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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He continued, "I pray now for those who are in the same mess he was in just a year ago … I love this boy."


Getting clean in the desert

Eight months earlier, a rehabilitation program in Palm Springs had helped Connor to get clean from drugs like heroin. He had stayed sober ever since.

Mindy Hunt, 24, who met Connor in the program, recalled long hours they had spent discussing the struggle of abstaining.

"No matter what was going on, what happened, he could get something good out of it," Hunt said during a time of open sharing at his memorial. "He could get something good out of any situation."

Hunt had smoked spice once; it made her heart beat so fast that she couldn't stand up.

Most recently, Connor had been living at a sober home in San Clemente. He excelled in his work at a Valvoline oil change service center, was committed to sobriety and had begun planning for his future.

"I could see it in his eyes that he had strength," Emily Quezada, 26, who met him through the recovery program there, offered during the service.

Quezada had never heard of spice, but begged, "We can't let CJ's death repeat itself. We can't let CJ die in vain..."


Biological mother suffered from addiction

As the family's bedside prayer continued Thursday, the nurse entered to drape a blanket on Connor, then retreated.

Veronica now began to speak: "Connor, I'm your mama, will always be your mama, and there is nothing that can take that away."

Connor, or "CJ," as he was nicknamed, was adopted by the Eckhardts the day he was born, Oct. 19, 1994.

"I knew I would do anything for him," Devin shared at the memorial, before draping a lei on the casket, a sign of respect in accordance with Hawaiian tradition. "It was an amazing experience. At that moment, I fully and completely loved him."

Connor's two siblings were also adopted.

Still, he wrestled with rejection, fear and abandonment, suffering from a "hole in his heart," as his mother described it.

A propensity toward addiction also emerged in their son, whose biological mother apparently had not remained sober during pregnancy.

Veronica and Devin tried to be open with him, but when he embarked at age 18 on locating his birth parents, the process threw him head-first into drugs that seemed more likely to kill him than what ultimately did.