Horry County's War on Drugs

Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
Photographs by: 
Randall Hill

As heroin use continues to grow, a group of concerned citizens is fighting to combat this deadly epidemic

It was the call no mother wants to get.

Noreen Beck of Conway answered thinking it was a just a regular check-in from her 24-year-old son Rob’s girlfriend. “His girlfriend called me and started screaming on the phone, ‘Rob is dead! Rob is dead!,’” Beck said of the October 2015 call that changed her world. “My first thought was that he was in a car accident.”

She rushed to the scene—but there was no car accident. Crime scene tape surrounded a house. An ambulance was in front. When Beck saw an official walk up with a camera, all the pieces fell together: Her son had overdosed. “I was numb,” she said. “I was ashamed. I didn’t want my son’s picture taken like that.”

Beck knew her son—who was once a good student and high school football player—had smoked pot and drank alcohol, but heroin? No way, she thought. “I had no idea he was using,” Beck said, adding that she thinks he was just dabbling, convinced that Rob’s brothers would have told her if he had been on heroin. “I’ll be honest with you—I was ashamed at how he died because I thought I would be judged.”

A year later, Beck has made it her mission to combat the heroin epidemic that’s gripped the nation and Horry County, which has the highest opioid-related death rates in South Carolina. She organized a community meeting in Conway about the drug in October that drew hundreds of residents. She helps other mothers of addicts not feel the shame she did through a national group with a local chapter called The Addict’s Mom (TAM). And she lobbies for changes in laws that she says would help prevent overdoses and ensure addicts get treatment.

“It’s a nightmare I don’t want any other mother to go through—ever,” Beck said. “There’s a mother out there just like me who doesn’t want the neighbors to know. That’s when I said, ‘Let me help somebody else’—and that helps me, too.”

Growing Problem in Horry

Beck isn’t alone. Addicts’ families, law enforcement leaders, medical professionals and residents are clamoring to find ways to stem the deaths, arrests and heartbreak heroin has brought to Horry County. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States, with 55,403 lethal drug overdoses in 2015, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s EMS division.

In South Carolina, more people died from opioid deaths in 2015 (594) than were murdered (433), according to DHEC. It’s not something just happening somewhere else.

“It’s something that is here,” said Jimmy Richardson, Solicitor of the 15th Judicial Circuit that includes Horry and Georgetown counties. “It’s been a real beast.”

Horry County has the highest opioid-related death rate in South Carolina, according to DHEC statistics. In 2015, 74 people died from opioids in Horry County—the same number as the more populated Greenville County. Horry’s opioid-related death rate per 100,000 population was nearly 24—the highest in South Carolina and higher than the national average of 15.8, according to DHEC. “We don’t really know why Horry County [has the highest number of opioid-related deaths]”, said Arnold Alier, South Carolina DHEC’s Division Director of EMS. “It’s kind of stumped everybody. There’s really no necessary rhyme or reason.”

Heroin overdoses have become so prevalent in Horry County that the Coroner’s Office started separating them from the numbers of overdoses overall in 2016.

In January and February, 45 people in Horry County died from heroin, seven from a heroin/fentanyl mix and 16 from fentanyl, a drug designed to ease the pain for dying patients but has become another means for drug users to get high.

Last year, 65 people in Horry County died from heroin overdoses (nine of those from heroin/fentanyl mixes) and 19 people died from fentanyl overdose, according to Chief Deputy Coroner Tamara Willard.

“It might look like it came up overnight, but it’s been brewing for a while,” Richardson said. Richardson and others blame the surge in heroin overdoses on the abundance of prescriptions to opioids for pain. Hydrocodone, oxycodone and other drugs are highly addictive, leaving some patients hooked after 30 days, Richardson said.

Heroin—often heroin laced with fentanyl—bought off the street is a cheaper alternative to those prescriptions. Instead of spending $360 on prescription pain pills, users are spending $90 on heroin bought off the street to achieve the same high, Richardson explained. “You can’t keep up a $360 a day habit too long,” he said.

In 2016, there were 5.2 million opioid prescriptions dispensed in South Carolina, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s EMS division—nearly enough for every man, woman and child in the state to have had an opioid prescription.

“It’s very easy to diagnose,” Richardson said. “We are a nation that is over prescribed. … A lot of people who would have generally veered away from drugs found themselves addicted.” Adding to the problem, kids are getting their hands on their parents’ or grandparents’ prescriptions, trying them and getting hooked, experts say.

Chris Hocker, a former addict who now works at Shoreline Behavioral Services helping addicts, said middle school kids are attending “pill parties” where they bring prescriptions, dump them in a bowl then, take whatever pill they reach in and grab—not even knowing what they’re taking. “When the addict was dying on Dunbar Street, you didn’t hear about it,” said Hocker, who has been off drugs since 2010. “When the addicts started dying on the steps of Grande Dunes, you heard about it.”

