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Fighting a deep chemical languor, Aaron Lawrence tried to hold up his heavy head while his mother spoke to him.

He nodded with closed eyes, like someone who'd just been awakened from a nap, but this wasn't a kind of sleepiness Tracy Lawrence had ever seen in her 18-year-old son.

She pleaded with him to tell her what he had been doing to himself, but he was so lethargic he could barely react.

He didn't really need to. She could see the track marks on his arms, visible below his shirt sleeves.

And that was March 2009, the first time she'd seen him high on heroin.

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Aaron Lawrence was a middle child who longed to be a garbage man when he grew up.

Nobody in the family understood why he was so fascinated, but they'd honor his Christmas requests for little garbage trucks and tiny trash cans.

He'd get up early on collection days just to watch them chuck refuse into the back of their truck and smash it with a compactor. When he was old enough to ride a bike, he followed them around their route in his Hanover neighborhood.

He liked BMX bikes and went through a phase in which he skateboarded everywhere he went.

He was a typical boy, and they were "the typical Hanover family," his mother recalled.

But the energetic Aaron, sandwiched between two brothers, had trouble at school.

He'd come home and tell his mom he tried to read, but his mind wandered.

He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, but his mom so loathed giving him medicine to make him pay attention that she pulled him off the pills by the end of middle school.

"The Strattera was the one that totally made him want to sleep all the time," she said. " I just got to the point where I didn't want to give it to him anymore."

With or without the meds, school was hard enough that he stopped going when he was 17. He started sleeping all day and running around with friends, she said.

She's not sure when he met the group of people she believes later injected her son and left him to die.

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Tracy Lawrence, a 45-year-old nurse, said she tried to get her son help, but her options were limited because he was legally an adult.

She was also naive to the pull the drug was having on her son's life, she said.

"I knew what heroin was, but I was stupid to the addiction," she said. "I talked to him, 'Aaron, we need to stop this.' I figured it was just something you could stop doing. Obviously, now I know a lot more.'"

On nights when she could actually sleep, she did so with her phone right beside her head because she was afraid she'd get a call that he'd been found somewhere, she said.

Sometimes he would call and say he was ready to get help, but her relief often ended in heartbreak.

He would be ready for rehab when he was sick from withdrawal but change his mind after finding a fix.

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He wasn't working, so he started taking money and things he found around his mom's house so he could sell them.

Eventually, she had to make the heartbreaking decision to tell him he could only be in the house when someone else was home.

The house was pulling apart. Her youngest son was only 16, and there was turmoil between the three boys because of Aaron's addiction, she said.

By June 2009, the drug was fueling thefts that resulted in more than 14 charges in York and Adams counties, including criminal trespass and breaking into a structure, criminal conspiracy, theft and receiving stolen property.

The next month, he was arrested and sentenced to a year in jail.

He was furious about her refusal to pay the $15,000 bail, but his time in Adams County Prison brought her double-edged peace of mind.

Her son was in jail, but he was withdrawing from the drug. At least she knew where he was and that he was OK, she said.

Over that year, he retreated from anger, and the family healed. His skin became clear and smooth, and he gained weight.

He looked so good that his mother, upon seeing him, actually felt he had even somehow grown taller.

On July 8, 2010, he was released.

"I went to pick him up, and his brothers were here, and they laughed and joked, and it was wonderful again, like all my kids were together like they were when they were little," she said.

She didn't realize then that it would be one of their last times together.

On July 20, the same morning Aaron Lawrence was scheduled to start a new job, police officers knocked on his mother's door.

It was 5:51 a.m. Just 12 days out of jail, her 20-year-old son was dead.

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In a sober moment, Aaron told his mother how his addiction started with snorting and smoking heroin. When it progressed to intravenous injections, he just couldn't bring himself to do it, she said.

"He said he never shot himself up," she said. "It was always someone else, because he could not do that to himself."

That means somebody injected him and left him to die, three blocks from her home, she said. That night was probably the first time he used after being released from jail, and his tolerance was lower.

He was found in a Hanover house associated with a group of people she believes waited "a few hours" before calling 911, and it was too late, she said.

"They're going to want to save their ass before they even try to help yours," she said. "Real friends don't let friends die."

The group had a powerful influence over her son, and returning to them invited relapse, she said.

She still sees some of them when she's running errands in town, and she has to look away.

She still talks to Aaron every day, as she does with her two surviving sons.

Her oldest is a forklift operator. The youngest is a student at Shippensburg University.

Her middle son makes her smile every time she gets behind a garbage truck.

— Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.

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