Wisconsin family struggles after son's heroin overdose death
By PATTI ZARLING
Nov. 18, 2017
MANITOWOC, Wis. (AP) — Jeff Lenzner was asleep after pulling an all-night shift at work. Barb Lenzner, his wife, had just settled onto the living room couch after cleaning the house. It was July 26, 2014.
"Two police officers came," Barb Lenzner said. "They said, 'Kurt's gone.' I ran screaming to wake Jeff up."
Kurt Lenzner was 27 years old when he died of an accidental heroin overdose in the early hours of that bright summer day. He stopped breathing on the floor of a friend's basement and was found much too late for paramedics to save him.
The Lenzners were notified at about 1 p.m., long after their son's body had been claimed by police as evidence and whisked to Fond du Lac for an autopsy. They never saw him again.
"I think that's the hardest part," Jeff Lenzner said. "We couldn't say goodbye."
Kurt Lenzner was a big guy who loved ice cream with chocolate sauce and McDonald's burgers. He was a giving friend and a funny guy who expressed his love for his friends and family easily. The year after he graduated from high school, he continued to give his friend, a year younger and without a vehicle, a lift to school each day.
And Kurt Lenzner kidded around constantly. His mother recalled he used to boast that he was in shape: I'm round, he would say. Round is a shape.
His family never even knew Kurt used heroin.
"We were totally blindsided," Barb Lenzner said. "After the fact, you see the signs. The mood swings. You see his eyes in pictures and you wonder how you missed it."
More than half a million people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses between 2000 and 2015, according to the federal Health and Human Services Department, and 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
The Lenzners agreed to speak with USA Today Network-Wisconsin in the hope they might help erase the stigma surrounding drug addiction, to raise awareness of heroin's toll in Wisconsin and to reach others who might be suffering in silence.
Kurt Lenzner had lots of friends, but struggled in school and didn't have specific career goals when he graduated from Lincoln High School, his parents said. He worked a variety of jobs, mostly as a press operator — sometimes for a few weeks or a few months, mostly through temp services, at places like Ariens Company in Brillion. At one time, he'd expressed interest in becoming a welder, Barb Lenzner said, but it didn't happen.
He continued to live at home. Both friends and family describe him as a happy person who never seemed unusually depressed. They knew Kurt Lenzner drank and occasionally smoked marijuana.
Barb Lenzner said his last group of friends, and particularly a girl to whom he was attracted, may have led him to heroin use. Kurt Lenzner, who had recently been hired as a permanent press operator at Manitowoc Tool and Machining, slept during the day and usually descended from his upstairs bedroom at about 8 p.m. He disappeared to friends' houses on weekends.
His parents couldn't figure out why Kurt Lenzner had no money to pay bills. They now realize he was likely supporting his and his friends' drug habits.
He was stuck, and couldn't seem to move forward.
"We kind of argued a little bit with him in those weeks before he died," Barb Lenzner said. "We were upset with the way he was living. We didn't like his group of friends. We wanted him to better himself by saving money and moving out on his own."
His family acknowledges Kurt Lenzner made mistakes. He could become angry if he drank too much. He had a couple of misdemeanor arrests on his record: In 2007, he and a group of friends were arrested for vandalizing houses and vehicles by throwing pumpkins and rocks in the city's downtown. A year later, he was arrested for kicking and punching the person he claimed had "snitched" to police about the vandalism.
The Lenzners gave Kurt Lenzner a stable upbringing: two married parents, financially stable, a house in a middle-class neighborhood near Lake Michigan. Heroin took him. They still are angry no one was charged directly for causing his death, although 31-year-old Rebecca A. Schiesl was convicted in November 2014 on charges related to Kurt Lenzner's death. Kurt was at Schiesl's house when he overdosed. Schiesl was convicted on a felony charge of running a drug house.
