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Teen Heroin Ring in Centreville: Parents Talk
Several young co-conspirators face 20-year sentences

Caitlin Gibson and Greg and Donna Lannes
Writer and parents of Alicia Lannes
Wednesday, November 4, 2009 12:00 PM

Greg and Donna Lannes are the parents of Alicia Lannes, who was one of four fatal overdose victims connected to a heroin ring that operated among a group of more than 50 teens and young adults in Centreville, Va. When Alicia died at age 19 in March 2008, the FBI and federal prosecutors entered the investigation; by the time the ring was broken, 16 young co-conspirators faced felony convictions. Several are facing 20-year sentences. The community has struggled to understand how their children -- athletes, good students -- wound up in the clutches of a drug as serious as heroin.

One daughter's secret revealed, ultimately too late (Post, Nov. 4)

Greg and Donna Lannes were online Wednesday, Nov. 4, at Noon ET with writer Caitlin Gibson to discuss the story.

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Caitlin Gibson: Good afternoon everyone! Thanks so much for reading the series and participating here today. I'm joined by Greg and Donna Lannes, Alicia's parents, and I want to thank them as well for their willingness to share and discuss their experience and answer questions.

We welcome your questions and comments. There are plenty coming in already, so let's get started.

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Washington, DC: I have been following the reporting on this story for some time, and I appreciate the Lannes's openness, as I'm sure it will help other parents and families. I don't want to sound insensitive, but it really feels like they have put undo (all) blame on Skylar. I thought it would subside with time, but this article makes it clear that they still blame him. Alicia made the ultimate decision to put the drugs in her body. I'm hoping they would be willing to address this issue, since it hasn't been discussed in any of the coverage. Thank you.

Greg and Donna Lannes: Skylar is doing 20 years for his part in the drug conspiracy for buying and distributing heroin. Furthermore, Skylar was convicted at trial of conspiracy to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin resulting in death, possession with intent to distribute heroin resulting in death, and distribution of heroin resulting in death. We dont need to "blame" him. His actions and the laws that he broke are clear. Alicia's use of heroin is clear and documented as indication that she was self medicating her Post Tramatic Stress. He bought it, distributed it, she took it and we all suffer for those decisions.

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Centreville, Va.: If you put heroin in front of an addict, they would be hard pressed to not use; but put it in front of someone who is not an addict, and they should be able to walk away from it. It was written or said several times that Alicia's doctors did not believe she was a heroin addict. Doesn't that mean that when she used the heroin it was a choice she made?

Caitlin Gibson: If I understand your point, you're trying to distinguish between the physical dependency of an addict versus other motivations for use. It's true that an addict will feel an urge to use that is driven largely by a need to avoid the miserable symptoms of withdrwawal. But that's not the only motivating factor for using heroin or other drugs, obviously. A teen - or any individual - who is anxious, depressed, insecure, or traumatized (in the case of Alicia, who was deemed to be self-medicating for PTSD) might feel equally powerful, if not purely physical, motivations for using the drug.

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Waldorf, Md.: Did you all as parents, after learning of your child's heroine usage do any research on the drug and it's affect so that you would be able to recognize if she was still using or not when she said she wasn't or was fine?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Yes, we researched extensively. She was in therapy and drug tested multiple times by us and numerous professionals. We were as diligent a parent as we could be. Please keep in mind that we were fighting a mental disorder at the time.

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Lockport, N.Y.: Do You think you could have done any different, and what would you advise parents to do

Greg and Donna Lannes: Yes, we would have moved from the area. Indeed we spoke with Menniger (rehab in Houston TX)about this option. It was a very real consideration for us. We followed the advice of the professionals. It was agreed Alicia was strong enough and not an "addict" therefore we all were in aggreement that we focus on her PTSD. In hindsight, we would have moved.

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Alexandria, Va.: Isn't it true that your daughter attempted suicide on more than one occasion?

