In the early-morning hours of Oct. 1, 2006, Lance Merrill woke up in a cold sweat. "I knew," he says, "something terrible had happened." Five days earlier, he'd placed Jani, his 19-year-old heroin-addicted daughter, in a Salt Lake City rehab center. Once his spitting image, with raven hair and blue eyes, Jani looked gaunt, pale and frightened. "I don't want to die, Dad," Lance recalls her telling him. But when the phone rang that morning, his fears were confirmed: His daughter had checked out of rehab and fatally overdosed.
Lance and his wife, Cherre, were destroyed. "We'd think, 'What if? Why didn't we?'" he says. Gradually, despair gave way to anger: "I didn't want this to happen to somebody else's kid." So in November 2006, the low-key construction contractor founded Dads Against Drug Dealers, or DADDs (www.dadsagainstdrugdealers.com), a Web site where he posts photos, license plate numbers, addresses and phone numbers of suspected dealers and offers $500 bounties supplied by citizens for information leading to an arrest or conviction. To date, Lance says, DADDs has helped with the arrests of more than a dozen alleged dealers in Utah County, where the drug treatment center the Gathering Place reports a one-third increase in patients seeking help with heroin addiction since 2000. "It's a significant problem," says Lt. Phil Murphy of the Utah County Major Crimes Task Force. (The Centers for Disease Control lists 10,759 heroin-related deaths nationally from 1999 to 2005.) Merrill has also gone around the state speaking to dozens of addicts and their families. "Lance is extraordinary," says Utah's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff. "People think law enforcement has the answers, but it's been shown time and again that an average citizen can make a huge difference."
The Merrills' ordeal began in 2004, when Jani, then 17—the second- youngest of five kids in their blended family—started sneaking painkillers from the medicine cabinet and "hanging with a faster crowd," recalls Lance, 54. "Lance was suspicious, but I was like, 'Oh, she'd never do that,'" says Cherre, 53. The teen began to withdraw and lose weight, at one point carrying just 93 lbs. on her 5'6" frame, and even broke into her little sister's piggy bank to feed her habit. After Lance confronted her, Jani confessed her problem. "She'd say, 'Dad, I feel I have a monster in the closet,'" Lance recalls. "'I try to keep the door closed, but he gets out.'"
Checking Jani's cell-phone records, Lance says he discovered that her dealer at the time was Christopher Cartwright, now 22, who would toss heroin packets and hypodermic needles through her bedroom window. One night, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, Lance ventured into the seedy part of town and flashed a bunch of $100 bills before a group of addicts; he quickly got the names of Cartwright's hangouts and passed his name on to police, who arrested him on Sept. 29, 2006, on unrelated drug distribution charges; he served 81 days in jail. (Cartwright did not return calls asking for comment.)
It wasn't enough to save Jani, who died after her third stint in rehab. But Lance's crusade has helped parents like Eugene, whose then-teenage son was addicted to marijuana and prescription drugs. Lance told Eugene his son's name was in the system. "We sat him down; it was a 'Come to Jesus' moment for him," says Eugene, who says his son has since cleaned up. "Lance has a heart of gold."
Not everyone is a fan. "This is a potential wellspring of slander and libel," says Steven Wasserman, a civil liberties specialist with the New York Legal Aid Society. (Lance, who says he's never been sued, posts a legal disclaimer on his site.) Cherre worries. "He's been threatened," she says. "But he's a bulldog."
His inspiration is never far from his mind. "Jani would want to help somebody else's kid," he says. "I know she's up there, looking down, smiling."
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- Cathy Free/Provo.