Andrew’s Actions …and devastating death

By on April 21, 2016
Andrew Klunk on graduation day at York Technical Institute.

Andrew Klunk on graduation day at York Technical Institute.

“Andrew’s Actions” is the third feature in a monthly series on the addiction crisis that our society is facing. The first series, “Beth’s Story” detailed Beth’s successful life as a registered nurse, and her untimely death. “Laura’s Ladder’ chronicled Laura’s life as she climbed out of her addiction cesspool and is now a contributing member of our local community. The series is written by Janice Ballenger, who works at Retreat at Lancaster County, a premier 160-bed addiction treatment center in Ephrata. While working closely with addicts, she has a burning passion to raise awareness and offer hope to all.

Andrew’s Actions

This is one of the most difficult articles that I have written. As many of you know, I was a deputy coroner for the County of Lancaster, serving a four-year term from 2004 through 2008. Many also know that I was the coroner on call on Oct. 2, 2006, the day of the Nickel Mines Amish school murders, which left five young Amish girls dead. I turned to writing my book of memoirs to stop my mind from re-visiting the scene. Through counseling, faith and writing, I was able to find my “new normal.” I also started doing author talks and I have a few guest speakers with me during my talks. One speaker is Kathy Good-Brinton. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Kathy and I were both at a scene I was dispatched to, in Lancaster City, for a suspected overdose.

The date was Monday, Feb. 13, 2006. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I entered the apartment and learned the identification of the body had already been made. Andrew Matthew Klunk, age 27, was dead. The scene and details will remain forever etched in my mind. I saw a young man seated in a floral printed recliner in the living room. He looked so peaceful, almost as if he was sleeping, but he was dead. His dark hair was neatly trimmed, and he was wearing a black tee-shirt, gray sweatpants and black and white sneakers. Next to him was a wooden table cluttered with a can of Dr. Pepper, a pack of cigarettes, an overflowing ashtray full of butts, a can of Planter’s Peanuts, 10 empty heroin bags, a lighter, a spoon, and a lava style lamp. But what stood out the most was a framed picture of a man proudly wearing a Navy uniform. Play station games surrounded his feet. The television was turned on. In his bedroom was a bloody paper towel. The bed’s electric blanket was turned on. I wondered if it was left on from the night before or turned on for that evening. Only one person knew that answer, and he was dead. I finished my field investigation work and attached a toe tag. I prepared and signed a death certificate, never realizing how that one signature would impact my life down the road. As I drove home I kept thinking, “Why am I signing, way too often, death certificates listing ‘Cause of death, pending toxicology reports.’ It was becoming an ugly, way too common practice and I didn’t see an end in sight.

Andrew’s obituary shed a little more light on his shortened life. “He was employed as a cook for Qdoba Mexican Grill and enjoyed skate boarding, music and video games. Andrew had a great sense of humor, one which he inherited from his paw-paw. He received an associate degree from York Technical Institute in 2002 and held a 4.0 GPA. He will be sorely missed by all.” Relatives were listed but I skimmed over them too quickly. Several months later Andrew’s mother, Kathy Good-Brinton, contacted me through Facebook. She had received the death certificate and noticed my signature on it. Kathy and I attended school together and she wanted to share Andrew’s story. Kathy’s story saddened me to my core:

“Andrew’s actions were caused by his disease of addiction. The destruction of his life and many others is unbearable. I never thought that as a mother I would bury my 27 year-old son before my own death. We lived in Lititz, where he went to John Beck Elementary; grade school at OMPH in Ephrata; grades 9 and 10 at Lancaster Catholic; grade 11 at Warwick High School; and at age 21 he received his diploma from Warwick.

“Andrew grew up in a loving family home, along with his older brother Matthew. He did all of the things children do. He played outside, swam, rode biked, played baseball, football and basketball. He had respect for others and loved spending time with his family, especially his grandparents. His early jobs as a newspaper carrier and working at McDonald’s reinforced his respect for others and his admirable actions. Andrew had a heart of gold. He cared about himself and everyone. Every summer he went to the beach with his grandparents, where he loved to walk on the boardwalk and eat pizza. He adored and admired his paw-paw, even having his paw-paw’s dry sense of humor.

Andrew with his mother and older brother.

Andrew with his mother and older brother.

“But Andrew had a dark side that robbed him of his good and loving traits. He suffered from severe depression. His actions turned into a new lifestyle that included lying, stealing and manipulation. After he forged checks from my bank account to the tune of $5,000 in three weeks and stole from his grandmother, I pressed charges. I suspected he might be smoking pot. One evening his girlfriend called me, desperately begging for help. I asked her if she meant that he was smoking marijuana. She screamed, ‘NO! He is shooting up heroin and stealing my things!’ He had hidden that devil very well. Andrew admitted that he had contemplated suicide since he was 14 years old! Yes, 14 years old!

