Army veteran dies after years of huffing

Aaron Draper struggled after getting hooked on aerosols while he was still in the military

sberg@idahostatesman.comDecember 29, 2013 

Aaron Draper

JOE JASZEWSKI

  • QUOTING

    "I don't want to say that I shun people away, but I'm definitely more cautious about what people tell me. Even friends ... I trust too much and then I end up getting hurt or my son gets hurt, and my job as a parent is to protect my son as best I know how. So I'm more cautious and not so willing to just let people tell me what I want to hear."

    AUTUMN GROH, on how she's dealt with Aaron Draper's death

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    Sven has covered city government and issues in Boise since July 2012.

The King County Medical Examiner lists "toxic asphyxia" as the official cause of Aaron David Draper's death on Aug. 23.

Manner of death: accident. That means it wasn't natural causes and it wasn't a homicide or a suicide.

But for years leading up to his death, Draper acted suicidal. In December 2011, he told Statesman reporter Patrick Orr that he believed he would die if he couldn't overcome his addiction.

He had started huffing - inhaling the contents of household spray cans - in the Army. A friend told him that it would take away the pain from a wound he said he suffered in a 2005 explosion in Iraq.

He couldn't kick the habit. He got married and had a baby, but he kept huffing to ease the nightmares he believed post-traumatic stress disorder caused. He quit, got divorced and started again.

Anyone who thinks huffing isn't addictive should read Draper's Ada County arrest report. Between April 2011 and February 2012, Draper was arrested 12 times for huffing. That was after he went through treatment in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Boise.

On one occasion, police found him outside the Overland Road Wal-Mart with dozens of empty air cans littered around him. He woke up at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and ended up in jail. He promised he'd go back into treatment as soon as he was released. It's unclear whether he ever did; efforts to contact his girlfriend and family members were unsuccessful.

To someone who doesn't understand addiction, Draper's pattern makes no sense. A sober outsider could guess Draper's addiction was the root of most of his problems. He must have known it himself.

But many addicts aren't able to make good decisions, which is what makes them so self-destructive, said Sgt. Tim Randall of the Nampa Police Department.

"A lot of these people don't have the reasoning skills," Randall said. "You and I both are sitting here thinking, 'Well, that's stupid. Why would anyone do that in the first place?' But people don't even have those kinds of reasoning skills to even make those kinds of choices. That's the furthest thing from their minds."

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Autumn Groh has let go of the bitterness she felt after her friend died.

The sadness was inevitable. It's still there. And in the moments after Draper was found dead at a Federal Way, Wash., bus stop, Groh couldn't stop her anger.

Part of her blamed Draper's girlfriend, who told her the afternoon of Aug. 22 that she was dropping her boyfriend off at a bus station.

"I was a little irritated with that," Groh said. "Because you know that he's struggling with this addiction, and you know leaving him alone at a bus station isn't a very smart decision to make. But then again, it's not her responsibility to take care of him. I had a little bit of resentment toward her, but that quickly went away because, you know, it's not her fault."

FRIENDS AGAIN

Groh first met Draper in 1999. She was a freshman at Clover Park High School in Lakewood, Wash. He was a sophomore, tall and skinny, with a goofy sense of humor.

"He was like the class clown. That's what I remember," she said. "He always had something funny to say, some smart comment to make about anything and everything."

They ran in the same social circles but weren't particularly close.

Groh didn't see Draper much in the years after he graduated. A couple of years ago, they reconnected through Facebook. Their contact was sporadic until April, when he commented on a picture she'd posted.

That comment led to a conversation, an exchange of phone numbers and a deepening friendship.

"It was more of that close connection of friends getting to know each other again, and now that we were both adults, it was not so much high school conversation. It was real-life conversation," Groh said.

In July, Draper moved to Parkland, Wash., a small town a few miles south of Tacoma. Sometimes he stayed with Groh, sometimes with his girlfriend. He bought Nerf guns to play with Groh's 7-year-old son, Logan. His girlfriend's daughter came over to Groh's house to watch movies with Logan.

Groh had learned about Draper's struggles when they became friends on Facebook. She searched his name on Google and came across the Statesman's story on him. She didn't think too much about it. That changed one night when she and a friend went to a bar in Auburn, Wash., to meet up with Draper and his girlfriend.

"When we pulled up to the bar, his girlfriend was standing outside in sheer panic mode because she couldn't find him," Groh said. "He had walked off. He said he had a stomachache and he was going to go to the drug store and get something for his stomach. Well, we found him behind the bar with a can of air, and he had passed out from using the can of air."

GLUE, GAS AND AIR

Huffing starves a user's brain of oxygen, producing a high. The practice is harmful, not only because it kills brain cells, but also because the chemicals in the cans can cause lung damage and poisoning. In rare cases, it's fatal.

Huffing isn't new. People have huffed glue and gasoline for decades. Randall said nonstick cooking spray was popular for a while.

"It seems like every time a new product comes out, somebody tries huffing it to see if it works," he said.

Using compressed air - the kind for blowing dust out of computers, keyboards and other electronics - as a drug is a relatively new practice, Randall said.

Huffing is common in the Treasure Valley, he said, though not necessarily more popular than in recent years.

THE END

The day after Draper passed out behind the bar in Auburn, Groh confronted him.

"He kept trying to convince me that he was fine, that he was OK, that there was no problem," she said. He kept saying, "I'm sorry. I'm OK. I promise."

She didn't see him much after that. Partly, that's because she drew a line. She didn't want her 7-year-old exposed to Draper's problem.

"I flat-out told him that if he was using, then he wasn't going to be allowed in my home because he's jeopardizing me and my son," Groh said. "You cannot be using and be around my child."

Over the next few weeks, Draper's addiction appeared to worsen. His girlfriend told Groh that she'd found empty air cans in her room.

The day before Draper died, his girlfriend sent Groh a text message: She was dropping Draper off at a bus station in Federal Way, and he was on his way to see Groh. Groh tried to get in touch to say she'd pick him up so he didn't have to ride the bus. They never connected.

The next morning, Groh got the call: Draper was dead. He was 30 years old.

"I cried. I was upset. I was angry," Groh said.

At 6:38 a.m. on Aug. 23, a King County worker reported seeing Draper's body near the bus stop. Officers found him face down against a fence, his skin ashy and discolored.

"Next to the body was a can of compressed air and an opened wrapper for a two-pack of compressed air," Federal Way Police Officer Chris Mickelsen wrote in his report. "I observed that under the body slightly protruding from under the left side was second matching can. The second can appeared to be in the hand of the deceased."

PAIN, BUT NO REGRET

Groh told her son Draper died of a seizure. She didn't tell him the whole truth because she was worried about how it would affect him.

"My son is the type of person who says, 'If you say this is my grandpa, I'm going to love him like I do my grandparents who are with me every day. And you say this is my uncle? OK, I'm going to love him like I love my uncle and my aunt that I see every day,' " Groh said. "And so, I had to be as cautious as I could. And he was satisfied with the explanation."

Groh is glad she reconnected with Draper, even though it brought her pain.

"I don't regret meeting people and being a friend to them, because I think that every day is a gift and I think it's my place in this world to even give just a little bit of help for somebody, and I feel that I was able to do that for Aaron," she said.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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