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Casey Koerner portrait

Man’s 15-year drug rampage ends at The Salvation Army

Added on Thursday, July 9, 2015

As a high school sophomore, Casey Koerner was as smart as he was athletic. He tested out of his school’s sophomore curriculum and attended class with juniors and seniors. College scouts came to watch him play soccer – he’d been competing at the varsity level since the eighth grade. He was, by all accounts, an exemplary young man.

Then, Koerner tried drugs. By the end of his sophomore year, he had dropped out of high school and was living with a drug dealer in a trailer park.

“I smoked weed 24 hours a day,” said Koerner, 36, who comes from a good family in the western Twin Cities suburbs. “Whatever drug was in town – coke, mushrooms, acid – I had my hands on it.”

So began his 15-year nightmare, a hazy blur of drugs, alcohol and anger. In that time, he enrolled at 12 treatment centers and failed every one.

Thankfully, his 13th go at treatment was a different story. In 2009, he enrolled at The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis, where he found the peace only God can provide. He graduated in 2010 and has been sober ever since.

Peer pressure

Koerner’s nosedive began during his first few weeks of high school. He felt awkward, overwhelmed and out of place, having previously attended a small Catholic school.

Very small: “My 7th grade class was me and three other kids,” Koerner said.

Suddenly, as a sophomore, Koerner was in a public school with 700 kids, and he was smarter than almost all of them.

“I got placed with seniors because I was already past what they taught in my grade,” he said. “I wasn’t learning anything because I already knew everything. The school didn’t even have a math class for me.”

The only thing he didn’t know about was drugs and alcohol, a dubious subject that the seniors in his class were ready and willing to teach.

“Partying became more appealing to me than class,” Koerner said.

He starting smoking marijuana and snorting cocaine. Eventually, school officials caught him with drugs in his car. He was expelled.

He transferred to an alternative school at age 16, but got kicked out of there, too.

“I was tripping on acid in class all the time,” Koerner recalled.

His parents couldn’t handle him anymore.

“They basically kicked me out,” said Koerner, who has four younger sisters. “I moved in with the guy I bought weed from and got a job working fast food.”

Shot dead

After two years of doing drugs and working dead-end jobs, Koerner had a near-death experience when he was 18 years old. Unfortunately, he didn’t heed the wakeup call.

That summer, one of his marijuana-dealing friends needed help collecting drug money. Koerner agreed to tag along. They went door-to-door, asking people to pay up.

Along the way, the two bumped into one of Koerner’s meth buddies, who asked Koerner if he wanted to leave and get high.

“I hadn’t smoked meth for a few days – I wanted some,” Koerner said.

Koerner’s dealer friend was OK with him leaving early because there was only one more house on the collection list.

Later that day, Koerner found out that his dealer friend had been shot dead at the final house. A 16-year-old kid who owed $100 for marijuana invited him inside and opened fire.

“My friend got shot 15 times with a .22-caliber rifle – the kid emptied his gun, reloaded, and shot him some more,” Koerner said. “I should have been at that house. If I wouldn’t have bumped into my other friend, I would have been dead.

“At that moment, I gave up. I gave up on God and I cursed Him.”

Casey Koerner portraitRather than use the shooting incident as fuel to turn his life around, Koerner spent the rest of his teens and all of his 20s getting high, day after aimless day. By age 21, he had amassed 22 minor consumption violations. He was a rudderless vessel for drugs and alcohol, a couch-surfing burnout who rented out one person’s basement after another, never settling into a stable place to live.

“At one point I was selling drugs and living with three strippers in a one-bedroom apartment on Lake Minnetonka,” Koerner said.

He eventually began working as an irrigation installation specialist. He made decent money and stayed in the profession for about 10 years, selling drugs on the side.

“I worked hard, went home, drank beer, and smoked weed,” Koerner said. “I got fired so many times, but then they’d take me back. I made sure my bosses did the same drugs I did. It was harder for them to fire me if they were buying drugs from me.”

Triggers

Koerner’s lust for several of his staple drugs dissipated as his 20s dragged on. He quit dropping acid, for example, after one particular dose of the hallucinogen kept him high for several days in a row.

“I didn’t want to do any permanent damage,” Koerner said, adding that he quit eating psychedelic mushrooms for the same reason.

Meth was trickier. Koerner had an on-again, off-again relationship with the drug. He couldn’t make a clean break from it.

“I thought I was the most worthless, horrible piece of crap when I was doing meth,” Koerner admitted. “There were lots of years when I was on it, then off it, then selling it, then not selling it.”

Alcohol and marijuana remained constants.

Throughout his life, his decision to use all of these chemicals was often triggered by any of three thoughts:

  1. He has five children with five different women in four states.
  2. Dropping out of high school and ruining his soccer career.
  3. The shooting incident.