Schiesl told police she had been snorting heroin with Kurt for three or four months in her home. Police never determined who sold Kurt Lenzner the drugs that killed him.
Manitowoc Assistant Police Chief Scott Luchterhand said the area has recently seen a steady increase in accidental overdoses from heroin and fentanyl, a painkiller 50 times as potent as heroin. In a particularly bad two-week stretch this summer, one city police officer administered Naloxone, or Narcan, to five different people. Narcan is a prescription drug that revives those who likely have overdosed. Manitowoc police officers are trained to use Narcan and each squad car carries it.
"This is an epidemic, and it cuts across all demographics," Luchterhand said. "The rich, the poor: It's in every part of the city."
From 2005 to 2010, Manitowoc saw 40 overdose deaths related to prescription drugs. After law enforcement agencies and health providers made it more difficult to obtain prescription medications, many addicts turned to heroin, also an opioid, or fentanyl.
Looking back, Barb and Jeff sometimes blame themselves. Barb Lenzner wishes she had used more tough love with her quiet son or asked him to take on more responsibility around the house.
"I yell at him," she said. "I drive past the road he used to take to go (deer) hunting and I yell at him, 'You could be hunting right now.'"
Despite the sadness, regret and anger, they also remember his good side.
"(Kurt) never left the house without saying 'Love you,'" Barb Lenzner said. "He was a hugger."
Kurt Lenzner made the family a clock, made of wood with large brass numbers, which hangs next to the kitchen's back door. He liked to salmon fish off Lake Michigan and deer hunt in fall. He also was a huge Philadelphia Eagles football fan, in addition to the Green Bay Packers, mostly because he loved nature and the bird itself. His favorite TV shows were "Ice Road Truckers" and "Pawn Stars."
Chris Rozmarynoski, a close friend of Kurt Lenzner's, said they met in high school gym class when he was a sophomore and Kurt a junior.
"Something just sort of hit it off between us," Rozmarynoski said. "We talked or texted every day after that."
Kurt Lenzner taught his friend to salmon fish from the Manitowoc Marina.
"This time of year, he would be out there every day until there was ice on the water," Rozmarynoski said.
Kurt would yell "Fish on!" no matter where they were, teasing that he had caught a fish.
"He was really a family man, too," Rozmarynoski recalled. "When we fished back in high school, his mom would call and say 'It's dinner time,' and he would leave and go home to eat and then come back."
After graduation, the pair kept in touch, but saw each other less frequently as they moved into working life and made different circles of friends.
Rozmarynoski, married with a toddler daughter, last saw Kurt Lenzner about two years before he died, when they met at a bar to watch a Milwaukee Brewers game on TV.
"He was still the same old Kurt," he said.
Rozmarynoski learned of his friend's death while scrolling through Facebook at his cousin's wedding.
He went outside by himself and cried.
Kurt Lenzner's kindness stood out. During Rozmarynoski's senior year of high school, Kurt gave Rozmarynoski a ride to school every day, even though he had graduated the spring before, Rozmarynoski said.
"He didn't have to get up at 7 a.m. to take me back to high school, but that's the way he was," Rozmarynoski said.
In sharing Kurt Lenzner's life, the Lenzners want his memory to be about more than the way he died.
They wear matching purple T-shirts, since purple is the color for drug overdose awareness. They make a cake for Kurt Lenzner's birthday. And each July 26, they light purple Chinese lanterns to celebrate their son's life.
Kurt Lenzner's sister, JoHannah Brockman, got a tattoo with her brother's initials shortly after his death, and wears a necklace containing some of his ashes. A knife imprinted with Kurt's thumbprint to represent his love of hunting and the outdoors is on display in the family living room.
"There isn't a day that goes by that you don't think of something," Barb Lenzner said through tears. "You want to talk to him. Just the fact you can't see him anymore, just him coming down the stairs every night or going out the door saying 'I love you.' That's no more."
Information from: HTR Media, http://www.htrnews.com