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Heroin is possible link to two local deaths

By Shane Benjamin Herald staff writer

Two Durango men have died within a week of each other, possibly the result of heroin overdoses, said Coroner Jann Smith.

Shane Gibson, 21, died March 20 at Mercy Regional Medical Center, and Eric Zwart, 27, was found dead March 24 at his home on Animas View Drive, Smith said.

Drug paraphernalia commonly used for heroin use – including tinfoil, spoons, lighters and needles – were in close proximity when each man was separately found, she said.

Smith is awaiting toxicology results before making a formal ruling on the cause of deaths. It appears likely heroin played a role, she said.

“It’s a good guess that’s what it is,” she said, “but we’re not positive that’s what it is.”

If so, they are the first heroin-related fatalities to occur in recent memory in La Plata County, Smith said.

It is possible a bad batch of heroin is circulating, she said, but without toxicology reports or further testing, it is impossible to know.

Heroin began appearing three years ago in Durango and has since become “incredibly common,” said Pat Downs, director of Southwest Drug Task Force.

People who become addicted to OxyContin pain killers often switch to heroin because it is cheaper, he said.

The Task Force is investigating the deaths of Gibson and Zwart, Downs said. He was unsure if there is a “bad batch” of heroin being circulated.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good batch,” he said.

Downs also doesn’t recall any heroin-related fatalities in this area, but he said deaths follow prevalent use of the drug.

“When heroin use goes on, deaths are inevitable,” Downs said.

Zwart was last seen in bed March 23 by a friend who was staying at his home, Smith said. The friend awoke about 9 a.m. the next day to find Zwart in the same position, dead, Smith said.

Gibson was found by his mother about 4 p.m. March 19 after she returned home from work, Smith said. He lay unresponsive on the floor with needles and other drug paraphernalia nearby, she said. He was taken to Mercy, where he was pronounced dead about 10 a.m. the next day.

Gibson’s father, Michael Gibson, said his son was one day away from entering an in-patient drug rehabilitation program in Estes Park.

“He just had to have his last little hoorah before he went,” his father said. “It’s a big tragedy for us.”

He was surprised to learn of another death possibly involving heroin, but he said Gibson didn’t know Zwart.

“There’s no connection there,” he said. “I don’t even know how often it happens. I don’t have any statistics.”

The father gave a similar account to the task force leader about the progression from pain killers to heroin.

Teenagers raid medicine cabinets for pain killers, start selling them back and forth in high school, and eventually switch to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to find, he said.

“By then, they are already addicts, and they have to have the opiates,” he said. “It’s a powerful thing, and they can’t help themselves.”

Hundreds of people attended a celebration of life for Gibson on Monday, Michael Gibson said.

“Shane was a good kid,” he said. “He touched so many lives in this community, young and old. I had no idea how many lives he touched, and I’m very proud of him for that.

“He was just a kid in trouble. Most of his friends didn’t even know about it.”

shane@durangoherald.com

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