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Parents' struggle to save teen from heroin's clutches

Joye Brown

July 10, 2008

Ten weeks after her 18th birthday, Natalie Ciappa spent an evening with friends before returning to Massapequa and the safety of her bed.

The Plainedge High School senior even made curfew, which, in recognition of her recently conferred adulthood, had been moved back one hour, to 2:30 a.m.

At 9 a.m., in a room adjacent to her own, Natalie's parents woke to an alarm clock.

They had planned a family outing to Jones Beach to watch the Blue Angels in celebration of Memorial Day.

Those plans were shattered by an awful sound.

"It was like rasping, a hard rasping," Natalie's mother, Doreen, recalled Wednesday.

Her father, Victor, jumped up and walked into the hall to investigate. The open door to her room was an ominous sign.

"She never, ever leaves her door open," he explained.

Peering inside, Victor found his bright, beautiful and only daughter. She wasn't breathing, he said. Her skin was cool. And her lips were a light blue.

Stunned, he pulled Natalie into his arms and carried her to the living room. Doreen ran to call 911.

"Thank God, there was an ambulance already at the corner," Doreen said.

Rescue workers revived Natalie. Her parents -- and three brothers, one older and two younger -- were thrilled when she woke. But it wouldn't last long.

"You died and we brought you back," one rescuer told a groggy Natalie after she asked what had happened.

"You should have left me alone," Natalie replied. "You should have let me die."

Three weeks later, Natalie did die.

Not at home, or with her family. She died facedown in the cushions of a sofa. In a makeshift garage-rec room in Seaford, surrounded by leftovers of the party she'd dressed so carefully to attend just hours before.

This is the story of the last weeks of Natalie's life, and the parents who couldn't save her.

In high school, Natalie had excellent grades, peaking with a weighted average of 113. And she was a gifted singer, too.

But Natalie's appearance, behavior and grades began to slip after she fell in love with Philip Ordaya, 21, of Seaford, who was arrested Monday and has pleaded not guilty to drug possession and conspiracy charges. Ordaya has not been charged with dealing.

She broke up with Ordaya, said her parents -- who once threatened to have him arrested unless he left their property -- but never forgot him.

"I always feel great when I am with him," Natalie told her mother, more than once.

"Yeah," Doreen would reply "because you were always high."

"I think she loved him to the day she died," Victor said Wednesday.

Even after the breakup, Natalie refused to find a job and repeatedly broke curfew and other family rules.

Doreen and Victor, meanwhile, said they talked to school officials and looked for rehab programs on the Internet.

Doreen searched Natalie's room. She'd force Natalie to look into her eyes, to determine whether she was high. Victor would make Natalie leave parties if he knew no adult was supervising.

At one point, Doreen, masquerading as a teen, joined Facebook, becoming one of Natalie's "friends."

She even took the cell phone Natalie accidentally left behind and sat in the family car, a few blocks away, transferring more than 300 of Natalie's cell phone numbers to her own.

"We did what we had to do," she said, and during Wednesday's news conference suggested that other parents take similar aggressive steps to save their kids from drugs.

Still, on May 25, Doreen found herself riding in the ambulance with Natalie.

She would discover at the hospital that Natalie had overdosed on heroin.

"She had hit bottom," Victor said. "And it sounds bad, but in a way we were glad."

"Yeah," Doreen said, "We knew we could get her some help."

Had Natalie overdosed in January, February or the first two weeks in March, her parents would have been right.

But, on March 16, Natalie had turned 18.

Legally, her medical fate (although, her parents pointed out, not her medical bills) was in her hands -- not her parents.

"She wouldn't go to rehab," Doreen said.

"She was embarrassed," Victor said.

"She didn't want her brothers to know; she didn't want her friends to know," Doreen said. "When she went back to school, she told people it was alcohol poisoning."

Three days later, Natalie came home high again.

Doreen, angry, confronted Natalie with a partially full drug packet she had found in her purse. Doreen tried to figure out what drug it was by looking it up on the Internet. Wednesday, she regretted she hadn't gone straight to police.

"You should be proud," Natalie told her stunned mother, when confronted with the packet of what turned out to be heroin. "I didn't use it all. I am not going to overdose."

