MANATEE COUNTY — Sometimes, Luis Lizardi wishes he had never moved his family to the East County.
Jumping on a career opportunity in Southwest Florida, Lizardi found what he thought was the perfect place for his wife and three children. Parks were pristine, lawns meticulously trimmed and edged.
The Lizardis settled in Heritage Harbour, with their oldest son, Justin, enrolled at Lakewood Ranch High School.
Everything seemed ideal — Leave-It-To-Beaver-esque. There’s no graffiti, no unsavory characters wandering the streets. Everything is pristine.
But now, as Justin, now 20, sits locked in a cell at the Manatee County Jail charged with 10 counts of burglary, Luis Lizardi knows better. He knows — far too well — how drugs can change a child. And he knows — again too well — that they are much more prevalent than many parents believe.
“After we moved to Florida, I saw (him) changing,” Luis Lizardi said. “I said, ‘This place is infested with drugs.’
“There’s other kids; they just haven’t been caught,” he said. “It hasn’t hit them (other parents) yet. They turn a blind eye.”
Justin was just a freshman when he first smoked marijuana — something the Lizardis said they just didn’t see in their previous hometown of Grenada, Miss.
“After we moved here, the environment changed,” said Justin’s younger brother, Christian, who graduated at the top of his class last year from Braden River High School. “Grenada was a small town, a good place where everybody knew each other.
“Here, it’s larger,” he said. “There are cliques, and everyone knows Lakewood Ranch was the school for drugs.”
Then, on June 27, 2006, tragedy struck the Lizardi family. Luis Lizardi’s nephew died of an enlarged heart caused by a drug overdose. He was just 20 years old.
“That hit Justin hard,” he said. “They were really close.”
But instead of considering his cousin’s death a wakeup call, Justin continued using. He began skipping class, and finally, the Lizardis pulled him out of Lakewood and enrolled him at Braden River.
Despite the switch, Justin continued hanging out with the same people who introduced him to drugs. Justin was arrested following a fight off-campus and charged with a felony. He was expelled from Braden River.
The struggle intensified when Luis Lizardi, an Army veteran, was deployed in January 2008 for a yearlong tour in Iraq.
“That was the worst year of my wife’s life,” he said.
Justin began using cocaine, prescription pills and more. Now a complete addict, he was nothing like the boy in Grenada — the honor-roll student who had been elected class president every year from fourth through eighth grades.
“We all know my brother, and this is not him,” Christian said. “He’s a totally different person on drugs.”
In October 2009, the Lizardis placed Justin in a rehab center in Ft. Walton Beach for three weeks. Doctors there diagnosed him with depression linked to his cousin’s death. They also told Luis Lizardi his son was a wonderful person and that he just needed some wins in his life.
After returning home, Justin tried to enlist in the Army but was turned away because of the felony on his record.
Luis Lizardi pleaded with the Army: Please, my son needs to leave. He needs to be broken down and built back up. If he stays here, I’m going to lose my son.
The Army did not waver and told Justin he could enlist in October 2010.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives arrested Justin July 27 and charged him with 10 counts of residential burglaries and associated charges such as loitering, prowling, possession of burglary tools and grand theft.
A surveillance team watched as Justin left his house by bicycle, attempt to break into one home and then enter another. Post-Miranda, Justin admitted to 10 burglaries, including one in which he stole more than $36,000 in jewelry from a home in River Club.
“This is not my son, and people see this and judge him as if he was himself,” Luis Lizardi said of the arrest. “There’s no worse a feeling than knowing drugs caused this.
“My wife and I look back and try to evaluate,” he said. “What did we do wrong?”
Later, at the jail, Justin saw his dad cry for the first time in his life.
“My dad was always the soldier,” Christian said. “And when he saw Dad do that, he said, ‘I don’t think Dad is mad; I think he’s disappointed.’
“And disappointment, to a kid, is way worse,” he said.
Since his arrest, Justin has remained in jail while the legal process continues. Christian, now a freshman at the University of South Florida, said he visits his older brother every chance he gets. And, he is confident Justin can shake his addiction — with help.
“He prays every night,” Christian said of Justin. “And he’s been reading his Bible.
“What’s different this time is that he said, ‘I’m pretty sure I hit rock bottom,’” he said. “I do believe he can overcome this.”
His father agrees.
“Justin told me, ‘Dad, once this is all over and I’m a free man, I want to go to every person I hurt and tell them I’m sorry for what I did,’” Luis Lizardi said. “I told him I would be right there with him.”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
Although drug usage among teens is not a new phenomenon, Christian Lizardi said in many ways, the social stance on it has.
“I would say about 80% of all the people I knew had done something — especially pot,” he said.
Christian said usage isn’t the result of peers pressuring a friend to try a drug but rather something far less sinister.
“It’s a trend,” he said. “It’s like wearing flip-flops. And it’s going to get worse.”
What’s more, he said, many teenagers don’t even consider marijuana a drug.
“If you ask some kids who smoke pot, they will say it doesn’t do anything to you,” he said.
The Lizardis aren’t the only East County family that has faced drug-related tragedy. Summerfield resident Janice Spring’s son, Derek, died from a prescription drug overdose Sept. 13, 2008 — just a few weeks after his 18th birthday.
