The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 27, 2014

Son's drug death a life sentence for family

By Karen Blackledge
The Danville News

— DANVILLE — Denise Cressman is living a life sentence along with her husband and two sons 10 years after the death of their 18-year-old son.

“The day his best friend gets out of prison will be Eric’s 38th birthday,” the Danville mother told Danville ninth-graders in teacher Bill Freeman’s health classes Wednesday.

Eric’s best friend of 12 years, who went on to become a heroin addict, is serving 20 years in federal prison, she said.

“It is just a terrible experience to go on with life,” she said of the death of her honor society middle son who was brilliant and accepted at Penn State to study chemical engineering.

Eric died Dec. 28, 2003, of an allergic reaction to a methadone wafer. An asthmatic, Eric had taken the lowest prescribed dosage of the drug, she said. Methadone, which is in the opiate family, suppresses the respiratory system, Cressman said.

The Danville district and state Rep. Kurt Masser are sponsoring a program on drugs and alcohol April 24 in the middle school. A free meal will be served from 5 to 6:15 p.m. with the program beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium.

Cressman began talking to students by asking each to take an animal cracker and then asking why they took the cracker. “Because you needed it, you were told by someone you trusted and knew, you believed it wouldn’t hurt you, you wanted it, you thought it would be good and it’s familiar,” she said.

On Dec. 29, 2003, she got up and knocked on Eric’s bedroom door to get him up and then knocked again.  They were supposed to be going to a Christmas gathering.

She found the door locked which was highly unusual. “I heard his dog get off the bed,” said Cressman who then called for her husband and sons Brian and C.J.

“C.J. climbed out on the rooftop and screamed ‘Mom Eric’s not moving,’” she said. Brian started doing CPR on his brother whose body was already stiff. “A neighbor had to tell him to stop doing CPR,” she said.      

Eric looked like the face from the Scream movies. “It’s a terrible sight burned in our minds forever,” she said.

Saying Eric was no angel, she said he was “the first kid there to help somebody. He really had a good heart and soul.”

“His best friend came to the house that day and a lot of people were there,” she said.

Eric’s death affected Brian, now 30, with reoccurring nightmares of giving him CPR and Brian failing his junior and senior years at Penn State. He spent the next four years in his room and working summers.

C.J., 14 at the time and now 24, dealt with it, she said.

“We went through the judicial system because we felt an obligation to protect kids in Danville. We didn’t want families to go through what we went through,” she said.

It took Brian six years to recover from his depression. He returned to Penn State and is studying to be a lawyer. “His goal is to do some type of federal law to pay back the U.S. attorney’s office support they gave us,” Cressman said.

C.J. graduates in May from Penn State with a degree in forensics and criminal justice.

In reading what her sons wrote about Eric’s death, she said C.J. wishes he had never been friends with the boy who gave him the prescription drug. “He was the same age as you guys when he lost his brother,” she told the Danville students.

Brian wrote the best friend, who also served as a pallbearer, knew Eric was having a bad reaction, carried him to his room and locked the door behind him. He wrote he cherishes the happiness he had with his brother.

In reading what she wrote about Eric, Cressman choked up at times and some students cried.

“It’s been 10 years. Some days are harder than others,” she said.

“I’m not crazy to think kids here won’t try drugs. One decision can affect your family for the rest of their lives and we carry it with us every single day. I had to forgive the boy responsible a long time ago — it’s tough enough to carry grief every day,” she said.

That night Eric asked her if he could go out, his last words were “thanks mom. I love you.”

“I have that gift of my son’s last words to me,” she said.