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Former baseball player and drug addict finds solace in rare rehab program

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Sick from heroin withdrawal, Eric Graham would enter a big-box store and approach the DVD section. Hundreds of times over the past four years, he would search for new releases, boxed sets and Blu-Rays, piling multiple stacks across the shelves and loading his cart at the last minute. Sometimes he would drape a T-shirt on top. He would amass at least 20 films, blockbusters including the Saw films, Harry Potter movies and multiple seasons of Gray's Anatomy—"more DVDs than I could ever watch," he said.

Graham, a former baseball player for Apex High School, where he graduated in 2007, timed his escapes. He often walked in lockstep with naïve-looking customers through the automatic doors. When the alarm beeped, without breaking stride, he would innocently suggest they had neglected to pay for something.

Once in the parking lot, his pace quickened. If he heard someone yelling "stop," he turned to full sprint. Reaching his accomplice's car, he'd toss the cart in the backseat. The duo would speed to the Durham pawn shop where Graham, representing himself as a film critic, could pocket $200 for 30 DVDs. By night, he was high.

Graham was recounting his story inside the Durham County jail, where he and 35 other inmates were about to graduate on Aug. 30 from its Substance Treatment and Recidivism Reduction program, or STARR. It is one of only three such programs in North Carolina jails, according to supervisor Randy Tucker. The Mecklenburg County Jail and the Buncombe County Detention Center offer similar programs.

Co-run by the Durham County Criminal Justice Resource Center and Sheriff's Office since 1990, STARR offers group therapy, 12-step meetings, education, daily assignments and case management to eligible inmates. It's a 30-day program, with the option to continue for another 30 days. Last year 517 of 714 participants graduated.

"Durham has traditionally been a place with a strong recovery community," said Tucker, referring to addicts and citing the city's history as a hub for blue-collar workers, veterans and entertainers.

However, the programs rely on county funds. "Sometimes the financial focus gets shifted away from mental health services," said Amy Griffith, the director of Asheville-based RHA Health Service, who runs a similar program at the Buncombe jail.

The cost of the Durham program varies from year to year, depending on the Criminal Justice Resource Center's other budgetary needs. The center recently launched a system to monitor recidivism rates, but results aren't yet conclusive.

The support of the county sheriffs is a crucial element. "They have to be invested," said Tucker. "It's their house."

Graham grew up in a close-knit, career-minded family, the only member who never earned a graduate degree. His father, a former Division I baseball player, coached Graham and his brothers through middle school. His father outlawed curveballs to protect his sons' young arms, but he taught them a nasty off-speed pitch, branded "the family secret."

Graham had another middle school secret: He smoked pot. When he turned 15 his arm was ready for curveballs, and he was ready for cocaine. By high school he was experimenting with opiates and prescription anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax—"pretty much whatever I could find in medicine cabinets." He still made Apex's varsity squad as a sophomore relief pitcher, relying upon the secret family pitch to get out of jams. Once, he said, he struck out 16 of 20 batters he faced, and threw six innings of no-hit ball on coke.

After Graham got a DWI as a senior, his parents sent him to alternative school for several months. He returned and spent much of the spring high. He smoked pot before baseball practices, snorted coke and took Ecstasy.

At 18 he refused to take a drug test, and his parents kicked him out. He spent nights in various places—under the family porch, at friends' houses, under the Highway 64 bridge at Tryon Road. He became a cook and started a pot-dealing business until a thief smashed his head with a 7 iron at a Cary motel.

Graham tried getting clean again, enrolling in community college, paid for by his father, whom he calls "my role model." But Graham started dealing coke, moving four ounces a week and eventually mainlining it himself before moving on to heroin. He became a junkie and started his DVD hustle.

After two blurry years of detoxes, rehab, halfway houses and a near-death experience, he went on methadone. He started working construction and met a girl at his clinic. Last summer they had a son, Easton. Graham proposed. She said yes. They were happy.

A year later his company downsized and laid him off. Lacking money for methadone, he entered another detox program this past winter but couldn't endure the withdrawal. Soon he was back on heroin.

Approaching the DVD rack made him nervous. In the beginning he was powered by the adrenaline rush of knowing he'd soon be high, but as his scheme wore on he grew ashamed, especially about the example he was setting for Easton.

On Aug. 8, after his third arrest this year, he stood in front of a Wake County judge. He'd initially been booked at the Durham County jail, where he'd begun the STARR program, but was transferred to the Wake County Detention Center for his hearing. By then he'd been caught stealing more than $5,000 of DVDs in Durham and Wake counties since January.

The judge wasn't familiar with STARR, but "by the grace of God," said Graham, she granted his request to return to Durham to complete it. She ordered a 90-day sentence. In September he'll be sentenced for his Durham crimes: 10 misdemeanor and felony counts.

On graduation day, Graham wore a shiny black robe over his orange prison garb and sandals. The cinderblock room was crammed with diverse grads—young and old, men and women—along with family and significant others.

Tucker, the director, told inmates he remembered them 30 days beforehand, "when you all looked like Skeletor." Audience members chuckled, including Graham's fiancée and sister, who'd traveled in from Wilmington.

As guest speakers gave inspirational speeches, Graham sat in a corner bouncing Easton on his knee and making silly faces at him. The toddler, now 13 months, wore a T-shirt reading "I love my daddy." He shares his father's blue eyes, which on this day were clear.

Several grads read poems, including Graham: "I've learned from the brain is where I bleed ... "[with] faith in myself/I can accomplish my spiritual health." Later, he vowed never to miss another of his son's birthdays. He plans to get an associate's degree in psychology upon his release.

After the ceremony he shared laughs with his family over pizza and soda. A smiling Easton grabbed his father's rolled-up diploma and threw it like a baseball.

One day, Graham will teach Easton the secret family pitch: the circle change-up. Players just call it the change. It's deceptively slow and hard to control, Graham will explain. But with practice, it's effective.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Stealing home."

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