Today, almost exactly two years after his death, Janice Spring has still not run out of tears. The “what-if” questions still loom. There’s still no full explanation of what happened the night Derek died.
Only more questions.
He would have been 20 on Aug. 28.
After Derek died, Spring decided to take his story public, despite the social stigmas she would face.
“Somehow in my mind I thought I could do for other kids what I couldn’t do for him,” she says softly.
“My story should be this horrific, unique situation, but it’s not,” she said. “(Prescription drugs) are supposed to be controlled substances, and they are everywhere. You just think, please, please stop. If we could just get to these kids.”
In the days and weeks following Derek’s death, Spring learned that reality from one of Derek’s friends, who came by to visit.
“She said, Mrs. Spring, I could make one phone call and have anything you wanted faster than you could get an aspirin,” Spring remembered.
Even now, Spring hears reports almost daily of children overdosing on drugs. Because of privacy issues, they seldom are made public. She knows families who have left the area in hopes of helping their children overcome addiction.
“We have a whole generation of kids who know someone who has died (from this),” she said.
FAMILY EDUCATION PROGRAM
Manatee County Public Schools’ Steve Rinder knows the statistics well. The $35 six-week program Substance Abuse Family Education Program he facilitates offers group counseling for students identified for suspension from school because of alcohol- or drug-related offenses, or by court mandate or other referrals.
In the last six years, more than 2,000 families — with students ranging from elementary through high school — have come through the program, he said.
In the first week of the school year alone, 16 families came for the group.
“As soon as the drugs come into the family, they (become) the third leg of the stool,” Rinder said.
So far, Rinder’s efforts seem to be paying off. Ninety percent of the children going through SAFE have tested clean during a post-program drug test, he said. Rinder has no way to drug test beyond that point but has begun doing three- and six-month follow-up with families. Discussions there suggest similar results, he said.
INSIDE THE SCHOOLS
Both Braden River and Lakewood Ranch high schools adhere to the Manatee County School District’s drug policy.
The first offense for possession, use or under the influence is an automatic 10-day suspension (may be reduced if the student agrees to complete the district’s Substance Abuse and Family Education program). The second offense is a 10-day suspension and recommendation for expulsion. If a student is caught selling, buying or distributing, he or she will be suspended for 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion or reassignment.
On campus, Braden River High School Principal Jim Pauley and his administration team work to remain visible. They also target areas known to be hot spots for delinquent activity. And most of all, they try to remain consistent in their enforcement of the rules.
“All the schools have a discipline matrix, and we don’t waver much,” he said.
Schools also employ drug dogs, and administrators also can search students if they have reasonable suspicion of illegal activity.
“When we search kids, parents are notified,” Pauley said. “And we will. I always tell parents that I’d much rather they be upset with me because we searched a kid who didn’t have anything than because we didn’t keep the school safe.”
However, those rules, no matter how strict, apply only on school grounds, at school functions or at bus stops.
“As we know, society does not stop at the school door,” Pauley said. “And no school can shut out society.”
Each year at student orientation, Lakewood Ranch Principal Linda Nesselhauf has just one word for parents: Supervision.
Just because a child reaches ninth grade and can attend school functions does not mean he or she are safe from outside influences, she said. Although schools offer a supervised setting for events and studies, administrators and teachers there simply do not have 24-hour access to their students. The friends they make, whether at school or outside of it, often hold a larger influence.
Places off campus — such as soccer and baseball fields and even church youth groups — are more likely locations for students to use and access drugs, she said.
“I don’t think we have any higher rate than any other school,” Nesselhauf said. “Am I going to tell anybody there are no drugs at Lakewood Ranch High School? No.
“I’ve always said: Lakewood Ranch is a cross section of East Manatee schools,” Nesselhauf said. “So, if parents hear there’re drugs at Lakewood Ranch High School, then there are drugs in the community.”
VICTIM ADVOCATE UNIT ASSISTS IN TIMES OF TRAGEDY
It’s almost impossible to comprehend how Susie Brown can keep a smile on her face.
As the unit manager for the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s Victim Advocate Unit, Brown, an East County resident, is the woman who family members meet on the worst day of their lives. When someone dies because of a drug overdose, violence or other crime, Brown and her team of advocates are there to assist the surviving family members.
“We have at least one overdose a week,” she said of the drug problem in Manatee County.
Following a death, Brown will help families in whatever capacity they need. Sometimes, that’s making a few phone calls. Other times, it’s connecting them with other services available for grief counseling.
“The big thing is placing control back in these people’s lives,” she said. “Control has been taken out of their hands.”
A lifelong Manatee resident, Brown began her career as a victim advocate in 1993. And although most of her days are filled with heartache and suffering, Brown said the grateful phone calls she receives following her help make it worthwhile.
“I’ll get calls from families from cases I worked 10 years ago,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Still, even after 17 years, Brown said the work never gets easier.
“Some days are good days; others are more intense,” she said. “You panic when the phone goes off.”
OPERATION MEDICINE CABINET
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office will host this prescription drug take-back event this weekend. The program is part of a national effort being coordinated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Citizens will be able to turn in expired, unused or unwanted prescription drugs with no questions asked. The service is free and anonymous.
The event will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sept. 25, at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention office, 600 U.S. 301 Blvd. W.; and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office District Three, 5030 U.S. 301 N., Ellenton.