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RANGELY — Austin Stoner had plans.
He talked about attending Western Colorado Community College, an extension of Mesa State College, to work toward a certificate as a nurse’s aide.
After having struggled with drugs and alcohol in the past, Austin was seemingly doing better.
Dottie Stoner, Austin’s stepmom, thought he was doing well. That’s why his death from an overdose of alcohol and morphine, following a night of heavy partying, was so unexpected.
“I thought he was doing excellent,” Dottie said. “He had his job. He was saving money for a car. The residents (at Family Health West in Fruita, where Austin worked) loved him. He’d walk with them. He played bingo with them.”
Austin had been living in Loma with his father, Mike, Dottie and his two stepsisters – Nicolle and Michelle.
“He seemed to be happier, happy with his job, happy with his life, in general,” Mike said. “I think he was headed in the right direction.”
But his parents knew on the weekends when Austin returned to Rangely to see his friends, they liked to party. The peer pressure to drink or take drugs was strong.
“I think he wanted to be accepted by those around him, so he would have done whatever it takes to be accepted,” Dottie said. “It was drinking, mostly, I would say, though sometimes he would acquire prescription medications, and he was smoking pot, I’m pretty sure.”
Austin would have celebrated his 19th birthday in July. Instead, his family will hold a funeral service for him at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Rangely High School auditorium. Visitation is at noon.
“I hated it every time he came back (to Rangely),” said his father, Mike. “But he kept having to come back and hang out with those same friends, and it was just one time too many. But you can’t blame them (Austin’s friends). I know a good majority of us did the same thing when we were the same age, and from time to time you lose one. That’s what happened here. What can you say? Teenagers are teenagers. It’s just a tragic mistake.”
Austin attended high school in Rangely until April 2007, when his dad and stepmom enrolled him in Royal Gorge Academy, a boarding school in Canon City.
“It has a treatment program for behaviors and addictions,” Dottie said. “You finish your high school classes, then there’s counseling and group sessions and accountability meetings. Some kids are court ordered (to attend Royal Gorge Academy). We as the parents voluntarily entered him. He didn’t volunteer.”
“We took him away and put him in another school for a year, trying to get him straightened out a little bit,” his father added.
But when Austin turned 18, he left Royal Gorge Academy.
“After they turn 18, they can’t make them stay there,” Dottie said. “We figured he would (leave), so we brought him home.”
Dottie talked to Austin the morning of Saturday, April 18.
“He went to work that morning at 6,” said Dottie, who is the director of nursing at Family Health West. “He said he was going to leave his truck at work, because some friends were going to pick him up and take him to Rangely.”
The next day, Dottie received a phone call from a friend.
“She said, ‘I’m so sorry about what happened,’” Dottie said. “I said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘Maybe it’s a rumor,’ and then she told me what she had heard. Then I talked to Roy Kinney (Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s investigator, based in Rangely) and he explained what happened.”
Friends who had been partying with Austin at a rural cabin between Rangely and Meeker found him unresponsive the next morning.
“There were at least seven people who woke up that morning to find him,” said Austin’s brother, Michael, a second-year student at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. “He didn’t get up with everybody else (that morning). People thought that was weird, so they went to shake him, to wake him up. They said that they noticed he was really cold; he was really cold to the touch. They checked his pulse and they didn’t find anything, and they noticed he wasn’t breathing.”
The friends called for help. Emergency medical services personnel and sheriff’s deputies responded.
“He was found to be beyond medical help,” said Sgt. Kinney. Toxicology reports confirmed alcohol and an opiate—morphine is an opiate drug—Kinney said, were the cause of death.
Asked how Austin may have gotten his hands on morphine, Dottie said, “I think the kids just get a hold of it. The kids just know what they are and take them. I think some kids are selling them. My question is: If they know they are selling them, why aren’t they doing something about it?”
Lynn Riemer, of Act on Drugs, a nonprofit group that does drug prevention training for communities, gave a public presentation April 16 in Rangely, at the invitation of a new group called the Trinity Project, which is encouraging stepped-up efforts to combat the local drug problem. She was saddened to hear of Austin Stoner’s death from an overdose.
“That is so sad,” said Riemer, who also gave a presentation at Rangely High School. “I had talked to the kids about those kinds of parties. It’s very, very sad.”
Dottie said Austin was caught up in a culture of partying with other underage friends.
“I’ve had kids come up and say, ‘I saw Austin at a party and he was passed out, or I saw him and he was wasted, or he was out of it,’” Dottie said. “Mike and I were kind of the less favorite parents. Kids didn’t come around to our house, because we didn’t have alcohol around. Of course, the cool parents allow them to drink at their house and condone that kind of thing.
“But I don’t want to make it sound like they (Austin’s friends) forced him to do those things,” Dottie added. “It was a personal choice, and he allowed the peer pressure to be that strong.”
Michael Stoner said his brother liked to have fun.
“Pretty much anybody who ever met him would probably mention how much of a positive person he was,” Michael said. “He never had a bad time. You never saw him frowning. He was always looking to hang out with people. He really couldn’t stand to be by himself. Pretty much all he did was hang out with friends, and they’d do stupid, random things together. He was usually up for anything.”
And he knew how to make people laugh.
“I seriously can’t think of anyone who didn’t like the kid,” Michael said. “You could have been having the worst day, and he could put a smile on your face. He would have been an awesome car salesman. He had the gift of gab. He could convince you of anything.”
However, Michael said, Austin had a tendency to go overboard.
“It seemed like every time I partied with him, he’d just drink too much,” Michael said. “I would say, ‘You need to be careful. You need to stop.’ Sometimes I would just get mad at him, and he’d say, ‘OK, OK.’”
Michael had heard there was going to be another party at the cabin that weekend, but he didn’t know if Austin was going.
“I didn’t know that he was going to it, though I should have just assumed he was, since his friends were there. The last time I saw him was at one of the parties at the cabin,” Michael said. “He tried to call me at work (the night before the party). He just wanted to say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ I’ll talk to you later.’ I didn’t catch him after that.”
Like his stepmom, Michael doesn’t blame Austin’s friends.
“They drank a lot, but I think Austin had a lot to do with that, too,” Michael said. “I just don’t think it was the friends. The friends he had didn’t discourage it, but they didn’t really say, ‘You have to.’ It was mostly him.”
Dottie and Mike Stoner hope Austin’s death will serve as a warning to his friends and other youth in the community.
“I hope this will be a wake-up call,” Dottie said. “The kids think they are indestructible and it can’t happen to them.”
Added Mike, “I am hoping that it will be a wake-up call, not just to his crowd, but to all the teenage kids … that drugs and alcohol will kill you.”