Loved ones of 19-year-old Connor Eckhardt, from right, his mother Veronica Eckhardt, aunt Terri Mehrguth, sister Sabrina Eckhardt, 18, father Devin Eckhardt and close friend Jaclyn Westfall, 20, look on as a helicopter carrying Connor's heart flies off from Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach on Thursday. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / July 17, 2014)

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"People see it as something you can buy over the counter," said Hume, a drug recognition expert for the department. "They have the false pretense that this is something that is safe."

In reality "any synthetic cannabinoid compound, or any synthetic cannabinoid derivative" is now illegal to sell in California — a misdemeanor punishable under the state's health and safety code by up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine — but shops still offer it under code names, Hume said, and its reputation as "legal" persists.

Connor had used other substances commonly believed to be much more dangerous, and his parents are certain he did not know spice would kill him. Instead, they think he succumbed to peer pressure and unknowingly made a fatal choice.

"Connor did not want to die," his mother says. "Connor very much wanted to live. He had everything to live for."

Veronica painted the bottom of his opposite foot. Both extremities were pressed against white paper. The nurse held up the result.

"Oh, that's perfect," Veronica said, rushing to take hold of the print.


His golden skin radiated

Family and friends had gathered in the gray, window-lit room for the last hours before surgery would begin. They filled the small space and spoke in low voices above the humming medical machinery.

The comatose body before them hardly resembled the charismatic teen he had been.

Usually, Connor animated a room. Quick to get to know strangers, he was the type who many considered their best friend. He was passionate, tender-hearted and loved deeply, his father would recall during a memorial service that weekend.

He was athletic. His golden skin, which radiated in contrast with the mint green hospital gown he wore, and the calluses on his feet hinted at a teen who loved surfing, snowboarding, wake boarding and skateboarding.

Failure had never given Connor pause. He lived life "all-in," according to his dad. He tried new sports until he mastered them, placing in a surf contest in Hawaii just days after he learned to stand on a board.

Now he rested on a bed angled slightly upward, with his arms and legs propped on pillows. His head leaned toward a teddy bear nestled above his right shoulder, which his youngest sister now sleeps with every night.


'Nothing but the blood of Jesus'

At nearly 2:20 p.m., Veronica and Devin embraced at their son's side, exhausted and overcome with emotion.

Music streamed from an iPhone.

What can wash away our sin? What can make us whole again?

Raised by a family strong in its Christian faith, Connor once knew such lyrics by heart. His father, president of an insurance management services group, also had a background in vocational ministry.