The Last Ride

Al Cameron

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.

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.

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.

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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