The saddest story I read this week was an all too-common police blotter item.
A young Naperville man arrested for selling heroin to undercover cops.
It was, at first glance, just another drug addict getting himself busted, right? But the story behind the disturbing mug shot of 21-year-old Peter Rundo has many compelling layers.
Yes, Rundo is a drug addict. And police say he’s also a drug dealer: He’s currently locked up in a Will County detention center, charged with bringing six grams of heroin from Chicago and selling it to cops after a covert investigation.
But Peter Rundo is also a son, a brother and a friend. And what we can’t forget is he’s a tortured soul, trying so desperately to break heroin’s hold on him that he became involved with an anti-drug group in 2012.
A year ago, one of our photographers even took a photo of him when he and two friends from his 2010 Neuqua Valley graduating class, Chris Merkes and Jonathan Humphreys, were on their way to receive an award at Roosevelt University during a Drug Overdose Awareness vigil. Merkes and Humphreys had started Open Hearts, Open Eyes after last year’s overdose death of another classmate, John Kacena.
“Kids were hurting and they didn’t know what to do,” Humphreys told me at the time. The new grassroots group was a “way of spreading awareness and support …and to let them know they were not there to judge, but to help.”
Rundo not only was receiving support from Open Hearts, he appeared in June on the nationally-televised “48 Hours” special about drugs in Chicago suburbs. The pain was obvious in his voice and his eyes as he spoke candidly about the stronghold heroin has had on him since that first hit on his 17th birthday. In fact, it’s hard to reconcile the smart-alecky mug shot we featured in this week’s arrest story to the sad and humbled young man in that video.
Rundo admitted he’d been busted before. He talked about selling drugs to support his habit that was costing up to $200 a day. He recalled the moment he realized his life was out of control: sitting in the parking lot crying as he got ready to shoot up before class.
Karen Hanneman, who lost her son to heroin a couple of years ago, sat next to Rundo at the vigil, where he also got trained on how to administer the anti-overdose drug nalaxone, and clearly saw the torment on this young man’s face. “The younger they get hooked, the harder it is to break the addiction,” she said, “because the brain becomes chemically altered.”
On the Open Hearts, Open Eyes Facebook page, which now has over 5,000 members, co-founder Humphreys compared a friend’s addiction to watching him get kidnapped, unable to scream for help. “When you give up on them,” he wrote, “they give up on themselves.”
Rundo’s mother Sharon told me her family exhausted themselves financially and emotionally trying to break her son free; and was relieved he was at least in jail where he will be safer than on the streets.
When Sharon saw her son walk out the door that night, hours before his arrest, “I saw death in his face,” she recalled.
Another chance for recovery
The law clearly states users and sellers are criminals. But this should not be a story about judgment or punishment. Many of these local dealers are users themselves. So getting thrown behind bars could be their best hope of escape. “As bad as an arrest is,” noted Caroline Kacena, whose grief over the loss of son John propelled her to advocacy, “it gives him another chance for recovery.”
Even as the story about Rundo’s arrest broke, word was spreading that another 21-year-old Neuqua Valley grad, Connor E. Kelly, who served jail time last year for drug possession, died Tuesday in his Naperville home.
According to Naperville Police Sgt. Louis Cammiso, officials won’t know for certain the cause of Kelly’s death until toxicology reports come back, but there are “indications of drug use.”
Cammiso is as frustrated as the rest of the community. “We need to support these addicts because they need our help,” he said. “But we also have to figure out a way to get the rest of these young people from trying the drug in the first place.”
When media attention wanes and deaths go down, he noted, kids start getting braver about trying heroin. And before you know it, a whole new age group is addicted.
“We are seeing it rise again,” he said. “It’s a testament to how powerful this drug really is.”