Heroin deaths in Virginia spike in 2013

WINCHESTER, Va. (WJLA) - "Frederick County 911."

The call began with an emergency dispatcher on the line.

“I started screaming,” Terri Nelson recalls. “I don’t even remember what happened next.”

It was her worst fear.

"Hello... hello?" the dispatcher said.

"You gotta come now!" Nelson replied.

Moments before, on that hot August morning, the mother of four found her only son, Derek Sprouse, unresponsive.

"My son is dead in the bathroom," Nelson told the dispatcher.

"How old is he?" she replied.

Then, in a pleading voice: "He's 30. Please come help."

But Nelson, a trained nurse, already feared the worst.

"Before they told me, I knew what it was," she says. "I knew it was an overdose of heroin."

But Sprouse’s case is not unique. Police say it’s part of an alarming spike in heroin-related deaths.

"It's just a huge epidemic we have in our area," says Special Agent Jay Perry with the Virginia State Police, who's also part of the Northwest Regional Drug and Gang Task Force.

Authorities say just this year, 18 people in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley have fatally overdosed on heroin. In Frederick County, Md., 14 people have overdosed; thirteen have overdosed in Montgomery County.

Police say strict new prescription drug laws and the availability of cheap heroin are fueling the trend.

"These folks are injecting something into their bodies that they have no idea of the potency of the drug may be," Perry says.

Family members say Sprouse began taking prescription painkillers after a 2006 car crash that left him with a broken jaw and a painful back injury. By 2009, he was using oxycontin and heroin. Desperate, Sprouse moved into his mother’s house in Virginia in March.

"He came up here to Winchester with the idea of getting away from the old influences," recalls Robert Brown, Sprouse's drug counselor. "Starting clean."

For a while, it worked. Sprouse was playing music again, his passion. He got a job and began four months of sobriety.

"He wanted to settle down, he wanted to make a career," says Sprouse's sister, Lauren Welbon. "Stay with our family and reconnect and be part of the family."

But off the drugs, there were issues.

"He was very nervous and agitated," says Julie Miranda, a friend living in Florida. "All the little problems of life were too much for him."

Even the stress of getting a driver’s license was a strain, his family says.

Last summer, with the rest of the house asleep, Sprouse texted someone to bring him what turned out to be a fatal dose of heroin.

"I think he wanted to make it," Nelson says. "He really did. But it didn't happen for him."

Months later, Nelson is still grieving, hoping the supplier is caught soon – and that others will learn from her loss.

"He was a very gentle soul," Nelson recalls. "He loved life in spite of all his troubles. He had some very dark days, but he loved life."

Police aren't commenting on specifics of Sprouse's case, but say this is an active investigation.

Nelson says she hopes to speak with area schoolchildren about saying no to drugs.

A fitting legacy, she says, for her son's life cut short.