Sen. Eaton tells of losing a loved one to heroin

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Sen. Chris Eaton, before she was serving in the Legislature, was at home the day the two squads pulled up to the house.

That Brooklyn Center Police stopped by the house wasn’t that unusual. Eaton’s husband, Tim Willson, was then, and still is, mayor of Brooklyn Center. But when they blocked in her son, who, in the early summer of 2007, was graduating from high school, Eaton wondered if he’d gotten into trouble.

Ariel Eaton-Willson. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Chris Eaton)
Ariel Eaton-Willson. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Chris Eaton)

When the police walked by him and came to the house, Eaton invited them in, thinking perhaps her 23-year-old daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, instead, had done something wrong.

She had.

“And they (the police) just said, ‘I’m sorry. Your daughter is dead. She died of a heroin overdose,’” Eaton said.

“That’s about all I remember until the next day,” she said.

Eaton-Willson graduated from Champlin Park High School in 2002. At the time, she might not have stood out. She was a good student, trailing off at the end, leaving high school with C’s and B’s. She liked to read, and she liked art. She loved children.

A graduation photo shows a young woman with straight, shoulder length hair, a reserved smile, softly looking at the camera.

“She was beautiful,” her mother, standing in her Senate office, gazing at photos of her daughter, said.

Everything wasn’t perfect. Eaton-Willson suffered from depression and for a short time took antidepressants. With a teen’s impatience, though, she quit taking the medications before they really had time to work.

But focusing on diet and exercise, they got Eaton-Willson through high school, said Eaton, a registered nurse.

Eaton-Willson seemed to be doing well for several years after graduation. She worked at the Anoka treatment center, helping patients transition into the community. She found the job stressful, Eaton said.

Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, holds a photo of her daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, whom she lost to a heroin overdose in 2007. Eaton will be carrying legislation next legislative session dealing with the heroin epidemic in Minnesota. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, holds a photo of her daughter, Ariel Eaton-Willson, whom she lost to a heroin overdose in 2007. Eaton will be carrying legislation next legislative session dealing with the heroin epidemic in Minnesota. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Eaton-Willson remained close with a group of high school friends, and Eaton thought they were partying too much. But she didn’t want to be the “stuffy” mom, so she tried not to be judgmental.

“She started getting more isolative, and her behavior got more bizarre,” Eaton said.

Unknown to Eaton, Eaton-Willson and her friends had moved from drinking to using heroin, a drug that would ravage them.

“Even though I’m trained to look for that, you don’t look for it in your own kids,” Eaton said.

Eaton got her adult daughter into therapy, taking time off from work to rouse Eaton-Willson, a night owl, and get her to the therapist.

Shortly before Eaton-Willson overdosed in the parking lot of a Brooklyn Center Burger King, her therapist, because of family matters, had to leave the state. Eaton-Willson took that hard, refusing to see another therapist and saying she didn’t need therapy, anyway, Eaton said.

On Memorial Day 2007, the day before Eaton-Willson died, Eaton and her husband were out in their yard, sprucing it up in preparation of their son’s graduation and celebration.

Eaton-Willson came out and asked her mother for $20, saying she needed gas money to get to work. They talked about cleaning up Eaton-Willson’s car, because Eaton-Willson thought she could no longer afford it. And then she left.

Eaton, a believer in personal responsibility, bluntly speaks of her daughter’s own hand at work in what happened next.

Eaton-Willson text messaged a drug dealer all night long, trying to score heroin.

“She was actively pursuing heroin. She went down and got the needle. She picked up Rob (a girlfriend’s boyfriend). They went to the needle exchange,” Eaton said.

The drug dealer was nervous. The Burger King was probably the third place they tried to arrange a meeting, Eaton said. This time they succeeded.

“And he (the dealer) jumped in the back seat, grabbed the $20, which I probably provided, offered counsel, left the drugs in his place and jumped out,” Eaton said.

Eaton-Willson shot up. She became nonresponsive – Eaton later learned that when her daughter did heroin, that was normal. When it happened, her friends would slap her cheeks or spray her face with water.

“But it didn’t work,” Eaton said.

Injected heroin acts fast, and an overdose suppresses the diaphragm, Eaton said. Eaton-Willson couldn’t breath; she was asphyxiating.

Eaton is less angry with the drug dealer than the friend’s boyfriend, who smoked a cigarette outside of the car, buried incriminating evidence in the bottom of a garbage can and wasn’t truthful when a Brooklyn Center police officer, directed to the car by a restaurant employee, asked what was happening.

First responders arrived, eventually treating Eaton-Willson with Narcan, a drug that temporarily can reverse effects of an overdose; it’s a focus of legislation Eaton will be sponsoring. (Editor’s note: Read more about the efforts at the Capitol here.)

It didn’t work. Too much time had gone by, Eaton said. The first responders, sick over the idea of losing a 23-year-old, kept trying. Eaton-Willson was taken to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale for further treatment, but to no avail. She was gone.

“I spent for the first couple of years after she died beating myself up,” Eaton said. “And I finally came to the point — I did the best I could with what I knew. And she was an adult.

“She made decisions on her own. They were poor choices. She paid the ultimate price for them,” Eaton said. “I would do anything to get a ‘do-over.’ But you don’t get them.”

Recently, appearing with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek at a state Capitol press conference, Eaton spoke of her daughter. She’s starting to be able to do that without crying, she said. Talking about it helps.

But more importantly, her story has gotten other people talking, Eaton explained. There’s still a certain embarrassment about drug addiction, she said.

“It’s not something middle-class Americans expect their children to do. You don’t go around bragging, ‘My daughter is a heroin addict,’” she said.

“But this is an epidemic. Forty-eight kids (died) this year in Hennepin County alone. My God,” Eaton said.

It’s wrong to look at heroin addiction as a curse of the inner city, afflicting the homeless person on the street, she said. It can happen anywhere.

Jim Steinhagen, executive director of Hazelden in Plymouth, agrees. (Editor’s note: Read more about Steinhagen’s perspective and Hazelden here.)

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate,” he said.


Tim Budig is at [email protected].