By Amanda Garrett
Beacon Journal staff writer
Marcus Ralston sits alone in his grandmother’s two-car garage, his head tilted back like he is stealing a late morning nap on this steamy July 20.
So many secrets, so many lies led him to this place.
His mother, his sister, some of his friends and family tried tough love, tender love, brokenhearted prayers. But nothing, not even three weeks at rehab, stopped Marcus, at 18, from plummeting into a heroin abyss.
Now, in this garage attached to a tidy ranch house in Macedonia, Marcus is high, drifting toward his fourth overdose in 10 months. His family is just on the other side of the garage wall, but no one sees Marcus’ pupils shrivel to the size of pinpricks or hears his breathing slow and then stop.
Marcus is dead.
When police arrive, an officer kneels next to Marcus and presses his right thumb against the fingerprint ID of his iPhone, unlocking a door to a world Marcus tried to hide.
Marcus’ mom, Jeanne Ralston-Astalos, hopes the digital clues will help prosecutors charge whoever sold Marcus his last dose of fentanyl-spiked heroin.
Yet even in her panic and grief, she also hopes Marcus will reveal something, anything she missed as his mom, information that could help other families save the heroin addicts they love.
Marcus, it turns out, wanted that, too. In the tumultuous weeks leading up to his death, Marcus penned a brief essay addressed to “anyone willing to listen.”
“If me dieing sets an example of what not to do for just one person I will be successful,” he wrote. He signed it “The junkie degenerate with a cause.”
This is the story of Marcus Ralston, based on interviews with his family, court records, his own writings and electronic messages he sent and received from friends by phone and Facebook.
It’s also the story of how the deadly heroin epidemic has grabbed hold of Summit County and how no one — not law enforcement, not lawmakers, not doctors nor Marcus’ mom — has yet figured out how to break its ugly spell.
Addiction in DNA
Marcus was born in 1997, six years after the first reports of a dangerous new drug hitting New York City streets.
Dealers called it Tango and Cash, a reference to a 1989 movie about two narcotics cops — played by Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell — framed for murder by a drug dealer after police work cut into his profits.
It was a mix of heroin and fentanyl, a tranquilizer sometimes used in surgery that can be 100 times stronger than morphine. Police, who had been mired in a crack cocaine epidemic for years, hadn’t seen anything so lethal.
Marcus might have seemed safe 450 miles away, tucked into the upstairs corner bedroom of his parents’ Northfield colonial.
But addiction was already built into Marcus’ DNA, his mother, Jeanne, said.
Marcus’ dad, Mark Ralston, was an addict.
Jeanne wouldn’t marry him until he went into rehab for alcohol addiction and stayed sober. They wed in 1984.
Their first child, Chelsea, was born six years later. Mark Ralston started drinking again, but he held down a good-paying job so that Jeanne could be a stay-at-home mom. Things began to go downhill, however, after Marcus was born.
A doctor prescribed pain pills to Marcus’ dad, and soon he was addicted to both alcohol and painkillers, Jeanne said. They divorced in 2007.
When Marcus turned 13, his world forever changed.
2011 started with his mom remarrying. His grandfather died. In July, doctors diagnosed Jeanne with a rare form of cancer and warned she might not survive the year.
And a month later, Marcus’ dad died inside his car parked at White Castle on Northfield Road in Bedford. The Cuyahoga County Coroner’s office determined Mark Ralston accidentally overdosed on the painkiller oxycodone, the anti-anxiety medication diazepam and alcohol.
Marcus, a bashful boy who often stood behind his mother when he met new people, started smoking marijuana that year. He also refused to return to Nordonia schools, saying he didn’t want to leave his sick mother.
Jeanne signed him up for classes through Ohio’s largest online school.
Much of that time is a blur.
Jeanne had surgeries here and in Texas. Doctors removed the roof of her mouth, half of her jawbone, teeth and most of her sinus cavities as a result of her cancer. They implanted a prosthetic palate and oral piece that allowed her to eat, drink and talk.
When Marcus asked Jeanne what would happen to him if she died, she tried to reassure him.
“I’m doing everything possible to stay alive,” she said.
It’s unclear when, but Marcus soon reached beyond marijuana for something stronger — prescription pills. Sometimes, he would steal the pills prescribed for his ailing mom.
Jeanne feared Marcus was turning into his father. They argued. She warned him that addiction runs in families and that he was vulnerable.
But Marcus said she was overreacting. He didn’t have an addiction, he insisted. He would never be his father.
Jeanne installed a combination lock on her bedroom door and put her medication inside a locked safe.
It was the only thing she could think of to keep drugs away from Marcus, but he found them anyway, crushing and snorting them for a faster, more intense high.
Marcus was part of a trend sweeping Summit County and the nation.
Heroin — once thought to be a drug used mostly by the poor — was creeping into Akron and its suburbs.
Young people getting high on prescription pills figured out that they could stay high all day on heroin for $20. The same amount of black-market Percocet pills could cost $100.
