Families of overdose victims left to grieve, wonder
The drug epidemic has left a lasting mark on hundreds of lives in Westmoreland County.
Parents have had to bury their children. Scores of children have been left without a mom or dad. Families have been torn apart. Relationships have frayed, or broken.
The heroin, painkillers and other drugs that took a forceful hold on the community show no sign of loosening their grip. For those touched by addiction, it’s a daily battle, whether they’re staying clean, making up for their mistakes or missing a loved one.
A father gone
Cameron Hoak was young when he caught on to what his dad was doing.
It started after John “Jay” Hoak Jr. of Ruffsdale was seriously injured in a car crash a few years ago, recalled Cameron, 16, of Scottdale.
“The doctors gave him a lot of pain meds,” Cameron said. “He started leaving home frequently and coming home late.”
That wasn’t like his dad — a family man who had a good job to provide for his two boys.
Cameron remembers waiting in the car while Hoak repeatedly visited the same house, eventually realizing at age 13 or 14 that his dad was picking up drugs. Even so, he was shocked in March when his dad died at age 33.
“I knew, for like two years, it was going to happen sometime. But I wasn’t really expecting that yet,” Cameron said.
Now, he’s robbed of a life getting to know his dad.
“One of the people I care about the most … is now gone,” Cameron said.
He worries about how his younger brother is coping. At a young age, they’ve both seen the toll addiction can take.
“They start to steal from people they really care about because they need that fix to get through life,” he said. “It’s kind of sad to see them slip away from that. … They can only help themselves.”
Wanting to die
On the 13th of every month for the last seven years, Barbara and Duane DiPietro have lit a candle in their Manor home for their son, Justin.
They celebrate his birthday every year.
It’s their way of grieving the 25-year-old, who died of a drug overdose on Nov. 13, 2010.
In 2007, Justin’s family was grappling with “all the pure hell that heroin brings,” Duane DiPietro said.
They tried “tough love” measures that counselors suggested, but it was fruitless.
“We look back now … and we remember him standing at the back door with tears in his eyes, begging to get in,” DiPietro said, his voice breaking when he recalled that winter day. “We turned him away on numerous occasions, and that was the most vivid memory we have.”
Justin died at a time when the drug abuse problem seemed to be swept under the rug, DiPietro said. He believes Justin wanted to die because he didn’t want to go back to jail for minor shoplifting charges.
“He overdosed because he knew he wasn’t going to make it,” DiPietro said.
Justin Makowski was a student at Valley High School in New Kensington about 10 years ago. He started getting into trouble then, recalled his adoptive brother, Chris O’Leath.
After graduation, Makowski started stealing things from his adoptive mother’s home to finance his heroin addiction, O’Leath said.
Makowski had been estranged from his adoptive family for about five years when died from a drug overdose on April 25. He had the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil in his system, O’Leath said. He was 23.
“You try to help, no matter … what, you try to tell them and show them what it’s about,” said O’Leath, a paramedic. “It just doesn’t sink in.”
In the days after Makowski’s death, O’Leath penned an obituary that exposes the emptiness that loved ones experience. Among them are Makowski’s two daughters.
“The hard part is that we were estranged,” he said.