One in a series of occasional stories about opiate abuse and its consequences
Defense lawyer Daniel O’Malley, a Quincy native and former professional boxer, sees it all the time: young people getting involved with opiate narcotics and losing to the drugs, hard and fast.
Death is tragic and common - but it’s not a fate O’Malley saw coming for Adam Benka, a Berklee College of Music student, a fellow boxer, a promising young man he tried to look out for in Boston.
“I really took a liking to this kid,’’ said O’Malley, a former district court judge in Southeastern Massachusetts who now has a practice specializing in drug and drunken-driving cases.
O’Malley began representing Adam a few years ago when he got in trouble with the law. Adam and a roommate had an off-campus marijuana business, according to Joyce Benka, his mother, and got in well over his head.
“We’d meet at the Prudential, in the food court,’’ said O’Malley. “He was my client, but I also have six kids myself. What I saw was a nice young man from Nevada who came East to study at Berklee. He was a big, strong, handsome kid, but he was a little boy at heart. I think that when he came to Boston, he got overwhelmed. It was his first time away from home.’’
This story is about one more death, too early, from opiates - in this case, from an addiction to OxyContin.
It is also a story about a young man, a guitar, and a grief-stricken mother determined to keep alive the memory of her departed son.
Adam was 22 when he died on Dec. 5, four months after returning home as a Berklee graduate to Incline Village, an affluent community on Lake Tahoe. The day of his death, Adam had recorded two songs with a popular local band, Dirty Rhythm, and played the CD for his mother: “I think they might want me to be their guy,’’ she recalls Adam saying, hopefully.
That night, Adam said, “Good night, I love you,’’ to his mother, and went to his room with Sara, his yellow Labrador retriever, by his side. He didn’t wake up.
It made no sense. Joyce, who owns a travel agency, and her husband, Mark, a realtor and home builder, had sought out drug treatment for their son shortly after his return, when they realized he needed help. It seemed as if he was on track. The signs of relapse, if present, were missed.
It is difficult for the Benkas to piece together a full picture of Adam’s fatal relationship with OxyContin. Once, last fall, while in treatment for narcotics abuse, Adam told his mother he was trying to help a friend kick an opiate habit but ended up addicted, too. Joyce says she doesn’t know how often her son used opiates while in Boston; she only knows that she became alarmed within a month of his return home.
Adam was withdrawn and unmotivated, she says, and getting too thin. She recalls telling Adam’s younger brother, Andrew, “I’m losing him.’’ Andrew told his mother, “I think it’s time, Mom. Search his room.’’ Joyce says she found drug paraphernalia, which, even now, she finds too painful to describe, saying only: “I found something I didn’t want to find.’’
After Adam’s death, Joyce began seeking out pieces of the life her son lost to drugs, in particular a high-end, 12-string Taylor acoustic guitar.
Adam’s parents gave him the guitar as a high school graduation present. It was meant to be a talisman, a symbol of love and belief in an accomplished son heading off to one of the most elite contemporary music colleges in the world.
How do you measure the loss exacted by opiate addiction? Adam traded that guitar for $500 cash and two lesser, used guitars in the spring of his senior year at college. He never told his parents.
The Taylor would become a tangible missing object, one of innumerable absences felt by the family after Adam’s death; but this particular loss, Joyce could fix.
From Nevada, Joyce posted messages on Craigslist in the Boston area, and a handful of Bostonians joined the search, including Matthew Tremble, who recently began working in administrative systems at Berklee College.
Tremble spent lunch breaks trolling music shops on Boylston Street, recruiting assistance from people at Guitar Center and Broken Neck Guitar Repair, even Barnstorm Music II in Medway.
“It is a long story of dead-end leads and stuff like that. Some people spent hours looking for that guitar,’’ he said.
Somehow, Joyce found it. In her tireless sleuthing, and after all the help she received from strangers, she traced the Taylor via its serial number to a Wilmington-based musician, Vin Colella, lead vocalist for Acoustic Hot Tub, a rock duo that plays small venues around New England.
Joyce contacted him on Facebook. They made a deal: $1,200 cash and the return of Colella’s used guitars in exchange for the Taylor.
On a sunny morning last month, Joyce, slight, stylish, and mild-mannered, met Colella at the Fairmont Battery Wharf hotel in Boston. She had flown in for just one day, to retrieve what once belonged to her precious son.
Colella, who arrived with his wife, handed it to her in the hotel lobby. Joyce held it close before placing it gently in its case.
Over brunch in the hotel, Joyce asked Colella about the day last April when he met Adam.
“I see this big guy come with the guitar. I think maybe he had a tattoo?’’ said Colella, a father of two.
“Adam didn’t have any tattoos. He wasn’t allowed. Maybe he was wearing a shirt with a skull head on it and lots of skulls and crossbones? That was his favorite shirt,’’ Joyce said, with a faint smile, drawn closer to her son by the memory.
It was a gentle dialogue. Colella said he and Adam played music on the sidewalk at the MBTA’s Wellington Station. He told Adam that he was jealous about Berklee. Adam said he loved it there.
Soon the brunch conversation circled back to the guitar.
“I think every instrument has a soul to it,’’ Colella said.
Joyce nodded. She spoke in a low voice, as if to protect her words.
“I really think his soul is in that guitar - that is why it means so much,’’ she said. “We are very grateful that we have all of Adam’s guitars. Now we have all of our son.’’
On the same day, O’Malley met Joyce at the Fairmont Battery Wharf. He told her how sorry he was; they hugged.
“Seeing his mother, it broke my heart. All she went through. We just sat. It was a connection. I don’t know if she needed it, but I needed it,’’ O’Malley said later. “There was so much good in him. I just feel that had Adam Benka lived, he was going to do something special. I’m not sure if it was in music or society, but something special. Not just me, everyone in my office was heartbroken.
“This kid touched me as much as any client I’ve had in the past 15 or 20 years.’’
Indeed, Adam’s death was crushing, said Weymouth resident Patrick Driscoll, who worked on his case while a law associate at O’Malley’s firm on Furnace Brook Parkway. Adam was intent on becoming a suave music promoter with the fancy clothes and connections, Driscoll said, but “to me he was this soft-spoken, goofy kid.
“He called me up, and we talked about whatever he wanted. He was a warm kid - I miss him,’’ said Driscoll, who, after learning of Adam’s death, lighted a candle for him at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston.
“It’s amazing how much damage we’ve seen opiates do to families. It snowballs. People lose it so fast,’’ he said.
Other people - in Quincy and beyond - will remember Adam, said O’Malley.
He began representing Adam after he was arrested on Nov. 25, 2009, on various gun and drug charges. Adam and his roommate had attracted the attention of drug dealers with their marijuana business, according to Joyce Benka, and a high school friend decided - unbeknownst to Adam, the mother said - to ship the young men a weapon for protection. Adam was busted when he signed for the FedEx package.
The case against Adam was never resolved. It was postponed, partially dismissed, appealed, then closed on Feb. 16, on what would’ve been Adam’s 23d birthday.
“This kid had charisma. He had so much talent. He was a wonderful kid,’’ said O’Malley. “I’ll tell you a story about Adam. One time in the Prudential food court we were talking about boxing; he wanted to show me a move. Now, he was probably 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. I’m 6-1 and 190 pounds. We squared off. He’s showing the move and people thought it was a fight; a woman was staring, horrified.
“Adam caught it. And he broke out in a smile, and the woman smiled. Everyone was calm after that. He defused the situation with a smile. That was Adam.’’