Greg and Donna Lannes: No, her only attempt was January 2006 with an overdose on alcohol. This was a calling out for help and we immediately obtained a psychiatrist for her.

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Waldorf, Md.: I have only the deepest sympathy and condolences to the Lanneses on their loss; my heart goes out to you. And congratulations to Caitlin for a beautifully written piece of work. I have two questions, both for Caitlin.

1) The article says Skylar was charged with pushing "a thousand grams" of heroin. I know that is a kilogram and a kilo is 2.2 pounds. Nevertheless, those numbers don't have much meaning for me. Can you give a ballpark estimate of how many fixes that might have been?

2) The article never mentions money, and my impression is that heroin is expensive. Can you ballpark how much these kids were paying for a fix? The one boy, Nash, says he got over a hundred fixes. I would have thought a fair amount of money is being exchanged all along the way, but I'm also assuming all these kids were so affluent that the cost of all this wasn't much of a problem. Is that assumption correct? I was kind of hoping the money issues might have flagged someone's attention to the heroin ring, but apparently it didn't. (I realize no one cares about the money compared to all the grief and heartache, to say nothing of the tragic loss of life, but I just wonder about it because I know my own teenage kids never had enough money to afford any seriously expensive drugs, not without otherwise stealing something that would have come to my attention.)

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words. To answer your questions:

1)The conspiracy as a whole was connected to a thousand grams of heroin. The ring members were using mostly single-use "bags" containing roughly .1 grams of heroin. In other words, one gram of heroin contains roughly ten individual "hits."

2)These teens were able to make enough of a profit to support their own habits, though there were a couple who applied more of a business-savvy to their approach. They were often paying about $20 per bag from their dealer in D.C., and then re-selling that same amount in Northern Virginia for $40. It's important to realize because it doesn't take a lot of money to get this started -- and once it's started, they can usually turn enough of a profit to keep it going. Thanks for that question.

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Washington, D.C.: I am the mother of two heroin addicts. One now runs a company called A-I-R Assistance in Recovery. An article on success stories of addicts and alcaholics and how to find help for recovery and aftercare might be a good thing. The two major stories in the Post are very informative and helpful, but there is a second half of the story remaining untold.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for reading, and for the suggestion!

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Vienna, Va.: The article mentions Alicia being found in her car with the passenger door open after overdosing. Did the police investigate to find out who was with her and just left her there in that condition ?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Yes, there was an investigation. It is still unknown who was with her.

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Drugs and teens: I am so sorry for your loss. You are in my prayers. Do you think this is a high school problem, with the vulnerability that the kids have at this age, or should those of us in the early empty nest phase also be worried about our kids that seemed stable in high school as they head off to college to make many decisions without us around?

Greg and Donna Lannes: We think heroin is an equal opportunist drug which makes both adolescents and young adults very vulnerable. Keep those lines of communication open with your children.

Caitlin Gibson: I agree with Greg and Donna here, it's always good to have your eyes and ears open -- though I would add that it's always a good sign if your children made it through high school without any troubles in this area. High school in particular, according to the people I spoke to while researching this series, seems to be a particularly high-risk period of a young person's life.

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Falls Church, Va.: I am a heroin addict and when I first took it it was a choice but after that first time, I was hooked not physically but because of the mental feeling it gave me and the warm feeling that rushed over me and made me feel like nothing bad could get in. And when you experience that once...it is hard to resist a second time.

Greg and Donna Lannes: God Bless you for sharing. Exactly what Edythe London, a neuroscientist and pharmacologist spoke about in the article, day 1. Our prayers are with your continued recovery.

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Sterling, Va.: Are you angered by the "We love Skylar" Facebook group? Many of these kids commenting on the page are bashing the police as well for their efforts to stop the ring. Why do you think so many kids support a person that has ruined so many lives?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Good question. Its dissappointing to see young people so mislead about the facts in this case. Their support of him is much like support of a high school sports team...us vs. them. There are no sides and no winners.