Koerner never knew when these thoughts would pop into his mind. When one did, his impulse was to self-medicate.

“It could be as simple as a smell, or a stupid song on the radio,” he said.

Hitting bottom

Koerner stopped selling drugs sometime during the late 2000s.

“I quit selling because I thought about the spider web effect – how people could die because of the drugs I sold,” he said.

Although drugs were mostly off the table, booze was not. Koerner remained a hardcore alcoholic well into his late 20s, finding plenty of trouble along the way. In 2008, after racking up several arrest warrants in Minnesota, he fled to South Dakota to work for his uncle and get sober. Less than a year later, he failed at sobriety and his uncle kicked him out.

In December 2009, Koerner’s dad picked him up in South Dakota and drove him back to his childhood home near Lake Minnetonka, where his parents still live.

His parents had heard about The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis. The center offers free or affordable long-term, inpatient rehabilitation services for up to 130 men.

Koerner’s parents gave him an ultimatum: go straight to the rehabilitation center, or get out of their house.

“I didn’t want to go to treatment,” Koerner said. “I started blaming my parents for my problems and cursing them – I pulled out all the cards. I wanted them to let me stay at their house that night. They’d bailed me out so many times before, but they wouldn’t this time. They said I had to go.”

He left the house in a huff, on a cold and snowy December night. He began walking down a hill near his parents’ home. Below, Koerner could see the glowing windows of his favorite bar.

“I was in my hometown – I knew exactly where I was going, I knew exactly who had dope, and I knew exactly where I could sleep,” he said.

Halfway to the bar, he stopped walking and looked back toward his parents’ house.

Then, he started crying. It dawned on Koerner that by walking down the hill to the bar, he was beginning the same uphill journey he’d endured for the past 15 years.

He turned around, marched back to his parents’ house, and snuck into their pigeon shed in the backyard. His dad eventually found him huddled in a corner, shivering.

“He asked what I was doing,” Koerner said. “I said, ‘Fine. Take me to that stupid rehab place.’”

The night was a lesson in tough love that Koerner will never forget.

“The best thing my parents ever did for me was refuse to help me that night,” he said.

Redemption

Koerner arrived at the rehabilitation center on Dec. 28, 2009. He answered some intake questions and took a seat in the chapel.

Casey Koerner portraitGod said hello to him immediately.

“I felt a weight get lifted off me that I haven’t felt before – I really can’t explain it,” he said. “I haven’t felt that weight ever since that moment.”

Koerner spent the next six months in the program, receiving counseling, spiritual support, and volunteer “work therapy” for 36 to 40 hours per week.

Work therapy involves organizing and distributing clothes, furniture and other donations made to Salvation Army stores. The rehabilitation center is funded by sales at Salvation Army stores in the Twin Cities.

While in the program, Koerner learned to trust God and give Him control.

God did not disappoint – especially when it came to Koerner’s legal matters.

“Eventually, I turned myself in for the five warrants I had out for me – two were felonies – and pleaded no contest,” Koerner said. “I told the prosecutor I did everything they had on me, and way worse. She thought I was crazy and practically refused to handle the case if I didn’t have a lawyer.”

A Salvation Army official spoke to the judge and prosecutor, vouching for Koerner and explaining the progress he had made.

“The prosecutor came back to me and said it was my lucky day,” Koerner said, chuckling. “The judge reduced everything to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. But he said if I so much as spit on the sidewalk, I’d get the full sentence.”

Koerner tied another loose end while in the program: finishing high school.

“I hadn’t been to school in 15 years,” he said. “I was scared to take the GED test, but I passed with upper 90s in all the subjects, and 100 percent in social studies.”

Koerner graduated from the rehabilitation center in June 2010 and has been working for The Salvation Army ever since, both in Salvation Army stores and at the center. Today, he’s the center’s intake coordinator. He is the first person to meet every broken man who arrives in search of a new life.

He is always anxious to tell each man about everything he learned in the program when he, too, was broken.

“I should not be standing here alive, or as a free person,” Koerner said. “Now I have an active relationship with God. I start out with Him every morning, and I end with Him every night when I go to bed.”

Today, Koerner’s biggest life challenge is not knowing all of his five children, the oldest of whom is now 18. His parents have full custody of his 7-year-old daughter.

“Father’s Day is always touchy for me,” Koerner said.

He deals with the hardship by reciting the Serenity Prayer, which calls on people to accept the things they cannot change and to have courage to change the things they can.

“The toughest part of that prayer is having the wisdom to know the difference,” he said.

If you or a loved one would like more information about The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis, call 612-332-5855 or learn more online. The program accepts men from Minnesota, North Dakota and beyond. The Salvation Army operates similar rehabilitation centers in 20 cities across the Midwest

Join The Salvation Army’s mission by donating or becoming a volunteer.