.
Harris has grown beyond weary of this never-ending cycle of sobbing families and grieving children and lives cut short. He wants it to stop.
He has to do more than just count the bodies.
* * *
He bursts through a back door of Porter Regional Hospital and heads to his morgue.
“AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY,” a sign reads. “BIOHAZARD.”
The odor of formaldehyde is overwhelming. Harris doesn’t even smell it anymore.
“My home away from home,” he says.
Here, laid across a cold steel table, is where they all end up. In the past year alone, heroin killed a dozen people in Porter County: A 48-year-old scrapbooking grandmother who read books about the Amish and cleaned her Methodist church; a 23-year-old rock guitarist who, as a surprise Christmas gift, had “Mom” tattooed inside a heart on his arm; a 28-year-old mother who left behind two sons and a Facebook post that said, “God is not finished with me yet.”
The coroner is responsible for determining cause and manner of death, performing autopsies when a cause is unclear and assisting law enforcement. Harris fills out reports that feed the statistics. He also speaks to school kids, talks freely to the media, serves on a new drug task force and wages a personal campaign to reduce the impact of heroin on Porter County.
“It’s really unheard of, what the coroner’s doing,” Porter County Sheriff Dave Reynolds said. “He’s looking from a whole different perspective. It’s powerful.”
Harris is 45. He likes scuba diving, motorcycles and his Xbox. His favorite game is called “Destiny,” in which his character, called the Guardian, tries to revive a civilization that has been nearly wiped out.
He’s a father of two girls and the brother of an addict. He can’t ignore the crisis because the bodies land at his doorstep. He has to tell other parents their child is dead. He doesn’t have the luxury of denial.
His wife, Dianna, said Harris wants to help shape a community that’s safe for their children.
“He goes above and beyond,” she said.
For years, nobody seemed to want to recognize the crisis. As the death certificates piled, the problem was largely ignored, Harris said. He called it the “Camelot mentality.” Surely, officials said, this is something that would discourage visitors and hurt businesses. Because who wants to visit a community with a heroin problem?
In Porter County, Harris said, you’re more likely to die of a heroin overdose than in a car accident.
In 2015, already a dozen people have overdosed on heroin. Two of them died. Less than a month ago, the coroner teamed with the sheriff’s department and other agencies to form a task force. Members of the force will visit each overdose site — fatal or not — and treat it as a criminal investigation, processing evidence to try to track down dealers. They’ll also more frequently prosecute those who supply fatal doses of the drug.
“The reason it’s successful is because of the strong working relationship we have,” Reynolds said of Harris. “He’s seen the dead bodies, he’s been at the scene.”
Right now in the county jail, there are 356 men and 52 women. Of those, the sheriff said, 98 percent of the men and all 52 women are addicted to drugs.
Porter County rests about an hour outside of Chicago, with three major interstates that snake through the area — the Heroin Highway, Harris and law enforcement call it. Dealers who operate in Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit supply to Porter County along the way.
By the end of 2014, every emergency response vehicle was stocked with Naloxone, which combats the effects of opiate-based drugs. In December, when Naloxone was introduced, Harris heard the judgments from friends and colleagues, at drinks and in passing.
“Why are you trying to save drug users?”
“Why would you want to give a person an antidote? Just let them die.”
“They’re going to be a burden on the system.”
“OK,” Harris would say, “what happens if it’s your child? What happens if it’s your mom? What happens if it’s your little brother? Your little sister?”
The antidote doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime, thanks to cooperation between the county government, a local pharmacy and the hospital. So far this year, it has saved five people.
When the epidemic becomes personal, Harris said, it sure doesn’t seem like a bad idea to give someone a second chance. The alternative is that their bodies are brought to the morgue in a zippered bag. Then to his table, with its drainage holes for fluids. Then to his freezer, which smells like freezer-burned chicken.
On most days, he can’t wait to escape.
When it’s warm enough, he climbs on his Harley Davidson Softail Blackline, parked out back behind the hospital. He doesn’t wear a helmet. He cranks up Guns N’ Roses, rolls the throttle and lets the wind hammer his face.
Harris wanted to be an optometrist.
Fresh out of college with a biology degree, he was sidetracked by an opportunity to co-own a funeral home. That didn’t work out, but pretty soon he was working in the coroner’s office. He became a licensed funeral director and later a medicolegal death investigator.
He ran for coroner in 2010 because he wanted to fight drug abuse and figured people would listen to a man with a title to his name.
There’s no such thing as a regular shift as a coroner. “I bring my work home a lot,” he said.
When he’s not at work or running back and forth to basketball and soccer and cross-country, the family tries to eat together. But death is always just a phone call away.
The girls know that when his cell phone rings at the table, somebody’s died. Time for dad to go to work.
“What happened?” they always ask.
“How old were they?”
Harris leaves out no detail. No matter how graphic, no matter how complicated, he answers each question.
“There is no line,” he said. “I want them to go into their teenage years with their eyes wide open, knowing exactly the dangers that are lurking.”
These conversations are never intended to disturb their daughters or scare them, Dianna said. She and her husband want them to know that it’s not like what you see on TV, that drug victims aren’t all homeless people on the street.
“These are your peers, these are teenagers,” she tells the girls. “This is happening right here in our community.”
Two years ago, Harris and his wife began administering drug tests to their daughters, who are 13 and 9.