It Really Does Take A Village

Everyone from law enforcement leaders to addicts’ mothers are trying to help.

Hundreds of residents have shown up for town hall meetings in Horry County on the topic: mothers of addicts begging for help, residents demanding details on what officials are doing to stop the problem, relatives of former addicts offering help. Experts agree: it will take time to reverse this trend. “We are just trying to make a difference from top to bottom,” Alier said.

“It really does take a village. … It’s not something you can do overnight.”

In March, Alier and his team at DHEC trained officers from 15 law enforcement agencies in Horry and Georgetown counties on the use of Naloxone, which can revive an overdose victim. Until this grant program began, usually only EMS were able to administer Naloxone. EMS in Horry County administered 509 doses in 2015 and 1,043 doses in 2016—the most of any county in South Carolina. Solicitor Richardson said he is aiming to dry up the drug supply from top to bottom by putting dealers in jail and treating the addicts. He works to get more jail time for those “trafficking or peddling this poison,” while trying to get those arrested for possession into Drug Court, which requires them to attend treatment programs with the promise of the sentence being dismissed if the offender successfully completes the Drug Court requirements. Only 12 percent of the graduates have gotten in trouble again, Richardson said.

Law enforcement agencies throughout Horry County also have drop boxes to dispose of prescription medications so residents can get them out of their medicine cabinets—and away from the hands of the kids in their homes. Steering kids away from this lifestyle is another focus. Richardson’s team is working on educational videos for middle school students showing them the dangers of prescription drugs and urging them to make better decisions. The videos will start to air this school year, Richardson said.

“It’s all about changing the culture and letting them know this isn’t acceptable,” he said. “It will just take time.”

There Is Hope

Those who have been through it—addicts and mothers of addicts—often reach out to those still struggling to show there is hope. Janice Wright Collier remembers the days wondering why her son Joe Wright was spending enormous amounts of time in the bathroom, why he never had money and why she could never seem to find a spoon in her kitchen—he was using them for his habit. “You lose all your spoons—I had none,” Collier said. “They spend every penny they have on their addiction. … It’s like nothing you do or say makes any difference. You sleep with your purse under your head, your keys in your pocket.”

Joe got clean March 10, 2015, detoxing in jail after being arrested for shoplifting.

Collier finds—and gives—support to others through The Addict’s Mom, a group of mothers who meet regularly, urge action to combat heroin locally and hold a “Lights of Hope” candle-lighting ceremony during National Recovery Month in September.

Collier knows how easily an addict can slip. She is eager for Joe to turn 28 in May so he doesn’t end up like some well-known celebrities who died at 27: Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. “In a weird sort of way, I’m holding my breath until he turns 28,” Collier said. “It’s just a creepy thing.”

Through TAM, Collier and Beck found courage and comfort to share their heartache and stories without shame. “It’s something you never get over,” Beck said. “I can move on, but there are times when I have very bad days. You can move on, but you are never the same person.”

Though there are still days when she struggles, Beck is able to find comfort in the phone conversation she had with her son the night before she got the call that he had died. “He said, ‘I love you’ and I said, ‘Love you, Rob,’” Beck said. “I get a lot of healing to know those were the last words [we said to each other].”

Need help or want to know more?

Find resources on the Horry County Heroin Coalition page at www.horry county.org/Departments/Solicitor/ HeroinCoalition.aspx.

Never Forget: Noreen Beck holds a photo of her son Rob, who she said was a good student and athlete. Rob died of an overdose in October 2015.


SURVIVOR PROFILE: A Battle Won

Despite years of drug abuse, Chris Hocker overcame his hard-partying past and is now dedicated to helping addicts

After a night of partying when he was 15, Chris Hocker got behind the wheel of his candy-apple red Chrysler LeBaron convertible to drive home.

He blacked out as he drove down Kings Highway, jumped the median, crossed three lanes of oncoming traffic, then smashed into a tree. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. With broken ribs and a fractured spleen, Hocker spent a week in the hospital. No one else was injured in the wreck; Hocker’s friend was wearing a seatbelt. No other vehicles were involved.

You’d think this might be a wake-up call for Hocker’s hard-partying lifestyle. “That really didn’t slow me down,” he said. “The drinking, smoking pot kept on.”

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of his 15-year struggle, which escalated to harder drugs, including heroin, about a dozen arrests for stealing to pay for his addiction and even a suicide attempt.

His experience is one of a growing number of examples of how the heroin epidemic is affecting residents in Horry County, which has the highest rate of opioid-related deaths in South Carolina. The alarming trend has prompted community meetings attracting hundreds of residents looking for help and asking for answers from leaders about what they are doing to turn the trend around. Hocker, 38, is living in Myrtle Beach and thriving now—married, successfully employed and helping addicts that need to see that they also can change. But he spent nearly half his life getting there.

