The Last Ride

The HSPCA has tightened controls on its lethal "blue juice." But it's too late to matter for Anthony Helzer.

On the last day of his life, Anthony Helzer woke up earlier than usual.

The 20-year-old got up at seven, showered, dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. His father, Doug, was already in the kitchen. His stepmother was at work. Helzer reached for a healthy breakfast, as usual. Granola cereal, banana, orange juice. He took care with his body -- yoga and martial arts kept him fit and trim, 130 pounds on a five-foot-eight frame.

Helzer's father remembers virtually every detail of the morning of September 30. His son, a Strake Jesuit graduate, had come home about three weeks earlier from the University of Vermont and taken a job at the Houston SPCA. He was an attendant who cleaned work areas, fed animals and assisted customers.

Al Cameron

Helzer took the job out of a love for animals, says his high school friend Eric Beutlich. Helzer often talked about his camping trips he'd taken to get closer to animals, and how he looked forward to going on many more.

Beutlich remembers how Helzer could talk for hours about nature and religion. Other friends described him as having passionate and eclectic interests in everything from Asian medicine to the music of Australian aborigines. He threw himself into the studies of Buddhism and Taoism, and he loved playing drums for his friends.

By the time Helzer was ready to leave for work that day, Doug was out on the front lawn with Helzer's infant sister. Doug found it strange that his son wasn't wearing his usual HSPCA T-shirt. But Helzer said it was in his backpack, along with his lunch. Helzer commuted to work daily on a bicycle from his home in Woodland Heights to the HSPCA on Portway, and they both remarked how it was a beautiful day for his 20-minute ride.

Helzer hopped on his black bike and rode out of sight.

At about 1:30 p.m., Helzer clocked out, telling a few co-workers he was heading to McDonald's for lunch. They laughed, maybe figuring it for a joke from a guy who was hardly the fast-food type. He never clocked back in.

Doug, a home builder, expected his son to be home around 7:30 p.m. By a quarter to eight, he was a little nervous, and he made the first of many unanswered calls to his son's cell phone. He then telephoned the HSPCA, but by that hour, calls are bounced from administrative offices to an emergency line. There was no way he could reach anyone who worked directly with his son.

When Helzer never returned to work that afternoon, the HSPCA left a voice-mail message on their home phone. But the message was in limbo -- Doug had just moved into the house, and the voice-mail system was not yet set up to notify him of any missed calls.

Doug called a few of Helzer's friends, but none of them knew where his son was. Growing more worried by the minute, Doug hopped in his truck and headed down the route Helzer biked to work. Who knows what could have happened? he asked himself. He could've been mugged, hit by a car, anything. He drove back and forth, peering through the dark for his boy.

The next morning, Doug was at the HSPCA's door. He talked to his son's co-workers, who said they had no idea where he might have gone. Doug rushed to the Houston Police Department and filed a missing person report; his wife notified Texas EquuSearch.

The team spread out from the McDonald's where Helzer had said he was going; some searchers canvassed the HSPCA's grounds for clues. No one found a thing.

Nor would they, for another three days.

It was a staff member who found Helzer's body, hidden down a steep slope, in a densely wooded area about 100 yards from the HSPCA's front door.

Beside his body, Houston police found a syringe and an eight-ounce bottle of sodium pentobarbital, the barbiturate the HSPCA uses to euthanize animals.

The Harris County Medical Examiner's Office is awaiting toxicology results before issuing the official cause of death.

HSPCA employees led the investigators to their building's lobby and showed them the logs for sodium pentobarbital, which some vets call blue juice. Federal guidelines mandate that any entity handling blue juice must register with the local Drug Enforcement Administration office and store the drug in a locked cabinet. Missing quantities must be reported to the local DEA.

Houston police officer Rick Moreno says he and Sergeant Hal Kennedy didn't see where or how the blue juice was stored, and HSPCA employees didn't offer to show them.

"They were kind of guarded," Moreno says, adding that the employees questioned said the drug was securely stored.

During the investigation, Moreno and Kennedy learned that Helzer had been seeing a psychiatrist for the past few weeks. Beutlich says that when he last saw Helzer at the end of the summer, his companion didn't seem to have any friends at school.

"He'd talk about how people were complaining about him being violent…because he studied martial arts," says Beutlich, 19. Helzer continued having difficulties and decided to take time off, leading to the job at the Houston animal shelter, Beutlich says.

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