KENT COUNTY, Mich. (WOOD) - Who is dying from heroin in the suburbs of West Michigan?
That's been the focus of a Target 8 investigation, following several overdose deaths in recent months.
On Tuesday, 24 Hour News 8 reported that in Kent County alone, heroin killed 19 people in 2012 -- more than any other single drug.
In 2011, heroin overdoses killed 14 people. They were to blame for the deaths of nine people in 2010, seven people in 2009, 12 people in 2008 and five people in 2007.
Among those who died in 2012, the youngest was 17 and the oldest was 55. But the ages of those overdosing is trending younger.
Tim Wernstrom was one of five young men, all in their twenties, who fatally overdosed on heroin in Kent County last year.
Wernstrom's and his two siblings were raised in a loving home on Dean Lake off 4 Mile Road in Northeast Kent County.
"It was a battle dealing with worrying about getting called in the middle of the night, worrying about his health, worrying about what he was doing," Wernstrom said. "Trying to get him to redirect himself to what I knew he could be."
Jim Wernstrom said his son was 16 years old when he started dabbling in drugs.
But why Tim Wernstrom headed down that path, and whether his family could have done anything differently to try to prevent it, has wracked Jim Wernstrom's brain.
"I'm not smart enough to figure out the factors," Jim Werstrom said. "If I was smart enough, maybe I could have done something better to keep form happening what happened. He had loving parents. He had a loving brother and sister. We paid attention to his activities."
But that attention wasn't enough to stop Tim's slow plunge from marijuana use to harder drugs to one of the hardest there is - heroin.
That plunge into heroin use is the devastating journey that more and more young people in West Michigan are taking, and it's killing them in record numbers.
Kent County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cohle told Target 8 why people need to pay attention to the numbers.
"It's a relatively young demographic that's using heroin and it's lethal potential is great," Cohle said.
Cohle also said the old stereotype of heroin as a drug that's largely confined to the inner city is far from reality today. In fact, Cohle guessed that more of today's fatal heroin overdoses actually occur in suburban Grand Rapids.
"I think the typical user of heroin is a little more upscale economically," Cohle said.
Of the five young, Kent County men who fatally overdosed on heroin in 2012, only one of them lived in what the city considers its "urban core."
Of all 19 deaths, about half occurred outside Grand Rapids' urban core in places like Grand Rapids Township, Plainfield Township, Northeast Grand Rapids, Comstock Park and Wyoming.
The vast majority of victims were men of diverse races, levels of education and jobs.
Among the dead were a sales account manager with a Bachelor's degree, a building contractor, a restaurant manager, a daycare provider, an artist, a factory worker and a student.
Only one victim was described as homeless.
But Tim Wernstrom was never without a home.
"You know, some people said I should have thrown him out," Jim Wernstrom said. "Never could do it."
Even when Jim Wernstrom and his wife sold the family home two years ago and moved to Florida, he bought a condo for his son so he could be close to his restaurant job.
Jim Wernstrom said he came back every couple weeks to check on his son, who'd been in and out of jail and rehab, but managed to stay clean for periods of time.
"He had that inner struggle," Jim Wernstrom said. "I don't think he wanted to be an addict."
But that struggle was over last November when police knocked on Jim Wernstrom's door in Florida.
"It was like 3:30 in the morning and my wife said, 'Don't bail him out,' and I said, 'This time we don't have to worry about it,'" Jim Wernstrom recalled through tears.
At 25 years old, Tim Wernstrom had lost his fight against heroin. He overdosed in the condo his dad hoped would help him stay on his feet.
By sharing his son's story, the Jim Wernstrom said he hopes other West Michigan families will recognize that heroin is isn't confined to the inner city, but is being abused in the suburbs as well.
"I talked to my wife (about doing an interview) and we said, ‘Will it do any good?'" Jim Wernstrom said. "Help one kid? One family? That was kind of our thought process."
On Friday morning on 24 Hour News 8 Daybreak, a representative from The Salvation Army's Turning Point Program will be on hand to discuss heroin use. She will explain why people get addicted to heroin, why it's so hard to stop and what people can do to get help.
If you have questions that you'd like her to answer, send them to ReportIt@woodtv.com .
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