LARGO — Robin Wikle gazed out at hundreds of dimly lit faces and told the story of how her nightmare began.
With a quiver in her voice, the Pinellas County School Board chairwoman told of the excuses she made — lies that she told herself — in order to avoid admitting that her oldest son, Wesley, had a problem with prescription drugs.
"I'm here to ask you to take your head out of the sand," Wikle said. "I wish someone had told me this six years ago."
Wikle was one of a dozen people to address the fourth annual Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education candlelight vigil Thursday night at Largo Central Park. The event, one of several throughout Florida, drew more than 500 attendees, including many who had lost family members or friends to drug abuse.
Though NOPE seeks to prevent and combat drug abuse of all kinds, the theme of the night was prescription drugs, by far the most common cause of narcotics-related deaths in Pinellas County.
"This is a problem unlike any other problem we've faced," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
He explained that many people addicted to prescription drugs got hooked unintentionally after they were prescribed medication for an injury. He noted the various efforts his agency has enacted to curb the problem, including drug "take-back" events and jail rehabilitation programs. But they can only do so much, the sheriff said.
"We cannot stop this problem, because it's an addiction problem," Gualtieri said.
The numbers are striking.
Out of 217 people who died in Pinellas County in 2011 from an accidental drug overdose, 181 were the result of prescription drugs.
Also striking are the ages of some of those who have died. Hundreds of names and pictures were continuously displayed on a large screen next to the stage.
Heather York, 20. Steven Wimberly, 18. Landon Corabek, 17. Colby Crutchfield, 13 …
"I chose denial for far too long," Wikle said. "Our nightmare begins with my head in the sand."
For Wesley, it began with a car wreck outside his school, after which he was prescribed medication, she said. When he stopped coming home, Wikle told herself he was out with friends. When he slept endlessly, she said it was because he was a growing young man. When she found money missing from her purse, it was because she forgot to go to the ATM.
Her denial ended when her son was convicted on prescription fraud charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
Other speakers spoke of losing loved ones and called on parents to talk to their children about prescription drugs.
Lock up your medications. Dispose of medications you don't use.
Michael Bell never had any idea his daughter, Rachel Gravitt, was using prescription drugs. The 27-year-old was already dead in the emergency room when he got the call in March 2010 and learned what had happened.
Thursday night Bell perused a lighted memorial wall alongside the gathering, where family and friends posted messages over more photos, more names. He has attended the vigil each year since his daughter's death.
"It's going to save somebody," he said. "That's the most important thing."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or [email protected]