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

They waited as long as they could before they left without him.

"Don't bother going out tonight," Kathy O'Keefe had told Brett, her 18-year-old son, the night before their family vacation. It was March of last year. Brett's older brother, Kyle, was home from college for spring break and his birthday, and the family was planning a quick trip to San Antonio from their home in Flower Mound.

"Please just stay home," she told Brett. "You can pack, you can kick back, spend time with Kyle."

Brett got home around 10 that night from his gig at a frozen yogurt place. But he insisted on going right back out. "If I'm not home tonight, I'll be home first thing in the morning," he told Kathy.

"Fine," she told him. "But we're leaving at 9 a.m., whether or not you're here."

Nine came and went with no sign of him. So did 10. They called and texted, with no response. At 11, they finally left, one short of an otherwise perfectly cliché family getaway: Brett's dad, Ben, driving, Mom buried in her crossword puzzle, Kyle under the spell of a movie glowing from his computer. They were annoyed but not totally surprised. It wasn't the first time Brett hadn't made it home from a long night with friends, and the knot of vague worry and anger in Kathy's stomach was by now a familiar one.

At 1 p.m., Kathy's cell phone rang. It was Brett, just waking up at the hotel where he'd spent the night. He had no car and no driver's license. His friends were gone. He was stuck.

"Turn around," he pleaded. But Kathy said no. They were already in Hillsboro, more than two and a half hours from home. "We gave you plenty of opportunities," she told him.

She hung up and the family continued south, snaking through the packed lanes of holiday traffic for hours. They finally made it to the hotel, a funky place just off the River Walk, sometime in the late afternoon. Brett called one more time and told his parents he was home. "I'm going to have a couple people over tonight," he said.

"That's fine," his dad told him. "Just don't make a mess."

"Make wise decisions," Kathy added. The three went out to dinner and, soon after, to bed.

The next morning, Kathy showered first, then Ben. Kyle was in last when Kathy's cell phone rang again.

"I'm with Lewisville hospital," the woman on the other end said. "Has anyone called you yet?"

"No," Kathy said.

"I'm sorry to say we did all we could," the woman began. She kept talking, but Kathy knew what she was going to say without really listening. Ben walked into the room, saw his wife's face, and stopped cold.

"Brett's dead," she mouthed to him.

The woman from the hospital was saying something about the medical examiner. He needed to call them, give them numbers, information of some kind.

"You'll have to talk to my husband," Kathy said, and handed the phone to Ben. He started to take notes. Kathy packed. The suitcases were together by the time Ben hung up with the hospital. Kyle was getting out of the shower when they told him. He kicked the walls in a fury, then curled up in the fetal position on the sofa bed where he'd slept the night before.

As they climbed back into their car, the O'Keefes still didn't know many details about their son's death, just that he had taken too much of something, passed out and never woken up. They didn't even know where Brett was when he died. Later, the family would learn that although he had been pronounced dead at Medical Center of Lewisville, the paramedics had been called to their house by Brett's two friends, who fled after calling 911. The EMTs found Brett curled up on his mother's side of the bed.

First, though, the drive. Five hours if they didn't hit much traffic. It was a freezing day, so Kathy and Ben didn't want to open a window to smoke. But they needed to smoke. They drove, silently lighting one cigarette after another, the windows up, the air growing thick and stale around them.

On May 17, more than a year after Brett O'Keefe's death, John Bales, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, made an announcement that rattled the inboxes of reporters all over North Texas: A federal grand jury had indicted 17 people for drug crimes in and around Flower Mound. Twelve of them, all but one 21 years old or younger, were accused of conspiring to distribute more than 100 grams of heroin on the suburb's quiet streets, with five others charged with gun and lesser drug crimes. Ten of the 17 were Flower Mound High School grads, either class of 2009, like Brett, or just a year younger. It was a "heroin ring," the feds declared, and it was responsible for the drugs that killed at least three teenagers: O'Keefe; Harold Renz, 17, who died six days before him; and Justin Rodriguez, 19, who died last July, four months later.

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan