By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
There was talk of Heather going to live with her cousin Steve Franson and his wife, Kristy, whose daughter, Jenn, was Heather's age. The Combs family also considered adopting Heather and raising her alongside Devon. But eventually the courts decided that Heather would live with her maternal grandparents in Lakewood -- a tensely discussed decision, Heather later learned -- and make the 45-minute commute to Graland every day.
All Heather knew was that she wanted to go to school. So much so, in fact, that she was back at Graland the Monday after her mother was shot. But that attempt at normalcy was short-lived: Detectives pulled Heather out of class to tell her that her father had killed himself.
Even before her parents died, Heather had started to rebel. She dyed her hair black, listened to punk music and experimented with drinking. She also started cutting herself. "I was so frustrated with my parents," she remembers. "My mom was this very sensitive, passive person, and she would try to hide them fighting all the time. I was pretty angry, and growing up at Graland, I was such a nerd and the kids were so ruthless. I was really happy that my mom had left my dad, because I always wanted that to happen -- but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought, especially going to my dad's house, me and him alone. It was so tense. You could tell that he was slowly losing it."
Already something of an outcast at Graland, Heather now found herself ostracized: "I remember a guy at school coming up to me and saying, 'Wow, nobody knows how to talk to you anymore.'"
Although she still had Devon to confide in, Heather began hanging out with older students, kids who were ditching class, kids who were smoking weed. After she drifted through seventh grade, her family decided to move her to Carmody Middle School in Lakewood.
"It was weird, because I hated Graland, but at the same time I was really attached to it," Heather remembers. "It was all I knew, and when they told me I was leaving, I was terrified to go to public school. But as soon as I got there, it was great. I had lots of friends -- all the troublemaker kids, but those were the kids I was drawn to, those were the kids who would accept me. At the same time, though, I was incredibly depressed, and I tried to push that away. I've always been very stubborn, and I did not want to let what happened to my parents affect me, to ruin me. I wanted to live my life and move on."
But for Heather, the only way to keep moving was to dull the pain. By eighth grade, she was into partying. Hard. She and her friends would date drug dealers, older guys they didn't care about but who would keep them well-supplied for feeling good -- or, more accurately, not feeling anything.
"As long as you're having fun, nothing really matters," Heather says of her mindset at the time. "If you're laughing, partying, you don't want to die. It's the only life you feel. But any time I wasn't doing that, I was completely suicidal. Any time I was alone -- which was a lot as an only child living with grandparents -- I felt there was no hope for me. I was just hoping to OD someday. I never planned on living past sixteen. I started doing acid, meth, coke."
Her grandparents had no idea how to handle her.
"I was so ungrateful to them at the time, and I feel so bad for that now," she says. "I'm so grateful for everything they have done for me. But I hated them back then. They were so old, and they didn't understand me. Plus, they were still mourning my mom's death, and they saw a lot of my mom in me. And they also saw a lot of my dad in me, whom they hated.
"Adolescence is such a weird time anyway," she continues. "You're so self-absorbed, and you can't see past certain things. I had this boyfriend who was one of my best friends, and my grandparents wouldn't let me see him. A few little instances like that would totally trigger these feelings of not wanting to live anymore. I always thought I was cursed or something, that this cycle of awful things was just going to continue on forever and ever. I thought God must hate me, because I didn't do anything to deserve this."
Her cutting got worse, and then she tried to kill herself. While still in eighth grade, she swallowed a handful of her grandparents' pain pills and had to be rushed to the hospital. Later that year, she took a bunch of sleeping pills. Finally, Heather told her grandparents that she was going to live with her other grandmother, her father's mom. Not knowing what else to do, they let her go.
Pearle Cameron was eighty years old and "somewhat unstable," Heather remembers. But she was more of a kindred spirit, and Heather began to turn things around. She started at Bear Creek High School, and while she continued drinking, she managed to cut out the drugs.