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Westminster coach talks about son's overdose death, dangers of addiction

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:42 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 21, 2014

FULTON — Jim Marshall walked through the door of his Jefferson City home one fall evening in 2011 and sensed something had changed.

But that was before he even saw his son, Cody, passed out on the living room floor, leaning against the couch.

His son was behaving strangely for months, asking for odd amounts of money at all hours of the day and night and lashing out in anger when the answer was "no." Then there were the petty thefts and his parents' missing checkbooks. 

Cody was diagnosed with depression and prescribed Zoloft two months before his overdose, so his father immediately thought drugs were the reason his son was unconscious.

He called 911, tapping into his training as a coach and educator of 30 years. He started CPR, but his son had been without oxygen too long — he was already brain-dead.

Cody died two days later. According to toxicology reports, he had overdosed on heroin, K2 (a synthetic marijuana) and Xanax. He was 20 years old.

Marshall's personal experience with heroin didn't end with the death of his son. A little more than a year after Cody's death, Christine Ricaña, a former member of Marshall's track team at Jefferson City High School where he previously coached, also died of a heroin overdose.

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Jim Marshall has been talking about his son's death as a way of coping with the grief, and helping to raise awareness of the heroin epidemic in mid-Misssouri.

State data shows the heroin and meth abuse surged in Boone County between 2011 and 2012.

In Columbia, rising heroin use is symptomatic of a problem that has ravaged a number of Missouri communities. In May 2012, Jeff Rukstad, a vice detective with the Columbia Police Department who specializes in narcotics, recalled more heroin overdoses in the past year than in any other in recent memory.



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"She was very fun-loving, down-to-earth, didn't judge and tried to see the positives," Clifton Ricaña, her brother, said. "She was very bright, but her friends did drugs and there were some family issues."

The number of heroin overdoses hit an all-time high in Missouri in 2011, the year Cody died. That year, 245 people died of heroin overdose; last year, the number was 187, said Ryan Hobart, communications director for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Missouri has the seventh-highest mortality rate from drug overdose in the U.S., and heroin is a major contributor to these deaths.

On March 2, two people were found dead of heroin overdoses in Jefferson City, according to a report from KMIZ/ABC. And on March 3, Arnold Police responded to two calls for alleged heroin overdoses within two hours of each other, according to a report from the Jefferson County Leader. 

Marshall spoke at William Woods University on Wednesday night to raise awareness of the dangers of gateway drugs, such as prescription pills and marijuana, and the high rate of overdoses in Missouri.

"If there's any one fact I hope people leave with, I hope it's the fact that taking pills that were not prescribed to you is abuse," he said.

Although the number of heroin overdoses has dropped since 2011, Marshall stresses the importance of educating kids early about the dangers of self-medicating.

"It's a behavioral thing," Marshall said. "We never start with maximum amounts. We just start doing a little bit more."

Heather Harlan, prevention specialist at Phoenix Programs Inc. in Columbia, echoed Marshall and said awareness is the first step toward reducing cases of heroin addiction.

"No one starts with heroin," she said. "Even people who are involved with prescription drug abuse don't start with prescription drugs. They are playing with other chemicals that are readily available."

The way to spot the signs of addiction is to notice changes in the person's trends, appearance, hygiene and mood as well as difficulties staying awake or remaining calm, Harlan said. She encouraged people who notice behavioral changes in those close to them to reach out and become informed.

"Most people who suffer with substance issues are self-medicating for mental health issues, depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), bipolar disorder, anxiety, that kind of thing," she said.

Cody, who began self-medicating with Xanax by supposedly buying it from friends, was no exception. From the time he was 3 years old, he took pills daily to control his behavior and to help him focus in school.

"We protect them from suffering," Marshall said. "When they get to be 20 and they haven't learned how to deal with failure, they haven't learned how to deal with suffering, because we've done all these things for them, what are they running to to cope with these issues? Prescription pills and heroin."

He began discussing his son's death with the public three months after his loss in order to help bring purpose to his personal tragedy.

"It definitely is my means of coping," he said. "It gives purpose to the whole ordeal, and from a Christian standpoint, what did God do with his only son? He gave him. I'm not trying to replicate that but to give my loss and my son's life purpose now."

As Marshall gives voice to his grief by warning others of the dangers of drugs, he said he fears Cody's death gave his friends more reasons to keep getting high.

"A lot of my son's friends came to his funeral and visitation high, and I was really exasperated and frustrated and angry," he said. "How dare you come into this situation (high) when he died high?

"But it's how they cope," he said. "My son's death was only going to be another excuse to cope that way."

Some of the very friends who attended Cody's funeral while high were the same friends who got high with him the day he overdosed, his father said. Because they feared getting arrested for their drug use, they left him at home alone instead of taking him to the hospital.

"When you understand what addiction is and you understand the senses and the thought process of an addict, you also understand that my son was an addict," Marshall said. "He would have gone and done the same thing to whoever, so even if (his friends) weren't there that day, it would have been somebody else."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.


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