"She thought she could do it [break her drug habit] on her own," Victor said.

"She's been like that since she was 3," Doreen said. "She always wanted to do everything on her own."

Doreen and Victor kept at it, however, pushing to get Natalie to agree to treatment.

A week or so later, Natalie settled down enough to get a job as a telemarketer. She showed up on time, her parents said. And she kept curfew, often coming home early.

"We thought we were turning a corner," Doreen said.

And so, one evening last month, Natalie, dressed and in makeup, walked over to her mother. "Do I have love handles?" she asked.

"No, you look beautiful," Doreen said.

Police would later say they didn't know where, when or how she got heroin that night, and they don't know who gave it to her.

"People say, 'How could you let them go to a party?'" Doreen said.

"You can't stop them," Doreen told them.

"You can't stop them," Victor said.

Doreen wanted to talk to Natalie before she left, but Natalie started for the door while Doreen was in the kitchen grabbing coffee.

But Natalie did see Victor.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"To a party," in Seaford, she said, telling them it was at the home of someone named "See Woo." The gathering was in a converted garage at the address of See Woo Sung.

For a while that evening, Victor lay on the sofa, as was his habit, waiting for Natalie to return. But he went to bed confident that Natalie would be home by curfew.

At 9 the next morning, when they realized she hadn't returned, Doreen and Victor called the local precinct and a few hospitals.

Then Victor got the car, while Doreen got her cell phone, with those 300 numbers, and began calling her friends as they headed toward Seaford. She carried two other cell phones, using those numbers to get callbacks.

One entry for Natalie's friends read, "C. Woo."

Doreen called but got no answer.

A few minutes later, however, the number called back.

It wasn't Sung, but one of his friends, who knew exactly where Sung lived.

"We'd already passed the right house, it turns out, five or six times," Victor said.

When they arrived, Doreen approached the open door and spoke to a woman. "I could hear music coming from the garage," she said. "It was like MTV or something was on."

The woman made a call on a cell phone and -- after what seemed an eternity to Natalie's panicked parents -- said one word to Doreen:


They walked over to the front of an adjacent garage, where the woman tapped three times on one blacked-out window, calling out, "See Woo."

He did not answer.

She repeated the sequence twice more before Doreen said they had to get inside.

The woman then led Doreen around the back to a small door.

"He was standing right there," she said. From the doorway, Doreen could see Natalie, lying on a sofa.

And she also could see, from the unnatural position of Natalie's hand and head, that her daughter was dead.

"I knew right there that she was gone," Doreen said. "And I screamed for Victor."

He sped into the driveway, and, almost together, they ran inside for their daughter.

Doreen knelt down.

Natalie was cold. Her lips were dark blue. Her pants were wet. Victor tried to begin CPR, but couldn't open Natalie's jaw.

"We're screaming and I'm thinking, can I get air through her nose? Can I get air through her nose?" he said.

Victor also screamed for the woman to call 911.

Doreen and Victor worked on Natalie until rescue workers arrived. But, this time, nothing could wake Natalie.

Wednesday, the district attorney's office said preliminary toxicology reports showed her death was "heroin-related." The medical examiner has yet to determine whether an overdose killed Natalie.

"They wouldn't let me ride in the ambulance, not like the first time," Doreen said. "I looked on the Internet later and found out that rigor mortis settles first in the jaw."

Authorities said Wednesday that Natalie may have been dead two to four hours before Doreen and Victor arrived.

That meant Natalie probably died early that morning.

"It was my birthday," Victor said, reaching for a box of tissue.

"It was also the day she was conceived," Doreen said, taking one, too. "I'm sure because I was taking a drug to help get pregnant."

Wednesday, Victor and Doreen said they don't believe in coincidences.

They believe in signs.

They believe that maybe, just maybe, Natalie died so others can be saved.

"We are going to work on getting a law that would give parents more power to get their 18- or 19- or 20-year-old children help in a situation like this," Victor said.

"Natalie had big dreams," Doreen said. "She's the kind of smart, talented, driven kid who nobody would have thought would be on drugs. Maybe her death can help her friends. She loved them so much."

What haunts them is that the Ciappas' own dream of helping Natalie died with her. "We ran out of time," Doreen said.

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.