Bad trip

Page 3 of 10

The photos, and the occasional call or letter from a friend of Milan's, are what they have to remember their son by. There is no gravestone; his body was cremated, and his brothers spread the ashes on a mountaintop in Silverton, Colorado.

Unlike many parents, the Malinas knew about their son's drug use--most of it, anyway. Milan had spoken with his parents about trying marijuana, and they knew he was experimenting with other substances.

"Kids, they make up their own patchwork of beliefs," George Malina says, and sighs. "He said he liked [marijuana], that this other kid's dad had been smoking it for 40 years, it didn't cause any harm. I said, 'It's illegal. If nothing else harms you, that will.'"

By the time he was 16, Milan was struggling in school. According to police records, he got in a series of scrapes with the law, incidents from stealing a bottle of rum to smoking dope in a hotel room. But he managed to hide most of it from his parents, and they wrote off the school problems to a learning disability. Gradually, however, they came to suspect that he had a substance-abuse problem. "When he was using, he slept all the time," Joanne recalls. "He couldn't get anything done." The seriousness was brought home in the spring of 1997, after Milan moved to Santa Barbara, California, to be near a girlfriend. Shortly afterward, he and the girlfriend landed in the Santa Barbara County jail for driving while intoxicated, forging a Valium prescription, and trying to write a check from a stolen checkbook.

Practicing a bit of tough love, George Malina refused to bail his son out for several days. When Milan did get out, his father insisted he come home and get clean. Milan moved in with his big brother David, who was helping his parents keep an eye on his younger brother. George Malina sent his son to a private drug counselor and made him submit to a weekly urine screen.

"The next few months we had with him, when I look back, they were like a gift from God," Malina recalls. Milan was off the drugs. He began to gain weight, to work out again, to think about the future. He enrolled in a community college, determined to study art. They thought he had turned the corner.

"We didn't understand about relapse," he says.
On a Sunday morning five days after his 20th birthday, Milan's family gathered for church. "David came in by himself," Malina recalls. "I asked him, 'Where's Milan? And he said, 'Milan didn't come home last night.'"

After church, George and Joanne went shopping. When they got home at about 2 p.m., a message was waiting from David.

"He said 'Beep me,'" George recalls. "So I did. He said, 'Dad, you need to come to the hospital.' I said, 'How come?' He said, 'You just need to come.' I said, 'Tell me.' And he said, 'Milan's dead.'"

"I've known Milan since the ninth grade," says Chris Cooper. "We had a mutual friend. It really was sort of a drug friendship. Our mutual friend was the one who got Milan doing cocaine."

Cooper is speaking from the Grayson County jail, where he and most of the other 29 federal defendants are doing time as they await sentencing. It's easy to see why teachers, school administrators, parole officers, and rehab directors alike describe him--a handsome 20-year-old, personable and funny, with coffee-and-cream skin and soft brown eyes--as a "born leader."

He looks out of place in this setting, a depressing, squat building of cement and cinder blocks covered by peeling paint. The jail lacks the most rudimentary comforts; the exercise area is a 10-by-10 room with a hole in the ceiling, and inmates are not allowed to receive books. It's a tough life for a 20-year-old who attended good schools (Highland Park, Plano), plays violin, and pines for Italian language tapes (also not allowed). A natural storyteller, Cooper writes poetry and prose; he hopes someday to work in a creative field, maybe journalism, maybe film, maybe advertising. On a recent April morning he regaled visitors with tales of jailhouse life, wearing a gee-whiz, slightly startled look, like an amateur anthropologist suddenly transported to Samoa. Certainly he is no saint. He was once suspended for a high school prank. By the time he was a junior, he was failing in school, mostly because of absences caused by drugs. He dropped out and was arrested for marijuana possession.

Unlike many present the night Malina died, he's happy to talk about it all: Malina's death, heroin, his role, his addiction. Though they ran in different circles, the pair crossed paths at weekend parties, which is how they hooked up the night Malina died. That evening's big bash was held at the home of a newly minted Plano Senior High grad, and police reports state that the entertainment, for 60 or more underage visitors, included "a large amount of alcoholic beverages," marijuana, Xanax, and Valium--the latter two available for purchase from a fellow partygoer for $3 a pill. (The host told police his mother was present the entire night, in her bedroom.)

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Christine Biederman