Chapter 2 — Not My Kid:

Heroin use on Staten Island

(Illustration by Natalie Kenney/GroundTruth)

Noah Caldwell

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Every night, Candace Crupi goes into her son’s bedroom and kneels before the bed to pray. Splayed out in front of her, meticulously arranged, are mementos from Johnny’s life: his high school diploma, old, half-full bottles of cologne, pictures from family vacations to North Carolina. The room smells like Epsom salt, which he used to soak in to ease the muscle aches from heroin withdrawal.

“They used to call him ‘The Mayor’… When he walked into the room, everybody noticed him,” said Candace, pointing to a photo of Johnny when he was 19. He’s wearing big, square, studded earrings, and has a tattoo of the Grim Reaper up to his waist in hell.

“As long as you’re not in hell all the way, there’s always a chance,” she said. “That gave him a lot of hope.”

This bedroom tells the story of Johnny Crupi’s fight with heroin addiction. In here, with the door locked, he would sniff the brown powder—sometimes up to six or seven bags, which Candace would find underneath him when he nodded off. Johnny would retreat into his bedroom after fights with Candace and punch a hole in the wall, later covering it up with plaster when he calmed down. His bedroom was also where he waited out the agony of withdrawal, staying inside for weeks at a time. And, finally, it was here where he died of a heroin overdose in 2014, at 21 years old.

Candace Crupi stands in the room of her son, Johnny Crupi, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 21. (Photo by Noah Caldwell/GroundTruth)

Candace Crupi stands in the room of her son, Johnny Crupi, who died of a heroin overdose at the age of 21. (Photo by Noah Caldwell/GroundTruth)

The heroin epidemic sweeping over Staten Island has played out in countless bedrooms just like this one. Opiate addiction had snuck past the picket fences in the form of prescription pills, laying the foundation for a suburban heroin crisis to fester. The borough now has the second-highest rate of overdose deaths in the city, right behind the Bronx. Through Johnny’s story, we can see how Staten Island upended the inner-city stereotype of heroin in New York, and how it haS the perfect socio-economic conditions for a growing deadly drug epidemic.

Johnny’s first run-in with substances came in seventh grade, when he drank for the first time. After the party, his friends propped him up on his front step, rang the doorbell and ran. Candace found him with his eyes rolled back in his head and brought him to the hospital. He spent four days there, recovering from alcohol poisoning.

“That day, I knew that he was going to have a problem,” said Candace. “Nobody got that drunk, except for John.”

Then, in high school, Johnny found prescription painkillers—OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet—and began to use them recreationally. Painkillers were the party drug du jour on Staten Island in the early 2000s. Stories still linger about “pill parties,” where teens would bring different painkillers and toss them all in a bowl for everyone to grab.

“It’s prescription drugs, so I guess when you’re younger, you feel that it’s not going to hurt you,” said Barry Crupi, Johnny’s father.

“Yeah, it’s legal,” said Candace. “A doctor prescribed it. How could it kill him?”

By 2008, doctors on Staten Island were prescribing painkillers at triple the rate of Manhattan doctors. They were following a nationwide trend—which had begun in the 1990s—of treating even the most minor pain with high-powered opiates. The pharmaceutical industry had largely convinced the medical community that new, time-released pills, such as OxyContin, eliminated the risk of addiction.

But there was just one problem: “Oxies,” as they became known, could be crushed up and snorted, giving you the day’s worth of opiates instantly. They became the perfect street drug.

On Staten Island, the effect was deadly. By 2014, the borough had the highest rate of painkiller overdose death in all of New York State. But why was the island more susceptible to painkiller addiction than other parts of New York City?

(Noah Caldwell/GroundTruth)

(Noah Caldwell/GroundTruth)

“On Staten Island, there are a lot of blue collar workers,” said Adrienne Abbate, executive director of the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness. Abbate runs a coalition of treatment centers, hospitals and public health officials tackling substance misuse on Staten Island. “[They’re] people who sustain injury on the job, who have insurance, who have been written prescriptions to manage pain.”