“In January of 2004 the ugly side of addiction forced me to kick my beloved son out of our home. They call it ‘tough love’ and it was tough! I sensed this action hurt me more than it hurt him. Then the phone calls started. He would call saying he hadn’t eaten in days. I offered to buy him food. Those offers were refused. He wanted cash; drug cash. He would scream ‘(Expletive) you!’ and hang up, until the next call. As I reflected over the past years, I was his enabler too many times. There is a huge difference between helping and enabling. I never loved my son any less because of his addiction, I just hated his actions. At one point Andrew accepted that he needed help. He was ready to go to an extended inpatient rehab in another state. He met all of the criteria and I was overjoyed. My bubble burst when they demanded $20,000 up front. Unbelievable! As I was pondering my options, Andrew was in Lancaster stealing from Home Depot. After spending one year running and hiding from the police for multiple charges, I received a phone call that he had been arrested and was in jail. This might sound horrible, but I was relieved. I finally knew where he was. After his release, nearly a year later, Andrew was a different person.

“He trembled when he saw a police car, just thinking about his life in jail. He vowed over and over never to go back to that horrible place. He followed his probation orders, got a full-time job, made new friends, and even got his own apartment. Every weekend he would visit and I cooked his favorite meals. He loved chicken pot pie (even though it was never quite as good as grandmas, despite my using her exact recipe). He devoured McDonald’s food; pizza and Tang. Six months had passed since his prison release. Life was good … or so I thought.

“On Monday, Feb. 13, 2006, Andrew’s boss called me saying he did not show up for work. I assured his boss that I would get a hold of him and added that he probably overslept. My calls went to Andrew’s voicemail. By afternoon I had a gut feeling that something was wrong. In my last message I told him that I didn’t care if he was using again, but please, please answer the phone or call me. At 6 p.m. I was given permission to break into his apartment, and I did.

“There sat Andrew, lifeless. As a mother and a registered nurse by profession, my first instinct was to check for a carotid pulse. He had no pulse. Andrew was cold and dead, very dead. I fell to my knees as I saw the empty heroin packs; the syringes and the tourniquet. My youngest son had lost his fight with the demons and the relentless disease of addiction.

Andrew's paw-paw.

Andrew’s paw-paw.

I never denied how he died and have always been up front about his addiction. Some understood to a degree, and some totally related as they also had lost someone to the struggle. Others avoided me. That was a horrible feeling. Andrew is still my son! I will never stop talking about him. Please just say something, even as simple as ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ We need to stop the negative stigma; the shame and detachment. I would give anything if ‘Andrew’s Actions’ can save one family from an experience like this. It’s been 10 years since my son’s death and I continue to struggle at times. I will carry Andrew’s actions to my grave.”

Kathy continues to accompany me to my author talks and interviews, where she shares her condensed version of Andrew’s actions. My heart aches for Kathy and her family, but I admire her courage to be open and honest about Andrew’s actions. She has received a deserved amount of support and respect from so many people who can relate to her story. They appreciate her openness. She may be contacted via email at birdyinn@aol.com if you would like to reach out to her. We are burying our loved ones at an alarming and horrific rate. “Pending toxicology results” is being written on too many death certificates. We must end this crisis.

4 Comments

  1. Chris

    April 22, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    I struggled 9 years with heroin and pills I finally stopped using thAnks to the naaman center and will graduate from college next year. And I have seen horrible things

    • Janice Ballenger

      May 4, 2016 at 12:43 pm

      I’m proud of you, Chris. Glad you found a treatment that worked for you. I’m certain you have seen horrible things but now you have a great future ahead of you .. make the most of it. Again, congrats!!

  2. Janet Fisher

    June 25, 2016 at 9:44 am

    Chris, I am so proud and happy for you… It is a great thing you did… You have saved your life and the life of others who read this, even if it’s only one life… It is worth it… II have struggled with my son for about 31 years. It started when he was 14, and he is soon to be 54. He was clean for almost 9 years, and started up again…Lied and used all kind of excuses as to WHY! He is sitting in Prison now for buying and selling on line. What does his future hold! I do not know.. Will he stay clean again, or will he get out and use again..Only he knows… He finally had a life, a wife who loves himand sticks by him… I love him so much, but I cannot condone what he has done over and over again… My heart is sad =0(.I too have seen horrible things.. My son’s life… Will I see it again! I don’t know..I pray to God it is over, but only He knows…

    • Janice Ballenger

      July 23, 2016 at 12:44 pm

      My prayers are with you, Janet, that one day you will see your real son again, not the one masked by addiction. Thank you for sharing.

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