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Vienna, Va.: Is it true that for some of these Centreville area kids who were using herion it was their first time using any illegal drugs?

Caitlin Gibson: I wouldn't want to answer across the board and try to speak for every single one of the many kids who were involved, but I will say that as a general rule, the vast majority of those involved in the ring had taken many different kinds of drugs prior to heroin. From what I understand, it is rare to "start" with heroin -- it is almost always the end result of an escalation that often begins with alcohol and marijuana. My contacts at Alcohol and Drug Services pointed out that prescription medication abuse is another rising problem, as well.

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Rockville, Md.: While it is fair to put accountability where it belongs, children with low self-esteem can easily fall into the drug dealing trap. Dealers know whom to approach, believe me. It took us years of therapy for the entire family to understand why our straight kid had fell into that trap. Now he is doing great and is thankful that we took strong and firm action when he was using drugs. The person providing the drugs was older and quite resourceful at identifying his prey.

Greg and Donna Lannes: You are correct, absolutely. They are preditors and can identify the weak.

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Manasquan, N.J.: We are in the middle of experiencing a contagion suicide effect, some of it drug use related -- what advice do you have for parents so that they can take more responsibility for being a parent and not a friend?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Very true, parents sometimes need to take that "hard line' and be parents and not lower to a adolecent level to parent. Advice? Dont be afraid of the childs reaction and be consistant. They will still love you.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: Did the police use a informant when investigating the drug ring? Or did they use undercover police officers? I am wondering how they were able to charge some with distribution of specific amouts?

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for the question. The police had many of the ring members sign informant agreements, so they were getting very specific information (names, dates, drug quantities, etc) directly from the young people who were involved.

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Anonymous:

Do the Lannes' accept any responsibility for their daughters death?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Everyday it enters our mind on what we could have done different to change the outcome. We think about what if's...what if we didn't let her go to California?...what if we didn't let her date Skylar?...what if we left her at Menninger (rehab) longer?...What if we moved?. Any of these could have made a difference in hindsight. We tried everything that we thought was the right.

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Arlington, Va.: Was there some kind of herd mentality phenomenon that occured here? If the first student had never bought the heroin, is it likely that no one else would have?

Caitlin Gibson: Peer pressure is undeniably a huge factor in the spread of drug use through social circles. As Edythe London pointed out, all it takes to try something and get hooked is "availability and a weak moment." The second part of your question is harder to answer; like we've said, these kids didn't start with heroin, they were already using other drugs that were more readily available. It's hard to know whether or not someone else would have taken the initiative to seek out heroin if the early members of the ring had not. As the police pointed out, it's frighteningly easy to find the drugs; there is always going to be a supply out there. The key is addressing the reasons for the demand -- why these kids got to a point where they were willing to travel to DC and Baltimore to buy serious, dangerous drugs.

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Centreville, Va.: My heart goes out to Greg and Donna, not only for what they have been through, but for being willing to share it in hopes it may help someone - not an easy decision I am sure particuarly as they may be opening themselves up to criticism judging by some comments.

My question, though, is for Caitlin. Wondering what you hoped people would get from this series and what your motivation was for covering it and presenting it in the way you did. Thanks.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks very much for reading, and for your question.

My motivation for covering it came from the same gut reaction that I think many of the parents in Centreville experienced: why and how did this happen? I first followed the story as it was covered by The Post's fine reporters, Tom Jackman and Jerry Markon, in the Metro section -- it was their work that made me want to try to dig deeper and get at the guts of how this happens in a place where people just don't "expect" it to happen. What I hope will come out of this story is a greater awareness that it can, and does, happen anywhere; and the reasons are as unique and varied as the users. I wanted to humanize the people involved and grasp a better understanding of why they became connected to the ring.

I would also hope that the story might somehow lessen the shame and stigma attached to this problem -- from what I've seen in reporting this story, that fear and shame often gets in the way of users and their families acknowledging a problem and seeking the help they need.