‘It just got out of control’

Hocker considered himself a normal kid growing up in Myrtle Beach. His dad was a retired police officer and his mom worked in a bank. He first experimented with alcohol when he was in eighth grade and spent his years at Myrtle Beach High School drinking and partying on the weekend, maybe smoking some pot. He bussed tables at a restaurant in North Myrtle Beach and would go to the bar when he got off work. He was underage but hanging with a slightly older of-legal-drinking-age crowd, so he was never asked to show ID.

The part-time job turned full-time after he graduated from high school in 1997—and so did his partying.

Soon the drinking escalated. He’d get off work, stay up drinking until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., then do it all again the next day. He saw friends doing cocaine and figured he’d try it too, buying some from a co-worker. “The affect it produced was immediate,” Hocker said. “I didn’t suffer a negative affect from it.”

Hocker didn’t realize it would turn into a problem. But his body was sending him the signals. “I was having to drink and use more often and for longer periods of time,” Hocker said. “Eventually, it just got out of control.” Before he knew it, he had a $200 a day habit—not exactly something a restaurant worker could afford. So he started stealing from work and eventually got fired.

“I got fired with a full-time cocaine addiction that had to be funded,” Hocker said. “I turned to the streets.” He got caught stealing again—this time by law enforcement. He spent a year in jail. That time behind bars didn’t change his mindset. When Hocker got out of jail, “the very first place I went to was the bar. I picked up right where I left off.”

He was back on the streets, experimenting with crack cocaine. He’d sleep in his car, crash on a friend’s couch or, if he had stolen enough money, stay in a cheap motel room. He was unemployable—unable to pass the drug test to get hired or, if he was able to bypass the drug test and get a job, he’d be wasted while at work or too high to show up. “I would wake up every day and think, ‘Where am I going to get money today?’” Hocker said. “As my using progressed, the crimes I was willing to do progressed as well.”

Stealing was his way of life—anything to attain that feeling that only drugs could give him.

Then came the opioids and heroin that gave him an extreme sense of mellow and peace.

“Heroin was a game-changer,” Hocker said. “I loved that feeling so much. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know over time it would take more of it.” Pretty soon, Hocker needed more and more just to live.

He’d go back to jail—this time for two and a half years. He endured what he describes as a brutal detox while he was in jail. He was released at 10 a.m. on August 1, 2007. “By 11:30, I had already picked up where I left off,” Hocker said. “We tell ourselves, ‘This time is going to be different. I’m not going to let it get out of hand again.’ We will trick ourselves and believe we can make it work.”

‘My life was in shambles’

Hocker had his pattern: steal, drugs, jail, repeat. This time, he’d spend a year in Horry County’s Drug Court—a judicially supervised treatment program for convicted offenders. He went to treatment in Conway as required, but only because he had to be there. When that ended, Hocker was right back to the life of an addict. His family sent him to treatment in Florence that lasted four months, where Hocker admits he did just enough to stay under the radar.

He was out for one month before he relapsed again. He was even stealing from his father’s company. This time was the worst, Hocker said.

Filled with fear, guilt, shame and a feeling of just wanting it to be over, he tried to commit suicide on May 6, 2010, but the gun didn’t go off. “I just reached a place where I was so sick of what I had become,” Hocker said. He went back to Florence and detoxed on a friend’s couch. He was sober, but on the run from the law. He had been on probation since 2005 and knew the charges for stealing from his father’s company were coming. In six months, he was arrested again.

“My life was in shambles,” Hocker said. He finally had hit bottom. This time would be different.

Turning it around

By the time he stood in front of the judge, he had been sober for five months—the longest period of sobriety on his own. He was honest with the judge and took responsibility. He knew something had to change. The 30-year-old had six months in jail to think about it.

“I just really had an opportunity to look at myself,” Hocker said. When he was released on March 1, 2011, Hocker didn’t head to the bar or to his dealer. He had been sober for 10 months—and stayed that way. “I really started to incorporate recovery into my life,” he said. He returned to Florence, surrounded by the support of friends who helped him stay sober, and picked up where they left off in recovery before he was arrested.

He became employable again, even starting his own maintenance company. His family—who he had stolen from, disappointed and put through so much—asked him to return to the beach after seeing how he changed his life. “That was a pretty awesome thing,” Hocker said. “I never thought I’d be invited back and welcomed back by my family.”

Hocker moved back to the area in 2012. He is now working at Shoreline Behavioral Health Services in Conway as an intensive outpatient case manager working with addicts, aiming to show them that they can change their lives, too. While he started working at Shoreline earlier this year, he’s been working on his own with addicts for a few years—a mission he says he’s obligated to pursue to give back in recovery.

“If somebody didn’t give it to me,” Hocker said, “I wouldn’t be here.”