He doesn’t expect a positive reading. He just knows that, years down the road, someone will offer them a joint or a couple of pills. When that happens, they can say their crazy dad makes them pee in a cup. To them, it’s normal, their parents said, and they’ve never objected.
“As much as parents like to hide their head in the sand, that experience is universal, and it’s going to happen to your child,” Harris said. “I want them to be able to have some tools to get them out of that situation.”
Sometimes he’ll arrive on the scene or peel back the cover on a body and recognize the woman behind the counter or the guy at the gas station.
Statistically, most of us know somebody in the grip of this kind of addiction, he said, whether we realize it or not. But for him, it’s more personal than that.
Harris was adopted as a baby and grew up without ever touching drugs. Not even a cigarette. Now, he’ll have the occasional celebratory cigar or glass of Cabernet. His wife has to press him to take Ibuprofen when he has a headache.
Fifteen years ago, he reconnected with his birth mother and met his younger half-brother, an addict for more than a decade. “He’s done probably every drug you can name,” Harris said.
He’s watched his brother get clean and relapse. He’s watched him walk into treatment centers and walk out. He’s watched his mother take money from her retirement account to pay for treatment and to feed the hope that one day, her younger son will be well.
“And it never seems to happen,” Harris said. “You watch them struggle, and they can’t keep their head above water.”
Because of his younger brother, Harris has developed an empathy that sets him apart from those who say these people are not worth saving. It’s because of his brother that he can relate to each overdose victim that comes through his morgue.
“Sometimes,” he said, “drugs are more important than your life.”
No time for longwinded lectures and watered-down after-school specials. Harris was talking to a classroom of students at Chesterton High School, and he had their attention.
If you wanted, he asked the 16- and 17-year-olds, how easy would it be to score a batch of heroin right now? The hands soared, one after another.
“Faster than having a pizza delivered,” one boy said.
Caught off guard, Harris froze. He didn’t want the students to know he was stunned, so he continued with his presentation — photos of purged vomit, track marks on the forehead, arms and feet.
The students couldn’t look away.
By the coroner’s estimates, 80 percent of them will steer clear of hard drugs. Another 10 percent are going to use no matter what. It’s that remaining 10 percent that Harris is fighting for, the ones who could go either way.
A white plastic container sat on the table, a human brain submerged in a half-gallon of formaldehyde. This was a brain on heroin, Harris said.
Who wanted a turn to hold it?
The students swarmed the front of the classroom. Excitement, chatter and nervous laughter erupted as they slipped on gloves.
When you hold someone’s brain in your hands, Harris said, it’s not something that you forget.
Students often write to him after he visits their schools.
“I don’t think people realize how ugly you look after you have a drug overdose and how sad it would make your family if they found you that way,” one girl wrote. “I can promise you that heroin will never ever touch me or my sister.”
The graphic presentation is just where it begins. Harris is working with law enforcement, health officials and families of heroin overdose victims to produce a television spot.
The spot will start production in April. Harris is visiting the county jail to film locals incarcerated because of heroin. He’s asking the families of heroin victims for their blessing to use graphic images. Harris will combine the photos, home video and desperate 911 calls.
“You just go from this beautiful young kid playing catch with their dad, to laying dead on the floor, foam coming out of their mouth,” he said.
One of the contributors to the public service announcement is former podiatrist Mann Spitler. He travels wherever he is invited, telling the story of his daughter, Manda.
On a March evening in 2002, Spitler pulled Manda’s submerged body from a bathtub in their home. The syringe she used floated beside her body, blood mixing with the water.
In the 911 call from that night, Spitler can be heard performing CPR. He speaks to the dispatcher in a level voice. But beneath the seeming calm is a strangled panic.
“My daughter has no pulse,” he says. “Drug overdose.”
“She’s 20,” he says, his voice breaking into sharp exhales as he continues CPR in vain.
“Come on, baby.”
* * *
The coroner is surrounded by as much death as life. Every day, Harris bears witness to all the ways human beings die. Some days it’s a heroin overdose. Other times it’s a drowning, or a heart attack, or a car crash, or a child tossed from a car on the interstate.
He sees things that cannot be unseen. Things no parent or loved one should see, so he sees it for them and then speaks the truth that needs to be heard. Often that means telling parents their child is never coming home.
These are never short conversations, he said, because they almost always entail sitting on the other end of the phone as families fall apart. No talking. Just listening to the sounds of a family unraveling through the cries and the shouts.
Other times are different. One family was almost relieved. The day had finally arrived, they told the coroner. Now they could stop waiting.
In his mind and his dreams, there are some images he can’t unsee.
The blonde high school girl sitting on her floor, a baggie of heroin beside her geography book and the scarf she used as a tourniquet.
The youngest overdose victim to come through his morgue — a 15-year-old boy.
In the morgue, alone with an overdose victim, he can feel the frustration mounting, and he sometimes can’t help but wonder: “What the hell were you thinking?”
Sometimes he has to disconnect. That’s when he gets on the Harley, with its black powdered engine and the skull imprint on the gas cap. Guns N’ Roses blares from the speaker as he roars away.
Welcome to the jungle
We take it day by day
If you want it, you’re gonna bleed
It’s the price to pay
He likes to head for the Indiana Dunes. He climbs off the bike, takes off his boots and socks, walks through the sand. He sits on a wall overlooking the lake and tries to forget. He doesn’t think about any of the dead who have arrived on his table. He doesn’t think about those yet to come.
Just the sounds of the waves crashing against the shore.