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San Francisco, Calif.: As someone who works with injection drug users, I can tell you that moving to Texas would not have solved the problem. Heroin is everywhere and once you know how to find it, you can find it anywhere. Geography doesn't change that. Heroin's grip on the brain is stronger than any other drug. Research has shown that even after years of not using, the triggers to use still exist. That's why many former injection drug users die quickly if they return to using. Something triggers their desire to use and they inject at the level they were using when they quit using and their bodies can't handle it and they overdose. It's the hardest addiction to kick. The key to getting these kids (and any other injection drug user) to quit using is to look at what is making them use -- depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc., and reducing that harm.

Greg and Donna Lannes: We believe you are right and that is what the professionals were telling us...focus on the disorder. However, we recommend to move them from their current environment (influencial friends, male or female) and continue to get them help.

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Woodbridge, Va.: The two-part article was well written, but couldn't help but feel terribly sorry for the parents and family of such a young lady.

Can you offer any advice to the parent of two young girls so that they never fall into the trap of using harmful substances? Thank you so very much.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

The experts I spoke to stressed that open communication is the most important thing; be involved, aware, supportive and open. And don't be afraid to acknowledge and admit when there might be a problem, and seek help accordingly. The stigma associated with drug or alcohol abuse can often keep people silent, which is time you can't afford to lose.

Greg and Donna Lannes: Please stress to your girls to "never, never let any person (especially a young man) tell you he has something that will make them feel better" Young men have a huge influence on a young girls mind.

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McLean, Va.: I read part one of the story "When heroin hits home" in today's Post. I just wanted to express my sympathy to Greg and Donna Lannes, and also my awe at their bravery. Letting others read their story must be excruciatingly painful, but will hopefully give them some releif from their pain, and help other families that may be faced with teen drug use. My heart goes out to the Lannes family as well as the other families touched by this tragedy.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks so much for reading, and for your comment.

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Vienna, Va.: Are the Lanneses pursuing charges against the people that raped their daughter in California?

Greg and Donna Lannes: No. We dont know their identity and niether did Alicia.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a pre-teen daughter and I am concerned about all of this. Were there signs of her drug use in relation to her boyfriend (i.e., was she spending much more time with him, was she coming home seeming "out-of-sorts" after having been with him, etc)? Also, were there signs that she was losing friends or changing friends?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Hard to answer because once there is a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, they tend to spend alot of time at each others house. He spent lots of time with us and she at his house. We did not see her "out-of-sorts" but keep in mind, Alicia was constently changing "moods" while suffering PTSD. It was not uncommon for her to change emotionally, physically and socially on a moments notice.

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Addict from NoVa: I understand that it takes a lot of money to send someone to a good rehab facility. My parents spent two plus years of out of state college tuition to send me to three different rehabs (doesn't include the two state programs I was kicked out of), but when you noticed her sliding back when she returned from Houston, why didn't you send her to another facility...more long term? Something...?

Greg and Donna Lannes: We did not see her sliding back after Menninger. She was attending NA, AA. Attending college and getting ready to start a new job.

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Frederick, Md.: I realize there might be legal implications to revealing this, but did you ever find out how Alicia was using and passing drug tests at the same time? Thanks to all three of you for this story, well-told and heartbreaking. I am sure Alicia thanks you too. I have no idea what I could do for my 12-year-old son that you didn't do for Alicia, and that's the hardest thing.

Greg and Donna Lannes: We know heroin is metabolized quickly. We have no idea how she was passing these tests. We have heard over and over again the many ways children know how to cover drug use.

Caitlin Gibson: It's true that heroin doesn't stay in your system for long, so that's sometimes an answer. Other kids said that they would try to defeat those tests by taking other medications that counteracted the heroin somehow, or by asking friends/siblings for their urine instead, etc.

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Washington, D.C.: Caitlin: You said that your motivation was to "humanize the people involved and grasp a better understanding of why they became connected to the ring."

