By Ruth Masters, Special to The Inquirer Correspondent Mike Franolich contributed to this storyPosted: September 06, 1989
Claire Whatley knew from the bike-hitting-ground clatter that her son, Jason, was home from delivering newspapers. Only moments before on that muggy July 28 evening, she had sat down on the brick steps leading up to their metallic-blue colonial-style home in Delran.
She asked Jason, 13, what had gone on that day while she was working in the bakery at the Cinnaminson Acme. He calmly told her that he had tried inhaling butane that afternoon. The gas, used in cigarette lighters, induces a dreamy anesthetized state when inhaled.
Whatley immediately took Jason, who had experimented with drugs before, to Rancocas Valley Hospital in Willingboro for a physical and psychological evaluation.
While in the waiting room, Jason told Whatley that he was ready to get help. And he talked about the future and how he hoped that if he was admitted he would be out of the hospital in time for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, held two weeks ago.
Yet less than 12 hours later, Jason again sniffed butane. And within minutes, he was dead.
Whatley, 38, sat on the edge of one of the floral-covered sofas in the living room of her Delran home about three weeks after Jason's death, cradling a cup of coffee in her hands. Her blond, curled hair alternately fell into her face or back from it as she looked to the floor or up to the ceiling as if the reasons for the death of her only child could be found there.
She has decided to tell Jason's story because she wants other parents to be aware of the dangers of inhalants. And she wants other teenagers to learn from Jason's death.
"If people think that they are close to their kid and their kid can't get caught in this, they're wrong," Whatley said. "My son came to me and told me he was doing it."
Butane is one of the many solvents, aerosols and gases that many teenagers inhale to get high. Although not a popular form of drug abuse, it is one of the most deadly, according to substance-abuse counselors.
It is a fast high that goes directly to the lungs and into the bloodstream, the counselors said. It can cause heart attack, cancer and lung, brain and nerve damage - and death.
About 17 percent of 2,000 New Jersey high school sophomores, juniors and seniors reported in a statewide 1987 survey that they had used an inhalant at least once in their lives to get high, while 13.6 percent reported sniffing glue. Alcohol, which was the most frequently used substance, had an 89.2 percent response rate.
The survey, taken between 1984 and 1986, was published by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety. Students were asked to give a "yes" answer if they had ever used any of 11 substances listed. The numbers did not measure frequency of use.
Seven counselors interviewed said that they saw only a few "huffers" - people who use inhalants - each year. Huffers tend to be found in clusters, counselors said. In some neighborhoods huffing may be popular, and in others it may not.
But within Delran, "huffing" does not seem to be popular. Several police officers and detectives said that they had not heard of usage among township students until Jason's death.
And 12 Delran youths said they did not think inhaling substances was a popular way to get high and that they had never tried it. The students, who were outside the Tenby Chase Swim and Sports Club where Jason swam sometimes, named alcohol, marijuana and cocaine as the substances more likely to be abused by young people.
The counselors said that most users are between 12 and 18 and that inhalants can be psychologically, but not physiologically, addictive. They also said that because inhalants were easily accessible, they were often the stuff of initiation into the drug scene.
Huffers can just go to the corner drug store or gas station and buy any of a number of products that will give them a high. Or they can unscrew the gas cap of any vehicle, the counselors said. Glue, White Out, nail polish and paint thinner are other products frequently used by huffers.
"I think accessibility is the key factor," said Gary Popick, program coordinator for the Camden County Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. ''If you're 12 or 13 years old, you can't go down to the liquor store. Plus, a lot of them, being young, aren't in the drug scene," he said.
"For people prone to drug use who don't have the social skills or street knowledge of how to work with the drug scene, inhalants are a real easy, quick drug to get a hold of," said Jeffery Clayton, executive director of Services to Overcome Drug Abuses Among Teenagers, based in Woodbury.
"These people are sniffing things which other people come and clean up in white suits with protective gear," Clayton said. "It's like going to a toxic waste dump and swimming in it."
That July evening, Whatley and her son arrived at Rancocas Valley Hospital in Willingboro around 6 p.m. The doctor who examined Jason found nothing physically wrong with him. But Whatley said a counselor who interviewed Jason told her, "Your son has got a serious problem. He's self-destructive."
This was not Jason's first encounter with counseling. Last November, Whatley had begun taking him to a counselor because she was concerned with his apparent low self-esteem, hyperactivity and the disparity between his high scores on standardized tests and his average grades in school.
The teenager began seeing a female counselor, with whom he had a good rapport, Whatley said. The counselor had told Whatley that Jason was ''terrific," but she recommended that Jason see a male psychologist, believing that he needed another male role model. Jason's father had died when Jason was 4 years old.
"A life-long thing was that his father died before he got to know him," Whatley said. "He had his father built up on a pedestal."
But Jason was standoffish with the two male counselors he saw successively, approaching them with what Whatley described as an "I dare you to help me" attitude. Whatley, frustrated by her son's lack of cooperation, stopped taking him for sessions in April.
The July 28 hospital visit also was not his first trip to an emergency room. Last winter, while he was undergoing counseling, Jason "cried and screamed" when Whatley dragged him to a hospital for a physical immediately after she caught him inhaling gasoline.
