Blonde, outgoing and an accomplished athlete and student, Elizabeth Turner died from a heroin overdose Feb. 11, 2013, after years of struggling with a drug addiction.
Three weeks ago, her family started a website to spread the word about Elizabeth’s death and resources for families dealing with drug addictions. As of Tuesday, more than 1 million people had visited the site and added their personal addiction stories.
“I am totally surprised. I thought it was going to be a small thing in the area. It has gone viral. It is mind-blowing. We are not in this alone,” said Teresa Turner, Elizabeth’s mother.
‘Perfect’ daughter walked down wrong path
Elizabeth Turner was born Aug. 5, 1988, in Philadelphia, the youngest of three children with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked in information technology. The family moved to Acworth when Elizabeth was 7, after her father was transferred for work. She joined the neighborhood swim team, took dance lessons, played the flute and was a Girl Scout.
A straight-A student, Turner was popular among her peers at North Cobb High School, and balanced an active social life with a successful academic one, said her older sister, Jennifer Echolf of Acworth.
She managed to secure the HOPE scholarship for Kennesaw State University in 2006, as well as admission to Auburn University’s journalism program.
“She was perfect,” her mother said.
The family had no idea Elizabeth, then 16, had begun experimenting with drugs while at parties with her North Cobb High School friends. She made it home by curfew every night and kept her grades up, but had been taking prescription pills on the weekends, smoking marijuana and drinking, her sister said.
“She hid it very well. She fooled a lot of us,” Echolf said.
Elizabeth began classes at Auburn in 2006, but after her first semester dipped back into a life of partying and drug use. By the end of her first year, she was, for the first time in her life, failing classes and was addicted to Oxycontin. The Turners pulled her out of school and moved Elizabeth home, where they struggled for six years to keep her sober.
Once home, Elizabeth continued to excel at almost everything she did.
She enrolled at KSU for a semester, then received a dental assistant certificate from Medix College in Marietta, which has since closed, her mother said.
Elizabeth was interning at a dental office in Acworth and working full time at Maggiano’s Italian Restaurant while regularly attending addiction meetings, said Teresa Turner.
“Everybody loved her,” she said.
Her daughter was known for her beauty, and would spend hours on her hair, makeup and clothing, taking joy in helping others pick out fashionable outfits, Turner said.
Fighting inner demons
Underneath her beauty and charm lay an illness, family members said, and they believe similar drug addictions are common place in white, middle-class neighborhoods throughout Cobb County.
“She was the all-American child, but she walked into something and never looked back,” Echolf said.
In the six years she was in and out of rehab and living at home, Elizabeth buried 16 of her friends, family said.
Elizabeth left her parents’ Chestnut Hill home Feb. 8 on her way to an addiction meeting, her mother said, and never came home.
Somewhere, on they way from her house to the meeting, Teresa said her daughter wound up at a friend’s house, where she overdosed on heroin.
Three days later, on Feb. 11, Elizabeth was pronounced legally brain dead.
The family buried her on Feb. 18, 2013, at Kennesaw Memorial Park cemetery in Marietta.
One year later, the family hopes by sharing Elizabeth’s story, they can save a few lives in Cobb and Cherokee counties, where drug addiction has become “an epidemic,” said Echolf.
In the last year, at least eight of Elizabeth’s former friends have died, her sister said. They were all Cobb and Cherokee residents.
“It’s on the rise,” said Mike Gerhard, who is the operations manager at the Cobb Medical Examiner’s office.
Overwhelming response to website
On Jan. 24, Turner’s sister-in-law, Shanon Turner of Kennesaw, began a website, filled with warning signs and links to sites with resources for addicts and families of addicts.
Underneath photos of Elizabeth, posing in her first communion dress and graduation gown, hundreds of thousands of people have commented.
Stories are being posted from all over the world, from Michigan to the Maldives islands.
By Tuesday afternoon, more than 1 million people had visited the site, overwhelming the family, Shanon Turner said.
Every 10 to 15 minutes, another 5,000 people visit the site, noheroininheaven.com, she said.
“It just blew up,” Turner said.
The webpage has been a source of healing for the family, and they hope it will serve a similar purpose for other families.
“Everyone heals differently, and this has been a great way for us to heal,” Shanon Turner said.
Many of the responses have come from Cobb and Cherokee, the family has said, which doesn’t surprised them.
The Turners put out a survey on an accompanying Facebook page, which has garnered more than 3,000 followers in the last three weeks, Shanon Turner said, asking people to write in when they started experimenting with drugs.
“We were appalled. Some of the responses said 10 years old. When we saw that, my heart broke,” Shanon Turner said.
Just one of many
Elizabeth is just one of many stories of drug addiction in Cobb. As each day passes, more testimonies come out, adding to the hundreds on both the Facebook page and website.
“We were absolutely shocked because not only is everyone being supported, this has built a community. It has become a full-time job. We are just one story. Together, everyone’s advice can help the community,” Shanon Turner said.
Drug addiction knows no barriers or socio-economic lines.
“Looking at my sister, you would not notice she was a heroin addict. The junkie you see down in Atlanta is not the junkie living next door to you,” Echolf added.
The number of families hiding their drug addictions in Cobb is alarming, family said. They hope the website will help draw out the issue into discussion.
“We are not surprised at the number. We are surprised how many people keep this situation hidden from the rest of the world. That’s the problem,” Shanon Turner said.
After she was pronounced dead, Elizabeth’s heart was donated to a man in New Jersey, and her kidney went to a grandmother in New Orleans.
Thousands of dollars have also been raised and donated to a Kennesaw-based pet adoption agency, Inspire Rescue, which partners recovering addicts with pets and regularly checks in with both adopters and adoptees.
In the coming year, the family hopes to create an educational program and visit Cobb and Cherokee schools spreading the word about drug addiction.
“I want to keep spreading the word, and get into the school system. I want the school system to talk about this. They are not talking about heroin,” Echolf said.
Until then, the Turners are watching and updating the website, creating a public community for those struggling as they have.
“I feel like if I had known what I know now, it would have been totally different,” Teresa Turner, said.
Elizabeth’s Facebook page and website can be found at noheroininheaven.com.
HEROIN-RELATED INCIDENTS IN COBB BY YEAR:
2014: 9 (as of Feb. 20)
Information from the Cobb County Police Department