In Suburban Dallas, Loosening "Cheese" Heroin's Deadly Grip

Another round of deaths have another round of North Texas parents trying to wipe out a deadly combination of heroin and cold medicine.

"Please don't do a big media feeding frenzy on 'cheese,'" Maxwell pleads in an email. "That will only start it up again."


Driving through Flower Mound feels like passing from one clump of high-end strip malls to another, with gated communities dropped in between. There are few signs of life outside of big-box stores and planned developments. Pedestrians are rare. But it's also lined with broad, smooth, white sidewalks, trim lawns and, here and there, lovely copses of long-limbed trees. At night, the drive into Dallas from Flower Mound can be startlingly beautiful, with the lights from dozens of Waffle Houses and storage units studding the Interstate 35 corridor like plastic jewels.

Inside one of those jewels, a friend of Brett O'Keefe's, whom we'll call Jen, brushes strands of hair from her face, blinking back tears. She is 20, slim, birdlike and very pretty in a black strapless tank. Bright streaks line her hair. As she speaks — precisely, pausing to pick her words with care — she seems much sadder and older than she should, folded up in a chair in the corner of a Flower Mound Starbucks. Her iced coffee melts into a caramel puddle as her glass sweats on the table, forgotten. "We didn't start out with bad intentions," she says.

Kathy O'Keefe, whose son Brett died at age 18 from a heroin overdose. "This is an old problem that just keeps coming up," she says. "People need to understand, it's not a problem with the rich or the poor. It's all the way across the board. It's everywhere."
Taryn Walker
Kathy O'Keefe, whose son Brett died at age 18 from a heroin overdose. "This is an old problem that just keeps coming up," she says. "People need to understand, it's not a problem with the rich or the poor. It's all the way across the board. It's everywhere."
Pastor Rob Reid of Rockpointe Church was a teenage junkie during the heroin epidemic in Plano in the 1990s. "Nobody got the whole Plano thing until three years later," he says. "People looked back and said, 'Wow, 18 kids have died, this is a real problem.'"
Taryn Walker
Pastor Rob Reid of Rockpointe Church was a teenage junkie during the heroin epidemic in Plano in the 1990s. "Nobody got the whole Plano thing until three years later," he says. "People looked back and said, 'Wow, 18 kids have died, this is a real problem.'"

Jen, her boyfriend and Brett formed a tight-knit trio. They did everything together during the second half of high school, she says, including drinking and drugs. But all that didn't turn into a problem, she says, until later, after everyone had graduated.

"All throughout high school I had been planning to go to college," Jen says. "I was going to go to a good college and my parents were going to pay for it. Somewhere in my senior year, I started experimenting with stuff. The first was marijuana. People say it's the gateway, and I guess it was for me. And that just led to other curiosities."

Soon, they were eating pills of ecstasy at 18-and-over clubs in Dallas.

"That was a little phase," she says. "I didn't have any problems really with that."

After ecstasy came Xanax, known in their circle as "bars." "I don't know why that didn't blow up in the news," Jen says. "Everyone was on them. People you wouldn't expect. You would just go to a party and pop one, because they make you feel drunk. That was everyone's excuse, that you could take them at a party, then go home and blow zeros if you get pulled over."

Jen was barred out the first time she snorted cheese, at some guy's house the winter she turned 19. "So when he asked me if I wanted to do it, of course I said yes," she says, "because I was already messed up. So I don't even remember if I liked it or not. I ended up falling asleep."

It quickly became the regular drug diet among her friends. "That was bad, because when people were getting into heroin, they'd mix that with their Xanax. Cheese was supposed to be heroin and sleeping pills, but people would not even use sleeping pills and just crush bars in it instead. That's a deathly combination right there. That's a quick way to die."

Brett was angry with Jen when she started using, she says, because he'd recently gotten clean. "At first he was doing heroin and I stopped talking to him for a while, like, 'That's gross, why would you ever do that to yourself?'" she explains. "Then I started doing it and then he got mad and was like, 'Why would you do that to yourself?' Because at that point he was off of it. Then it got to a point where we were doing it together."

Jen and Brett were together in Dallas the first time she shot heroin instead of snorting it. "We were at this guy's house," she says, "and I had no idea who he was. I was kind of scared to be there at first, because it was a part of Dallas where the neighborhoods — people would walk the streets, but you'd have to know each other. Or there'd be altercations, like, if you messed with the wrong person."

"We were already messed up on bars," she goes on. "It was really laid back. ... If you were sober, you totally wouldn't be chilling there, though. This place was sketchy." A friend shot it and then asked Jen, "Do you wanna do it?"

"Any other day, I'd be like, 'No, that's horrible,'" Jen says. "Why would you shoot heroin? That's like the worst thing you could do. But I was already messed up on bars."

She and Brett both liked to mix Xanax and heroin, she says, "which is bad." After that day, they started shooting heroin much more often than they snorted cheese. "It was more direct," she explains. "More potent." That was the only time they shot up in Dallas. "A lot of the time we just did it at people's houses. Parents would be at work. Wherever we were chilling was where we did it."

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