And Marcus was about to have enough money to buy both.
‘Heroin is everywhere’
When Mark Ralston died, he didn’t leave much. But Social Security benefits for Marcus accumulated over the years in an account he could only access after he turned 18.
By 2015, it was worth about $70,000.
Jeanne didn’t think Marcus should have access to the cash all at once, but lawyers involved said there was nothing they could do, she said.
Marcus turned 18 on Sept. 9, 2015.
The next day the Beacon Journal reported that Summit County doctors had prescribed enough Percocet, Vicodin and oxycodone to give every person in Summit County 67 pills. Nearly half of young heroin users said their addiction began with prescription drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It took a couple of weeks for Marcus to access his inheritance. Then he bought a MacBook Pro, a $1,000 guitar and, even though he didn’t have a driver’s license yet, a 1984 Chevy Monte Carlo SS for $9,000.
Soon, Marcus was buying heroin, too.
2 a.m. phone call
Chelsea Ralston’s phone rang about 2 a.m. Oct. 15, 2015.
It was her mom, Jeanne, calling from North Carolina, where she was visiting family.
Marcus, she said, overdosed at their Northfield house. His best friend, who he’d known since kindergarten, called 911. Naloxone — an opiate antidote also known as Narcan — saved his life.
Marcus was OK, but Jeanne wanted Chelsea to go sit with her brother at University Hospitals Bedford Medical Center.
When Chelsea walked into Marcus’ hospital room, he was vomiting, a side effect of the naloxone.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Chelsea screamed at her brother.
Marcus, crying, told her he had never tried heroin until he overdosed, and he never wanted to try it again because he didn’t want to die.
Chelsea, 25, works at a gas station in Macedonia and said she had noticed heroin everywhere in recent months.
She saw track marks — the darkened veins of addicts who inject heroin — on the arms of people who came inside to pay for gas or buy a pack of smokes. A guy she went to high school with overdosed and died.
When Marcus stopped throwing up after a couple hours, Chelsea said, she signed him out and took him home.
He tried to stay away from heroin.
“But heroin is everywhere,” his sister said. “And he was bored, and had all this cash to blow.”
When his mom saw how quickly Marcus was spending his inheritance, she tried to hide the money in different bank accounts. But Marcus, who loved computers, always found a way to get at the money online, she said.
People noticed he was flashing cash, including a pretty teenage girl who also liked to get high, Jeanne said. The girl, who Marcus nicknamed “Baby Girl,” always came around whenever Marcus had money.
Jeanne watched helplessly over the next seven months as Marcus burned through tens of thousands of dollars. She feared he was out of control.
In May of this year, Macedonia police raided a suspected drug house and found Marcus.
They arrested him for drug possession after finding 12 white oxycodone/acetaminophen pills under the bed where he was sitting.
Police arrested three others in the house and confiscated four firearms, one of which had been reported stolen in Cincinnati.
Marcus was released on bond from jail. He overdosed a second time within days.
Jeanne decided it was time for tough love. She picked up Marcus at a hospital and dropped him off at her mother’s house in Macedonia, where Chelsea was living.
She told Marcus he couldn’t come home until he went to rehab.
“What are you doing, dude?” Chelsea asked her brother. She realized for the first time he was in serious trouble.
“I was stupid, I know,” Marcus responded.
After months of fighting, Marcus finally agreed he needed help.
The family called every residential rehab place they could find and heard the same thing: Call back next week. We’re full.
Marcus, meanwhile, camped out on his grandma’s living room couch.
On Father’s Day, Chelsea took Marcus to the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Medina County where their father, a U.S. Army veteran, is buried.
Marcus hadn’t visited since their dad’s funeral in 2011. Chelsea brought Mike and Ike candy, their dad’s favorite, and they put coins on his tombstone.
Chelsea turned to Marcus.
“This is going to be you if you don’t stop,” she told him. “If you keep going, there are only two options: You’ll end up in prison or you’ll end up in the ground like dad.’?”
Marcus listened. He’d heard the same thing from his mother.
But once he was back in Macedonia, Marcus began to slip.
Chelsea, who was scheduled to have gallbladder surgery in June, noticed a few of the Percocet painkillers prescribed to her began to disappear. Then the whole bottle vanished.
Marcus denied taking them, but Chelsea forced him to pee in an over-the-counter drug test. It showed he had Percocet in his system.
“I flipped out,” Chelsea said. She screamed at Marcus, telling him she would now be in pain until her surgery. She called her mom and demanded something be done.
The family placed another round of calls. This time, they found Marcus a bed at Glenbeigh in Ashtabula County.
“We had to pay $1,400 to step through the door” to cover room and board, Jeanne said. Insurance picked up much of the rest.
Marcus went voluntarily, but on the second or third day he signed himself out and walked to a bar 8 miles away where a woman let him use her cellphone.
He called Chelsea and asked her to pick him up. If her gallbladder surgery wasn’t the next morning, she said, she probably would have.
“My whole life, my job has been to take care of my little brother,” she said.
