PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. – Tara Burke was 31-years-old the evening she was found face down in her bathroom.
“She was an incredible writer. She could sing. She was an amazing artist,” recalls her mom, Carol Howard. “There were so many things that she could have done and they’re all gone,” she said wiping away tears from her eyes.
“I knew that someday I would get that call. That they found her laying with a needle in her arm. I knew it,” she told the Contact 5 Investigators.
By the time Tara died on June 7, 2014, she had spent more than half her life in and out of rehab.
“That’s her senior graduation picture. I took the proofs to her when she was in a rehab,” explained her mom while pointing to a smiling high school graduation picture. Tara started drinking, explains her mom. By 13, she had graduated to marijuana. But it was heroin that ultimately took Tara away from her mom, her sister and her three little girls Casey, Faith and Sarah. “This is one of the worst epidemics I’ve seen,” explains Palm Beach County’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Bell. “It’s comparable to cocaine in the 1980s,” he said. Bell’s job is to determine how people die. “You’re more likely to die taking heroin right now than any other abused drug,” he explained. Why?
“Because they’re mixing it with fentanyl,” he explained.
More potent than morphine, fentanyl is a synthetic opiate often given to cancer patients to reduce pain.
But over the last two years, it’s also become heroin’s cheap secret ingredient to making the party drug up to 100 times more powerful.
“I think the combination of mixing fentanyl in with heroin is what’s causing this epidemic,” explained Bell.
In Palm Beach County fentanyl combined with heroin caused 44 deaths in 2014, making it one of the leading causes of overdose deaths in the county. By October 2015, the numbers nearly doubled with 75 deaths recorded and, still, several months to count.
In 2014, Palm Beach County logged more fentanyl related deaths than anywhere else in the state.
“I wouldn’t have guessed that. I wouldn’t have,” said Delray Beach Police Chief Jeff Goldman
If there’s any city that knows the hardships of the heroin epidemic, it’s rehab-riddled Delray Beach.
Last year, police responded to overdose calls every two and half days .
Ten of them were deadly.
“Do you see an end in sight,” asked the Contact 5 Investigators.
“No,” said Chief Goldman.
Goldman points to dealers lacing heroin with fentanyl.
“They’re trying to get their clients to have a better high than the next person so they’ll put that fentanyl in there. These aren’t trained professionals or chemists that are actually mixing these drugs,” he said. “So there’s occasion that they’re going to mix too much fentanyl or mix other things in there that can actually kill people.”
It’s a problem so bad across the city, in a few months Delray Beach police will be first in the county and among the first officers statewide equipped with narcan devices or epi-pens for heroin users.
“If they wait for paramedics, they could die. So when police hit them with the device, it snaps them right out of it,” he explained.
“We can put our head in the sand and just keep on going or we can try and attack it in different ways through prevention, education and being proactive,” said the Chief.
The medical examiner ruled Tara Burke’s official cause of death as combined drug toxicity.
“As a mom you feel like you failed,” said Carol Howard.
In her system was morphine and fentanyl.
“I don’t know if she knew they were cutting it with fentanyl or not,” she said.
Nor did Tara likely know that her last high would leave three little girls motherless and her own mom talking about the daughter who had so much to give and gave it all up.
“That’s the last tattoo she got before she died. She was so proud of it,” recalls her mom. “It said beaten not defeated. Well, I have news for Tara fentanyl defeated her.”