Heroin overdoses prompt emergency vigil in New London

A newly formed nonprofit group dedicated to helping families cope with heroin and opiate-addicted loved ones will hold a candlelight vigil in New London Thursday in response to the alarming rise of overdoses in the region.

Over the weekend, a 31-year-old man from Montville died of a apparent prescription drug overdose at a home in Ledyard, according to police. Police said the exact cause of death is unknown. A 21-year-old Mystic woman died Jan. 25, also of an apparent overdose.

 A New London man died on Thursday, and since Wednesday, 18 people from towns throughout the region have been treated at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for overdoses. Police are working to identify whether a single batch of heroin is responsible for the most recent overdoses and to track down the seller. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is conducting toxicology tests on all of the fatality victims to determine the cause of death.

Community Speaks Out Inc., whose members include parents of addicts, law enforcement experts and concerned community members, held an emergency meeting on Sunday to plan the vigil.

The gathering will light Chinese paper lanterns to honor those who have died and share information about getting help for active users. Members of the clergy, first responders and elected officials, including New London Mayor Michael Passero, are expected to attend.

"We want to be a resource for families when they find out a loved one is addicted," said Tammy de la Cruz of Groton, a founding member.

The group has been working with police in Groton Town, Groton City, Groton Long Point and Stonington, and members say they are available to anyone in the community. They run support groups for families and are forging connections with addiction specialists and other professionals throughout the community to help find treatment placements for addicts. The group also will be raising funds to help families defray at least some of the associated costs of treatment, such as paying for a plane ticket to an out-of-state rehabilitation center.

"One of the biggest hurdles is patients who have state insurance," de la Cruz said. "They can't go out of state, and we call around (in state) and there are no beds. Time is of the essence when somebody is willing to get help."

Families who want to send their loved ones out of state for longer term treatment than is available in Connecticut are finding the cost of that treatment is not covered by insurance and is prohibitive.

Community Speaks Out member Lisa Cote Johns of Uncasville, whose 33-year-old son Christopher Johns died of a heroin overdose in October 2014, said she wants to share some of the knowledge she gained while trying to save her son, who struggled with his addiction over 13 years before dying in a sober house in New London.

Johns and de la Cruz, who both work full-time, said they don't mind receiving calls and texts late into the night from desperate and heartbroken family members.

"I eat, sleep and breathe this," Johns said. "It's in my whole being to get a grip on this, even if we just help families to know they're not alone."

While the organization is focused on helping families get treatment for those who are ready, Community Speaks Out board member Kenneth W. Edwards Jr. of New London said he believes that some users can be convinced to get help.

"I'm not a firm believer in waiting until everyone hits rock bottom," said Edwards, who is an inspector with the Chief State's Attorney's office and a former New London police captain.

To reach Community Speaks Out, call de la Cruz at (860) 271-1835, Johns at (860) 908-3305 or email communityspeaksout@gmail.com.

k.florin@theday.com

Twitter: @KFLORIN

Editor's note: this version corrects the apparent cause of death of the 31-year-old Montville man.

If you go

What: Community Speaks Out, Inc., holds a vigil in response to increase in heroin overdoses

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Where: Parade Plaza, downtown New London

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