Marcus walked back to Glenbeigh and checked in again.
During rehab, he doodled his name and pictures in a notebook of what appeared to be himself crying out in agony.
He also filled out a workbook listing three examples of when he used drugs to alter his feelings:
He took the stimulant Adderall to get through school finals.
He took unspecified drugs when he was at a party to be “more social.”
And he took more unspecified drugs during family gatherings “so I didn’t look so uninterested.”
He wrote 15 benefits he saw of continuing treatment and staying sober.
Not dying was No. 1, followed by not losing his family.
Before he was released, Marcus called his mom and told her to clear out the drugs he stashed in their home.
Marcus hid drugs on the underside of one of his dresser drawers. More drugs were tucked in the slit of a sleeve in an old coat hanging in a basement closet.
Marcus was released from Glenbeigh on July 7 after three weeks in treatment. He was supposed to start outpatient therapy four days a week, three hours each day.
He never made it.
Marcus went to see his friends and overdosed on heroin a third time less than 12 hours after leaving Glenbeigh.
This time, Jeanne didn’t even go to the hospital. She told Chelsea and other family and friends to stay away, too.
Marcus had to choose — drugs or his family.
He called Uber on his phone to pick him up at the hospital and ended up at Summit Plaza, a sprawling shopping center on Northfield Road just a couple of blocks from his own home. Marcus took shelter in a gazebo there for a day or two before a family friend picked him up and took him back to his grandmother’s where Chelsea lived.
No one knew what to do. Jeanne stood firm on tough love. His sister and grandmother feared he couldn’t make it on his own.
Marcus stayed clean at his grandma’s for a while, Chelsea said.
On July 19, Chelsea and Marcus planned a backyard bonfire. Just after 1 p.m. Marcus sent a Facebook message to his best friend, who witnessed all three of Marcus’ overdoses.
“Me and (Baby Girl) got H,” he wrote. The dealer “even said it was strong and said to be careful.”
The best friend, whose mom forbade him to hang out with Marcus anymore, replied immediately: “Bro, not trying to be an asshole but you need to stop that shit.”
“So do you,” Marcus replied.
The friend said he quit.
“I just don’t want you to die,” the friend wrote to Marcus. “You’ve had way to many close calls.”
Marcus, in a string of messages, assures his friend he plans to quit heroin, too. But not yet.
That night around the fire, Chelsea suspected Marcus was using again.
“I could just tell he was doing something,” Chelsea said.
She decided to wait until the next day when he was alone to confront him.
After midnight, Marcus reached out again to his best friend, saying he was eating s’mores with Baby Girl and Chelsea around the fire.
The best friend said he was bored and invited Marcus to come over after his mom fell asleep.
At 2:06 a.m., Marcus sent his last message, saying Baby Girl was already asleep.
Chelsea headed to bed in the wee hours of the morning, too.
When she got up about 1:45 p.m. the next day, she headed into the garage for a smoke.
Marcus was already there, sitting in what everyone called the “smoking chair.” It was their grandmother’s wheelchair, but it was also the most comfortable chair in the garage where they were allowed to smoke.
Chelsea, only half-awake, thought Marcus was sleeping and touched his hand to wake him up.
It felt cold.
She looked more closely and noticed flies on his face.
Chelsea screamed, ran out of the garage and called 911.
Marcus comes home
Marcus’ remains sit in a box on the back of his computer desk in his bedroom under a big flat-screen TV.
“I didn’t know what to do with them, and it just seemed like that’s where they should go,” Jeanne said. “I’m mad at him, so I told him to go to his room.”
Piecing together parts of Marcus’ life, even the bits that make her angry, has helped in the weeks after his death, his mom said.
Marcus, she learned, told the truth in October — the first time he tried heroin, he overdosed.
And when he ran out of money, Jeanne found out he was so desperate to feed his addiction he traded his $9,000 Monte Carlo for 100 Percocet pills.
Other things she’s learned about Marcus’ life have caused rifts in the family.
Jeanne and Chelsea hardly speak now.
They disagree over whether a family friend with a history of heroin and cocaine use helped Marcus — as he promised — or undermined their efforts to get him clean.
Jeanne believes the man is a villain. Chelsea defends him, saying her mother doesn’t understand.
Chelsea hasn’t walked back into the garage since finding Marcus dead. She now smokes on the front stoop of her grandma’s house, even in the rain.
Macedonia police haven’t charged anyone for supplying Marcus the fentanyl-laced heroin that killed him. Police last week said the investigation is ongoing.
Jeanne has tried several times to clean out Marcus’ room, but she can’t get through it.
In his closet, she found the floppy, stuffed puppy he carried with him everywhere as a child. She hadn’t known he kept it. Jeanne put the toy, Marcus’ favorite sweatshirt and his leather jacket into a sealed plastic storage bin.
On days when she especially misses Marcus, Jeanne goes to his room, talks to his ashes and opens the lid just to breathe in the memory of his smell.
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Amanda on Twitter at agarrett@abj.