I thought you did that really well for some people in the story, but not all. I felt like Skylar was depicted as the bad guy, but I'm so intrigued by what made him tick. How did he descend into being a user/dealer? What was his back story? Did he have a traumatic event too?

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for the follow-up question.

I agree that it would have been great to have had a better understanding of Skylar's background, and to talk to him about that directly... unfortunately that wasn't possible, and mostly what I had to go on in regard to his individual story were the facts of the investigation. I did talk to his mother, who is quoted in the story, and I'm glad that she contributed her perspective. She did not indicate that he had ever suffered a traumatic event.

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Kensington, Ma.: I am a recovering heroin addict and this story has really helped me the past few days in my recovery. Thank you so much, and I am deeply sorry for the loss of Alicia.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks so much for reading and for your comment -- and all the best to you in your continued recovery.

Greg and Donna Lannes: Bless you in your recovery

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Fairfax, Va.: How do you best help a child who is burdened by a "secret"? Seems like an impossible situation.

Greg and Donna Lannes: Hard one, by the defination...a secret is a secret. Hard to help until the secret is revealed. Keep looking for signs and dont ever give up.

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Bethany Beach, Del.: How could the parents not know their daughter was sneaking out of the house?

Caitlin Gibson: Never underestimate how stealthy teenagers can be when they want to be. It's a lot harder to control the actions of a young adult around the clock than it might seem.

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Anonymous: I realize none of you may be able to answer this, but what did Anna Richter mean when she said boredom "absolutely" contributed to young people using heroin?

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for this question. Anna did say that the kids grew bored with going to the mall, going to Starbucks, going to the movies, etc; they didn't feel like there were many other options in Centreville. Drugs became an answer to the question, "What do you want to do tonight?"

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Washington, D.C.: Was Alicia under care of a mental health professional or taking any medications for her PTSD at the time of her death?

Was the crime (gang rape by unknown assailants) reported to the police in the locality where it occured when you learned of it?

Was Skylar aware of Alicia's PTSD diagnosis when the two were dating?

Thanks!

Greg and Donna Lannes: Yes, she was in the care of a psychitrist. She was on Wellbutrin. No the crime was not reported in Cali. hence the "secret". And, yes, Skylar knew of her PTSD, Anxiety disorder and depression disorders.

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Centreville, Va.: Caitlin, Did you try and contact any of the others in the drug ring to find out their side of the story?

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for the question. I did; unfortunately, because there was a court case unfolding during the time when I was doing much of my reporting, many were unwilling to talk (many were potential witnesses). Beyond that, it is obviously a very difficult and sensitive issue for them.

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Centreville, Va.: I'm a bit disappointed by the tone of several of the questions, which seem to suggest that Skylar Schnippel has been somehow wronged by these events. Skylar's situation is certainly tragic, but it seems that he is less deserving of empathy, for at least two reasons - first, unlike Alicia, he is still alive, and has the opportunity to rebound from his mistakes; and, second, although Alicia's behavior was self-destructive, it was not -- unlike Skylar's - predatory.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective.

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Baltimore, Md.: First, I would like to offer my heartfelt sympathy at your loss.

I am the father of two boys, both athletes and honor roll students. I have spent countless hours explaining the perils of drug use. Is there some way to tell if they begin? How can we know?

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for reading and for your question.

Look for any changes in behavior that might seem unusual or suspicious; mood swings, drops in grades, disinterest in things that used to make them happy. Counselors at ADS, as well as former addicts, also said to keep an eye out even for subtle signs like wearing perfume/cologne, using gum/mouthwash (to cover up pot/alcohol smell), being reclusive when they come home late.

It's great that you've already been open with your sons about the dangers of drug use. The open communication is one of the most important things you can do.

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Central Virginia: I am very sorry for your terrible loss. I admire you greatly for having the courage to tell your story. It must be incredibly difficult to live with the "what ifs" and very brave to continue to talk about it.

