Remembering Rider students lost to opioid epidemic over the past decade
By Shanna O’Mara
Each fall, friends and family remember two Rider students who were lost too young to opioid addiction, an insidious disease which has ravaged this country and state. Though their deaths were separated by nine years, the two men have become part of a larger recent issue.
On Sept. 18, 2016, former Westminster Choir College (WCC) student Ben Klofta died of a heroin overdose at the age of 26. Justin Warfield, a WCC freshman at the time of his death, was just 18 when he fell to the same fate ten years ago this month on Oct. 17, 2007.
Both Rider men have become part of a heartbreaking statistic: Since 2004, when accurate records started being kept, more than 6,000 people in New Jersey have died from heroin use, according to data from the state Medical Examiner’s Office.
“The opioid issue is extremely important,” state Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in an Oct. 5 interview. “It is a crisis. One newspaper ran an online map where all the heroin overdoses were. I went to my county and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I’d hit the button on one of the spots and it would say, ‘55-year-old male,’ ‘49-year-old female’ from this town, that town. It’s so large.”
Sweeney represents Gloucester County.
Kris Robinson, Klofta’s girlfriend of one year, vividly remembers receiving the news that the young drummer — who attended WCC for the 2008-09 academic year — had passed from drug overdose.
“His mom called to tell me,” Robinson said as she nervously wicked away moisture from her glass of water. “He had been clean for a while. [Before then], he actually took me to dinner and told me he was four months clean. One little thing made him go back to it, and he had a bad batch.”
Robinson said Klofta was unknowingly given heroin laced with fentanyl, a pain medication that can suppress the respiratory system when taken in large quantities.
“He was the most caring, sweet, genuine guy I had ever met,” Robinson said, adding that the two likely would have been engaged by now if not for his death. “Addiction is a disease. It affects good people.”
Warfield — the son of a reverend, brother of two fellow musicians and friend of many within the Rider community — was not the person expected to become the face of opioid overdose, according to one of his former professors.
“Justin was bright in so many ways it would be difficult to count them,” said Joel Phillips, professor of composition and music theory. “I helped recruit him into our undergraduate degree in music composition, and he was so well-prepared [that] he placed into an upper-level class I taught. He fit in instantly, and his classmates adored him. Justin filled the room with a joyful spirit.”
The tragic deaths of Warfield and Klofta have aligned with a national trend of opioid use and overdoses throughout recent history. Even seemingly quiet suburbs such as Lawrenceville and Princeton are affected.
“[Narcan] is now used in the community to treat overdose,” Elizabeth Luciano, assistant director of the Student Health Center, said in 2015 when Rider Public Safety officers began carrying the opioid antidote in their vehicles. “It is a prescription drug that comes in both injection and a nasal spray that can temporarily reverse the effects of drug overdose.”
According to Public Safety Coordinator Mike Yeh, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office introduced the idea of funding Narcan kits for local police departments. Soon after, Yeh and Public Safety Director Vickie Weaver suggested doing the same for universities. Rider began carrying Narcan in November 2014. To date, no university officer has ever had to use the antidote on either campus.
According to data out of the Governor’s office, there were 11,468 deployments of Narcan throughout N.J. as of May 2016.
“If [the antidote] is used in time, it can save lives,” Luciano said.
Robinson said informing people about the dangers of opioid use could reduce its prevalence in society.
“Education and ending the stigma — that’s the biggest thing with this,” she said of the epidemic that could forever change or ultimately end a person’s life.
“You could explain the addiction of drug use like texting and driving,” she said, rubbing the tattoo on her inner arm, a purple B she got to honor her boyfriend. “You always say you’re never going to do it, but then you check a text at a stoplight. You put your phone down and say, ‘OK, I’m never going to do that again.’ But one day you’re on a long drive, and you pick it up and check it. You say, ‘That was fine. It was only two seconds.’ You’ll never do it with other people in the car, and you’ll yell at anyone else for doing it. Then one day, you hear about this horrible accident because someone was texting and driving, and you shun them.”
Robinson said those afflicted by addiction do not choose to destroy their lives or hurt those around them; they become overwhelmed by a substance and lose themselves.
Warfield, like Klofta, was a talented musician and kind person who fell under the powerful grip of the sinister drug.
“Like every composer, [Warfield] had an introspective side,” Phillips said. “I recall his beautiful choral setting of [Edgar Allan] Poe’s ‘A Dream,’ which begins ‘In visions of the dark night/I have dreamed of joy departed — But a waking dream of life and light/hath left me broken-hearted.’ No words capture the poignancy of knowing, then losing this special person, than those Justin set.”
If you or someone you know is addicted to an opioid, please visit reachnj.gov or call 911 in an emergency situation.