The doctor found no physical problems. Whatley and her brother, Richard Graff, who lives in the same house, both say that Jason stopped inhaling gasoline after that visit.
His behavior in that incident contrasted with the July 28 one. In the butane-sniffing incident, Jason went willingly to the hospital. And as they waited for a doctor to admit him, he talked about how he wanted to get better.
"He said, 'I'm ready,' " Whatley recalled. "He knew he had a problem and couldn't resist this temptation to get high."
But not even the gravity of the situation could quash Jason's irrepressible vitality. At one point during the waiting, he took a surgical glove and blew it up - a trick he learned from watching Howie Mandel, one of his favorite comedians. For Whatley, that action brought back memories of a happier Jason.
In a fifth grade talent show, guitar in hand, Jason danced around the stage lip-syncing the Steppenwolf 1969 rebel anthem, "Born to be Wild."
As the Tin Man in the sixth grade production of "The Wizard of Oz," he ''jumped up and down," "put in words" and "tried to steal the play," according to one eighth grader who saw the production. Whatley merely said with a smile that he "embellished" the role.
And the hazel-eyed boy with the below-the-shoulder blond hair also was quite popular with girls. At a Fourth of July fireworks display in Philadelphia, Jason wandered off into the crowd and returned with three girls in tow, his mother said.
He met some girls at last year's Philadelphia Folk Festival, corresponded with them during the year and anticipated meeting up with them again this year, she said.
Claire Whatley and Graff believe that Jason tried butane sniffing because of peer pressure. Whatley said Jason told her that a friend suggested he try inhaling butane.
Jason tried butane "because all the other kids try it, all the cliche reasons, wanting to fit in, curiosity," Graff said.
The principals of both the Delran Middle School - where Jason would have entered seventh grade this week - and Millbridge Elementary school said that Jason had "a tendency to follow," an assessment that fits in with both Graff's and Whatley's belief that Jason was susceptible to peer pressure.
But drug abuse counselors disagree on whether there is a profile of the typical huffer.
"I would say that if you spoke with 100 (huffers), you would get 100 specific answers about why they used inhalants," said George L. Forman, director of substance abuse services at Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center in Camden.
For instance, Clayton, of Services to Overcome Drug Abuses Among Teenagers, said that depressed people are more likely to become huffers than to abuse other substances, since inhalants dull the brain, thereby dulling the hurt and anger that often cause depression.
But Forman disagreed, saying that depressed people tend to choose stimulants.
Counselor Popick, from Camden County, said that huffers tended to be thrill seekers and risk takers.
"I think somebody who would try just about anything has to be a greater risk taker than someone who would just experiment with, say, alcohol," he said. Alcohol is a risk, he explained, but youths know that people drink it all the time, seemingly with no side-effects.
About 9 p.m., three hours after they arrived at the hospital, Whatley said the counselor who had interviewed Jason gave her a card with the name of a psychiatrist to call. Hospital officials decided that Jason could be treated on an outpatient basis, according to hospital spokesman Anthony Cirillo.
Whatley said she was upset about his release because she didn't believe she could give Jason the type of 24-hour-a-day help she felt he needed.
"I took him (to the hospital) because he was doing it as a whole, not because he was high at the time, but because he needed emotional support," Whatley said.
In the parking lot on the way home, Jason asked Whatley why she was angry with him. She explained that she was angry with hospital officials.
He said, "Why? I'm going to see the doctor tomorrow morning."
They arrived home around 9:45 p.m., ate dinner and watched a movie on television.
While preparing dinner, Whatley read the warning printed on the butane canister - "harmful or fatal" - to Jason and showed it to him. She then put the container back down on the kitchen counter, where she had placed it before they went to the hospital.
"He said he was sorry he did it," she said. "That he was foolish for doing it.
"I really felt confident that he was really looking forward to tomorrow being a change in his life, and I didn't think he would try it one more time," she said.
At about 1 a.m. Claire Whatley went to her room to go to bed. Jason came in and asked her to read to him from a book that she had been reading. But she told him that she wasn't going to read the book that night. He left the room, and she went to sleep.
Sometime after she fell asleep, Jason went downstairs, took the butane canister from the kitchen counter by the stove and tried to get high again. After inhaling, Jason began climbing the stairs to his bedroom, but he had a heart attack and tumbled down the steps into the front foyer.
The crash of Jason's body against the floor awoke his mother and uncle at about 3 a.m. They called an ambulance, and squad members tried unsuccessfully to revive him before taking him to Zurbrugg Memorial Hospital in Riverside, where he was pronounced dead at 4:50 a.m.
The toxicology tests showed traces of butane in his system, which would have caused the heart attack, according to Delran Detective Edward Perrino.
"Kids think that parents are saying, 'I don't want you to do this because I don't want you to have fun,' " Whatley said. "What I want to get across is for kids to talk to their parents and no matter how much they think their friends know, their parents have already been through everything. Trust your parents because they care more about you than anyone."
Her brother added, "The reality and the bottom line of these canned chemicals is that they can kill you, and they will kill you. This isn't a fairy tale."