The article brushed upon Alicia's panic attacks in her "early teens." This appears to be previous to her horrific rape. Obviously, the rape compounded the anxiety, but how much do you feel the anxiety led to the drugs?

I have a niece with severe anxiety who exhibits many symptoms that your daughter did and her parents are very concerned about sending her to college next year. Prior to her anxiety, she was a joyful, friend-filled person. She has overcome her anxiety to a certain extent, but it never goes away.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks so much for reading and for your comment, and all the best to you and to your niece.

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Washington, D.C.: Could the school have done anything? There seemed to be a lot of warning signs but no one told one teacher or one counselor or even one parent...

Greg and Donna Lannes: This is very important point in our community. At this point the schools are doing everything they can based upon the resources they have in place. Please usnderstand that everyone in our community can and could make a difference in someone's life. Just spend a few extra moments of your day making that phone call to a parent when you see their child doing something that shouldn't...talking to a young teen who's in trouble...etc. That's why were sharing our story...awareness. We hope in the future to make an impact on how communication can be addressed and improved in the schools and community

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I think she felt guilty: Because the original crime was never reported. That reinforced the myth that it was her fault.

Greg and Donna Lannes: It was Alicias desire to eventually reach out to other rape victims and get them to understand it is not their fault and keeping it a secret was a terrible decision. She was 14 years old and in that young mind she thought this the best way to handle what had happened. She actually thought she was protecting us.

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Woodbridge, Va.: This was quite a series, IMO.

What was your reaction when you heard about Alicia's assault in California? I don't suppose there can be any arrests at this point. Did she ever explain why or how she kept it a secret?

At 14, I highly doubt I would've been able to hide something like that from my family and I can't figure out why she decided to handle it this way.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks for the comment and question.

It's not uncommon at all for rape victims to keep their trauma a secret; repression and denial are powerful forms of self-preservation, though unfortunately not healthy ones. As for her age, a young teen is possibly even less equipped to know how to process something so horrific. Simply denying it altogether and trying to run away from it might seem to be the best option.

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Ashburn, Va.: Several of the questions seem to imply that you could or should have done more to prevent your daughter's addiction. My daughter got out of rehab about three months ago and I can vouch for you, it's very difficult to diagnose an addiction, especially during the rebellious teen years. Acting out is what so many teens do, it's not all that easy to know that it is drug-induced. The other factor in my experience is how prevalent and socially acceptable it is. A nearby high school (in south central Pa.) is nicknamed Heroin High. I can tell all readers from my own experience that this problem comes up where you least expect it.

Caitlin Gibson: Thanks so much for reading and sharing your story. All the best to your daughter in her recovery.

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Reston, Va.: Has Skylar reached out to your family at all and expressed remorse?

Greg and Donna Lannes: Yes, he wrote us a letter shortly after her death.

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Alexandria, Va.: We're always told that one of the signs of drug use is if your child starts changing their group of friends or changing who they hang out with. Did you notice this to be the case with Alicia?

Greg and Donna Lannes: We think your statment is supported by facts...they do tend to change friends. Alicia changed friends when she started to date Skylar. We felt this was not unusual as kids tend to hang out with friends of who they are dating.

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Reston, Va.: Is there still a heroin problem in the Centreville area ?

Greg and Donna Lannes: It appears from the hearings and trial that the supply in still out there and the demand is based upon the high risks categories in our communities (i.e., depression, abuse victims, children bullied, etc.). What I can tell you is that the herion dealer convicted in the drug ring admitted to selling up 300,000 bags of heroin to Northern VA in the past two years. That person is now replaced on the street and that's only one person. I think the problem still exists in our community and others around the country.

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Caitlin Gibson: We've gone a few minutes over to try to get to as many questions as possible -- very sorry to those we did not have time to address. Thanks so much again for reading the story and for joining us in this discussion today. Take care.

Greg and Donna Lannes: Thanks to Caitlin and the Washington Post for publishing/writing this story. Thanks for the questions/prayers/support. God Bless

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