Many of those blue collar workers were public employees—cops, firefighters, sanitation workers—who had good insurance through their unions, giving them even greater access to prescription painkillers. The irony isn’t lost on public health advocates like Abbate: Good insurance and access to quality healthcare ultimately doomed Staten Island to a deadly battle with addiction.

“If you get injured when you are a sanitation worker, you have easy access to pain medication because you have good insurance,” said Joshua Sipan, vice president at Community Health Action, down the street from Abbate’s office. “And there you have it: It’s the beginning in your family of potentially and addiction.”

Abbate says that those pills then got into the wrong hands.

“Some of the youth were saying that they were buying pills from some of the older guys in the community,” she said. “And when I dug deeper, I realized that they were talking about people who had gone out on disability and saw this as a way to make some money. The face of a drug deal or interaction looked very different than what we had pictured growing up.”

Candace and Barry Crupi saw this firsthand when they found prescriptions of OxyContin with unfamiliar names on the bottles in their son’s room.

And then, in 2013, New York passed a state law cracking down on doctors who overprescribed opioids. Almost immediately, the price of pills on the street skyrocketed. Johnny and his friends started stealing from unlocked cars to support their habit—they called it “car surfing.”

Eventually, like countless other pill addicts across Staten island, there was only one way to cheaply satisfy an opioid addiction: heroin.

“He went to the heroin because it was so much cheaper,” said Barry. “He couldn’t afford the pills, so he went to the heroin.”

He couldn’t afford the pills, so he went to the heroin.

Barry Crupi

Father whose son died of a heroin overdose at age 21

To an addict’s brain, heroin and OxyContin are nearly interchangeable. But not to families on Staten Island. One was medicine—the other was a deadly narcotic, an inner city drug that couldn’t possibly infiltrate middle-class households. So when heroin followed the pills, the stigma came with it.

“There is definitely a gigantic stigma against drug addicts on this island,” said Andrew Winslow, a former addict. Winslow works at a nonprofit called Carl’s House, which tries to connect addicts to treatment on Staten Island. He also came to heroin after a pill addiction that stemmed from a car accident.

“A lot of people have a ‘Not me, oh not me’ attitude until it happens to them. Even when it does happen, they are still in denial,” Winslow said.

By 2014, after a stint at an upstate rehab center, Johnny Crupi seeded to have his heroin problem under control.

“In the last year, we saw that spark coming back,” said Candace. “It was so nice to see again. We hadn’t seen that in quite a while.”

Johnny even began working at Barry’s auto body shop, and he would give Barry his extra money to save for him.

“I used to check on him every night before he passed,” said Barry. “Probably for the last couple days, I didn’t because we thought he was doing so well.”

Then one night, unbeknownst to his parents, Johnny bought three bags of heroin from a friend.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Candace. “After he said goodnight, about an hour later, I was going to bed, and as I was passing his room, I thought of something funny and I knocked on the door and it was locked, And I got so mad and I said, ‘Son of a bitch, John’ … But when the door was locked, I went to bed. And that was the one time that I should have opened the door.”

Candace Crupi holds up the photo of her son, Johnny Crupi, who died of a heroin overdose at age 21. (Photo by Noah Caldwell/GroundTruth)

Candace Crupi holds up the photo of her son, Johnny Crupi, who died of a heroin overdose at age 21. (Photo by Noah Caldwell/GroundTruth)

Candace and Barry decided to put the overdose in Johnny’s obituary—a bold move, and one that most families on Staten Island often leave out. It was a small, symbolic attempt to break some of the stigma and denial shrouding heroin on the island.

“Don’t be a ‘not my kid’ parent,” said Candace. “Stop fooling yourself. Stop thinking that it can’t happen to your own kid, because it can. And I don’t care if you put them in the best of schools. Stop thinking that it’s not going to be your kid.”

  • Robin Okeefe

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Too many young people gone too soon.

    • Robin Okeefe

      Your son is ours too. Our daughters and sons. We have to be a community and not the other. Bless you and your son.

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