Solemn journey

Too late to save her son, a mother wants to warn others about prescription drug abuse

Debbie Zarder keeps her son’s ashes in the wooden box above her fireplace.
Photo: Iris Dumuk

Debbie Zarder takes a deep breath. Lips trembling, she stifles tears and begins walking down the narrow hallway in her modest Henderson home, past the game room where her son, Robert David Jojola, spent many evenings playing games on his PS2 system, toward the scrum of barking dogs, some of which he helped deliver, and to the door leading to his room.

Everything looks much as it did on May 23, the day he died. The closet where he kept his comic books and baseball and basketball cards is orderly, as if he’d sequenced all dozen-plus three-ring binders just a few minutes ago. Above a poster of thong-bikini-ed women is a bookshelf with tomes he’d finished—Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

A solemn gray cap and gown that he never got to wear hang from a wooden dresser—Jojola was days away from graduating from Basic High in Henderson. Next to them, nailed to the wall, is his beloved brass B.C. Rich Bronze Series guitar. At the foot of his unmussed bed is a folded Phoenix Suns blanket.

“It’s emotional every time I come in here,” Zarder says. “I hope no parent has to go through what I’m going through.”

Eight days before his 18th birthday, Jojola overdosed on methadone and morphine pills. The official cause of death was acute opiate intoxication.

Addictions' toll


Beyond the Weekly
The painful truth about Nevada (Las Vegas Sun, 7/6/08)
Rising use of painkillers taking deadly toll (Las Vegas Sun, 7/7/08)
Officials urge action on painkiller abuse (Las Vegas Sun, 7/8/08)

Angry and aggrieved, Zarder has been on a one-woman crusade that’s part introspective (how could she not know her son was hooked on prescription drugs?) and part interrogative (confronting his friends, talking to parents of drug-using kids, returning calls to her son’s phone, working neighborhood contacts for intelligence, directing cops to apartments where prescription-drug dealers ply their trade).

Zarder says she’s discovered a subversive culture in which high school students throw “cocktail parties,” where everyone tosses prescription drugs into a bowl, grabs a handful, swallows and then waits for the rush. She’s also found a calling: telling her story in the hopes of preventing future tragedies. Zarder quit her job as an apartment manager to take up this cause. A website is in the works, as is a push to get onto every campus possible (she’s been turned down by at least one).

Robert David Jojola

“This is a big problem in the schools,” she contends.

On May 23, as she did most mornings, Zarder went to her son’s room and called him by nickname before entering. “Bobby D!” When he didn’t answer, she jimmied the door open with a screwdriver. “I figured that he’d snuck a girl in.”

When she found Jojola, he was lying in his bed, mouth agape, an open bottle of Tylenol next to him, white tablets and multicolored pills spilling forth. Paramedics arrived in minutes. Zarder rode in the ambulance to the hospital. “His time of death was after 8 a.m. But I knew when I saw him that he was dead.”

Drug-related text messages flooded Jojola’s phone after he passed, some friends still oblivious to the tragedy.

“I got white holler [cocaine].”

“I got some stress and dank on deck [weed] for anyone who wants it.”

“Can you get Xanis [Xanax]? Yellow are better. I hate white ones, yellow are two mg.”

“Dude. I like completely over exhausted my body by taking seven Thizz [Ecstasy] pills in like three hours on Friday,” reads a text message received days before Jojola’s death. “I thought I was gonna have to go to the hospital yesterday … It was totally worth it though ha ha … shit I’m still sick. I was just more worn out.”

Another text from someone wanting to score Lortab convinced Zarder that her son sold prescription drugs. One of the final texts mentioned an acid and Xanax graduation party.

The dozen-plus kids Zarder has talked to gave her the skinny on the prescription-drug trade: They steal the drugs from their parents or burglarize the homes of elderly people. To get drug money, they pawn belongings or barter their stolen drugs.

Just how big a problem this is is anyone’s guess. Nationwide, 20 percent of teenagers have abused prescription pain medications, stimulants and tranquilizers, and one in 10 has abused cough medication, according to the Partnership for a Drug Free America. Several years ago, the Southern Nevada Pharmaceutical Enforcement Narcotics Team (composed of Las Vegas police, the DEA and the state’s Public Safety Investigations Division) began investigating the Valley’s flourishing prescription-drug underworld.

Seventy-five percent of the patients that come through Dr. Michael Levy’s Center for Addiction Medicine office are hooked on prescription drugs; of those, 15 percent are teenagers and adolescents. His operation is the state’s only private clinic treating prescription-drug addicts, and one of 100 nationwide. “This is the biggest drug problem I see in my practice,” Levy says. “Our laws focus on hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, plus alcohol. We need to go back and take a look about how prescriptions drugs have become the primary drug problem in the country.”

Officials from the Henderson, Metro and school police departments didn’t respond to calls before press time.

To his knowledge, school-district spokesman Michael Rodriguez says prescription-drug abuse is not a big issue, but he concedes that there’s no surefire way to stop students from sneaking drugs on campus to use, sell or trade. “We’re not Big Brother. We don’t have cameras in every corner looking at every student.”

Rodriguez says prescriptions must:

–Come from licensed health-care providers;

–Be stored in labeled containers;

–Be checked into the nurse’s office.

In order to manage their own prescriptions, sixth- through 12th-graders must:

–Have written parental permission;

–Be able to produce that documentation;

–Keep controlled substances, such as Ritalin, in the nurse’s office.

The medicine can be confiscated if the name on the label doesn’t match the student’s name, if there is no label or if the label has been altered, at which point parents are called.

“If students are caught exchanging medicine, it’s taken away, and their right to use it on campus can be revoked.”

Zarder says Bobby D’s acid-reflux problems gave him the medical cover to abuse drugs. Drug tests and blood work never betrayed his secret. “He hid addiction well,” she says.

Tristan Willey, 22, can’t mask his anger at his brother’s so-called friends. In his eyes, Bobby D was standing on a cliff, and they could’ve pulled him away. Willey himself kicked drugs to be a role model for his brother. He was excited about his plans to enroll in college. “It’s hard that he’s not here anymore.”

There’s a shrine to Bobby D in the living room. Two guitars bookend the memorial. The shelf contains three candles, flowers and an urn with Jojola’s ashes. Zarder couldn’t stomach burying him. Below the memorial and above the burnt-out fireplace is a poem that her son wrote, which, ironically, extols the wonders of prescription drugs. Zarder is in tears.

Somehow, she missed the signs. Bobby D was Mr. Popularity, so popular that Palm Mortuary workers had to bring out more chairs at his funeral to accommodate the overflow. “If I can help one person …” says Zarder, trailing off. “My family is supporting me. I know I’ll go back to work someday. But if I didn’t do this right now, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d be a basket case.”


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