The Last Ride

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

As for the blue juice, the employees questioned by police didn't know what was more likely: Did he swipe the bottle suddenly, or had he siphoned small amounts over a period of time?

Seven weeks after he was found dead, neither the Houston police nor the HSPCA has any idea how Helzer got the drug.

Al Cameron

All it takes is one cubic centimeter (about two-tenths of a teaspoon) per ten pounds, and an animal is dead like that.

The federal government takes it seriously, which is why animal shelters take it seriously, lest they subject themselves to civil or criminal penalties. Representatives of Houston's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, the Houston Humane Society and the SPCA of Texas (in Dallas) all say they store the drug under at least one lock. These shelters number the bottles and record the quantities in the morning and at night. Cathy Barton, spokesperson for the Houston Department of Health, says BARC's policy is to first notify HPD of missing blue juice before notifying the DEA.

HSPCA President Patti Mercer says the facility follows federal guidelines for the storage of blue juice, meaning the drug is locked in a secure cabinet. But she would not say if the HSPCA immediately notified the DEA or HPD upon discovering they were a bottle short the day Helzer disappeared. Special Agent Bob Paiz of the Houston DEA office could not say if they were ever notified or if they are investigating.

Mercer says she's relying on the police, rather than an internal investigation, to solve the mystery.

"It's absolutely devastating," she says of Helzer's death. "It's such a horrible loss for Anthony's family and for everyone close to him…We want answers; it's just that I can't give you details that I don't have at this point."

But former facility manager Larry Wells says he has some details.

"Virtually every time I worked inside of the euthanization area, the medication was out," says Wells, who left the HSPCA last year for the Houston Humane Society. "I had to move the bottle around myself, to do the work…It was supposed to be inside this locked cabinet, locked up, and the lock didn't function for I don't know how long before they ever called me. So it was readily available to anyone walking in."

That's what Helzer's parents are afraid of. But the information they say Mercer has given them has only raised more questions.

In a letter sent to Mercer recently, Helzer's family states that Mercer told them that an empty bottle of blue juice numbered 8076 was found inside the facility. But, the letter states, police found a quarter-full bottle with the same number on Helzer's body.

"How is it possible that 2 containers exist with the same number?" the letter states. "We firmly believe that our son Anthony would be alive today if your drug handling practices…had been more carefully and professionally managed and controlled."

Mercer says she's waiting for the police to explain how her facility wound up with two identically numbered containers. But she did say the facility has implemented more stringent security guidelines in the storage and handling of blue juice.

Meanwhile, friends contributed their thoughts to an online memorial for a young man who loved animals and had more unusual interests. One former Strake peer recalled how Helzer taught him to play the ancient game of Go in the school library. Another remembered Helzer teaching him about Zen and breathing techniques. They described him as kind, gentle and inquisitive.

And his family still waits for answers.

"Tony had so much not only to live for, but great capacities as a person that he wanted to develop as his expression and contribution to the world," the family states in the letter to Mercer. "He happened to have the bad fortune to be in your facility on a day when his thinking was anything but clear."

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