Heroin addiction robs Lancaster County family of son

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Jan 8, 2015 4:00 AM

(Mount Joy) -- Anthony Perez, born on April 27th, 1990, nearly always had two parents in his life - Stacy Emminger and his stepfather Stephen Mercado. You know the quintessential American middle class story? He lived it, as Stacy notes while she flips through pictures from his childhood.

"I think that's the day that Steve decided he was gonna make a snow pile and throw him in it. And he went in and Steve couldn't find him to pull him out. It was kinda funny, he wasn't happy."

He played soccer until around middle school, then started working on cars for fun. He loved to get his hands dirty rebuilding engines. And like many teens, he got a job in a restaurant to have some money to spend. But then, life took a right turn.


Photo by Stacy Emminger

"When he was 15, I got a call from one of his teachers that said he was falling asleep in class a lot, so I searched his room, and that was when I found empty baggies of cocaine."

The drug addiction crisis has robbed families of sons, daughters, partners, and friends. The numbers tell how wide the problem reaches, but not how deep. Stacy had seen signs of marijuana and alcohol use before, but this she knew, was serious. A battle was underway to get Anthony clean.

"I never expected my life to be like this," she says.

This starts with grounding your son and taking his video games away.

But this then turns into taking the door off his room so he doesn't have any privacy.

This also means calling the police on your own son, after he steals your engagement ring.

Stephen, who divorced from Stacy in 2007, says the fighting and bickering because of Anthony just got to be too much.

"Kinda tore us apart, to be honest. I think that was one of the biggest things between us. We just couldn't continue to function as a family," says Mercado.


Photo by Stacy Emminger

Anthony Perez, right, with his stepfather, Stephen Mercado. Anthony played soccer up until middle school, says his mom Stacy Emminger.

So at this point, Anthony and his drug use had broken up his mother's marriage, caused unending stress, and then, he up-ended all that his mother thought she knew.

"Heroin never crossed my mind. Never crossed my mind. He hated needles, he hated even getting a shot, he hated getting his blood work at the doctor, I just couldn't imagine he would be sticking a needle in himself, I guess."

He was using heroin. It was October of 2012. Anthony, his girlfriend Jessica, and their newborn son Gage moved in with Stacy in her three bedroom house on a main road in Mount Joy. And every day, she would witness a routine.

"They would get up, one or the other of them would get up and leave, and that was to get heroin. They needed it first thing in the morning."

Then, they could start their day. Anthony had tried rehab, so had Jessica, but the same day he got home from rehab, Stacy says he was back to using heroin. That was a moment of revelation for Stacy - at least when Jessica returned, she tried to stay clean for a month.

"I was always prepared for calls in the middle of the night, knock at my door. Kind of preparing myself, not that you can ever be prepared, but trying to numb myself sort of and seperate from him so that when it did happen, which it was going to, that it would be easier to deal with. Which is a ridiculous idea, but it's what you do."

Stacy had fought and battled Anthony for years - she thinks at least eight. She says that's how powerful drugs, and particularly heroin, can be. A kid who doesn't even like needles can become addicted to a drug that's strongest when needles are used.

"I became hopeless, I think especially once he started the heroin, but even before that, I prepared myself that he was either gonna die from a drug overdose or be killed by a drug dealer."

Every night, Anthony ran through a routine.

"He came in, and he would always say good night to me, even though I was already asleep and he would be waking me up, he would always say good night to me.

"So he came in, I was sleeping on the couch, and he gave me his paycheck, so that he could cash it in the morning. And he said good night, I love you, and he went upstairs to bed, and that was the last time I talked to him."


Photo by Ben Allen/witf

Jesse Mercado, center, holds Anthony's ashes in a box, with his mother Stacy Emminger and father Stephen Mercado.

But that morning, his brother Jesse came down and said he smelled a candle burning.

"So I went up to see and he was dead. He had been I'm guessing, from what we can piece together, he was still texting from his phone records, at like 6:30 Saturday morning, and then that stopped, so I'm assuming that's probably when it happened. So his light was on and the candle was burning because he was using the candle to do the drugs. And he had been dead a couple hours by that time."

"So I just stood there and looked at him for a little while. I remember shaking him and realizing he was cold.

She blew out the candle, and she says time stood still.

One minute felt like five.

"And then I came running downstairs and I got my phone to call 911. They wanted me to go up and do CPR or whatever, I went up, she said can you tell me what you see, and I told her, and she said can you lay him out flat to do CPR and I said no, I can't touch him again, I just. I said he's cold, I remember saying he's cold.

"'What am I going to do?'"

So police and fire and EMS tried CPR, and the overdose antidote known as Narcan.

Anthony was pronounced dead. The cause: multiple drug toxicity, with heroin the primary drug.

"I said I can't go back up there, I can't go back up there."


Photo by Ben Allen/witf

A collage of pictures from Anthony's childhood, assembled for his funeral services.

That same day, Stacy had Anthony's stepfather Stephen Mercado clean out his room. She didn't want it to be imprinted in her mind. Stephen did just that, and sadly notes addiction enveloped Anthony's life, before it ended it.

"He just couldn't get past himself. That's really the biggest thing. The only thing that could've saved Anthony would've been Anthony."

Despite knowing that, despite all the work she put in, Stacy pauses after she's asked whether they wish they had tried anything else to save Anthony.

"That's a difficult question, because we feel like we did everything. We feel like, maybe no. That's too hard of a question to answer."

For every fatal drug overdose, a family asks the same kind of questions and may have similar responses. Stacy and others prefer to remember Anthony in better times. Every Thursday, she posts a picture on Facebook of Anthony smiling, playing soccer, or just living life, to prove the drug use won't define who he was.

This article is part of WITF's multimedia series Real Life | Real Issues: Drugs and Young People. For more information, including treatment resources in central Pennsylvania and videos on substance abuse, please visit the Real Life: Real Issues project page.

Stacy Emminger first told her story through WITF's Public Insight Network. To find out more, and join the PIN, click here.

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