The Damage Done: First of two parts

The Damage Done: Heroin in Centreville and the death of Alicia Lannes

Centreville comes to grips with the destructive grasp of drugs on its young people.
By Caitlin Gibson
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The tall young man with the square jaw and the mop of dark brown hair held the phone pressed against his ear. He didn't know what to do.

His girlfriend had just shot heroin from a tiny plastic bag he'd given her earlier that night, in her car, in the rain. She'd taken it back home to her parents' house in Centreville. She'd gone alone to her room and closed the door. She'd laid out the powder, dissolved it in water, as he'd taught her to do, drawn it into a syringe through a cotton ball, as he'd taught her to do, and injected it into a vein in her arm.

That much Skylar Schnippel knew, because his girlfriend, Alicia Lannes, had talked to him on the phone as she used. That was four minutes ago. But now she wasn't answering. So he called her again. He called her twice in two minutes. Then twice in the next two minutes. It was 1:45 in the morning, and she wasn't answering, and he knew. She must have overdosed, as she'd done two times before in front of him: her head lolling, her face pale, her lips blue.

Alicia was only a neighborhood away, in another suburban Virginia house across a few dozen nicely manicured lawns. What was he going to do? A call to the police would bring nothing but trouble for him. Likewise, a call to Alicia's parents -- they wanted him away from their daughter. He couldn't leave to check on her himself; his parents were suspicious.

Whatever fractured logic was at work in Skylar Schnippel's brain, it led him to this: For nearly an hour and a half, as Alicia Lannes lay dying in her bedroom, Skylar did nothing but dial and re-dial her number. At 3:10 a.m., Skylar finally called two friends and asked them to check on Alicia. They drove to her house, crept up to her window and peered inside. Through the wet glass they saw her lying on the floor, motionless. They drove off to find a pay phone, so they could call 911 anonymously; by then, it was way too late.

Alicia's death at 19 on March 5, 2008, would throw light on the existence of a highly organized heroin ring operating among more than 50 teens and young adults in Centreville. Many were current or former students at Westfield High School; they were soccer players, basketball players, cheerleaders, AP students. By the time the ring was broken, there had been several overdoses and four deaths.

Sixteen young people would be convicted, and all but one -- Skylar -- would plead guilty to felony charges. Sentences handed down ranged from 30 days to 26 years in prison. Skylar was the last to be sentenced-- he got 20 years in July.

Centreville parents were stunned. How did children with so many advantages come to behave as self-destructively as this?

Among the ring's many members, there were differences in background, family history, personality. All had found their own reasons to try heroin. Alicia's may have been the most powerful of all.

A bright future

Skylar and Alicia both graduated from Westfield High in May 2007. They'd been dating since the summer before their senior year, and made a striking couple -- a lovely young woman and a handsome, personable young man.

"He seemed fine, at first," says Alicia's mother.

Almost a year after their daughter's death, Greg and Donna Lannes sit side by side at their dining room table. Less than two years before, after their daughter had first been rushed to the hospital with a heroin overdose, Skylar sat across from them at this same table and begged for forgiveness. He had helped her get the drugs, but he said it was a one-time mistake and swore he was getting help in an outpatient program. He cried. He promised to protect their daughter.

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