June 21, 2009 — -- Justin Veatch should be graduating from Yorktown Heights High School next weekend. A talented musician and skateboarder, the 17-year-old planned to attend music college, but that goal that was cut short last fall when a heroin overdose claimed his life.
On Monday, Sept. 8, as the alarm clock sounded in their Yorktown Heights, N.Y., home, Justin's mother, Marina Veatch, tried to wake her son.
"I went in and I turned the alarm off. And I said, 'Justin, get up. It's time to get up and go to school,'" Marina Veatch said.
But Justin didn't stir.
"And then I realized there was a problem. He wasn't responsive," she said.
Justin started playing the keyboard at 4 years old and then moved on to the piano. His talent developed quickly and he was soon producing sophisticated musical arrangements in the little basement studio of a bungalow on his tree-lined street.
"He had a tremendous capacity to hear music and to produce music," said Justin's father, Jeffrey Veatch.
"I would sit inconspicuously on the staircase and listen to him," Marina Veatch said.
Marina was always listening in. She was the kind of mom who kept track of everything her son was doing, including his friends and habits.
And so when they suspected their creative teenager was using marijuana, she and her husband tried to draw the line.
"At one time we told him, 'If we find you with pot, you can't go to camp this year,'" Jeffrey said.
But when they later did discover he was using marijuana, they found it hard to punish him. They now see it as a pivotal mistake.
"As things go, everybody's doing it," Jeffrey explained. "He got to go to camp. And that might have been a weakness on our part."
"Our son trying heroin? Are you kidding me?" Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey and Marina sent their son to a one-month rehab and thought he was cured. But despite their best efforts and his promises, the drug use continued.
Learning Lessons from Justin's Tragedy
And what his parents didn't know, his friends kept secret.
Rachel Czipo, 18, was one of the last friends to see Justin on the night he died in his sleep. She didn't know all that Justin was doing but she and other friends had an idea that he was experimenting with heavier drugs.
"A lot of artists talk about how, how it can open up your mind, and he was just so into experiencing every different part of the world," she said. "And I think that it was more for that reason than trying to escape."
Rachel says many of his friends thought Justin would know his limits.
"His friends kind of thought of him as somebody who could handle all this," she said.
"I just miss him," Rachel said. "He's just so different and so caring and accepting. Nobody can say a bad word about Justin, nobody. And they never have been able to, because he was just really a beautiful person."
Justin's parents hope others can learn from their tragedy.
Noting that Justin had withdrawn from some of his core friends, Jeffrey said, "when children have friends that you don't know, that's possibly a danger sign."
Marina urged teens not to be afraid to help if they see a friend in trouble.
"Don't feel that you're ratting your friend out. Call. Make a call," she said. "You're not being disloyal. You're being a good friend."
Substance Abuse in the Suburbs
For parents of kids in suburban areas, hard drugs might seem like a danger exclusive to inner-city teens.
But some teens who take recreational prescription drugs are finding harder drugs offer a better and even cheaper high. Dealers also know they can make a mint in the suburbs from kids from well-off families who are willing to pay more.
Drug law enforcement officials say heroin is widely available in the suburbs. Rachel Czipo agrees.
"It's easy enough [to get drugs]," Czipo said. "If you want something, you can find it."
Regardless of the drug's prevalence, Marina blames herself.
"I've been beating myself up from head to toe," she said. "Internally, I probably have black and blue marks. That's all I've been doing since it happened, just feeling like I failed."
"I am so angry at these evil forces infiltrating the communities," Marina said.
Jeffrey said, "the first reaction parents have, and I know this is the case with parents around here, is 'I would never let my kid do this. This would never happen in our house because we're good parents.'"
"We're good parents," Jeffrey said. "But we've learned an awful lot since then about substances and what's available."
Celebrating Justin's Legacy
It took months for Marina to enter her son's room again. She still can't bear to throw away his clothes; they smell too much like Justin. Justin's 15-year-old sister Elena still listens to her brother's music every day. While the wounds left by Justin's death are still fresh, the family wants his music to live on.
Marina even wrote him a Valentine's day card.
The card read, "Dear Justin, wishing you a beautiful Valentine's Day. We love you and miss you. You are in our hearts every minute of every day. Love, Mom, Dad and Elena. Let your heart sing."
Justin's father has now taken over his son's dream. Jeffrey has poured himself into a CD project finding bands to cover Justin's original music, and has recovered tracks they'd never heard before from Justin's laptop. A new album of original music and covers is due out later this summer. The proceeds from that album will go to benefit the Justin Veatch Scholarship Fund, a scholarship for other young people who want to pursue music.
"I have to do it. It's for him," Jeffrey said. "And it's for us. And it's for other people. I feel like it's my job in life now to celebrate Justin's legacy."