Four families learn to live without their children, all of whom overdosed on drugs.
There are no rules for addiction, only victims.
Drug users come from all walks of life. They are loved. They have had trauma in their childhoods or they haven’t. They taught their siblings to ride bikes, hugged their parents, loved their friends — disappeared in what seems like a moment, but may have stretched out for years.
Some overdosed multiple times and were saved by parents or first responders. Others died after just one.
Many had a smorgasbord of drugs in their system — methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine — but almost always fentanyl, a highly potent opioid that drug users often don't know they're ingesting.
Some had sought help, and found it, only to relapse after treatment ended.
Addiction is tricky. It rewires the brain.
“I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just stop,” said Maggie Halsey, a Fort Walton Beach woman who lost her 35-year-old son, Bobby, to an overdose two years ago. She tried everything to intervene, from having him arrested to locking him up in her business overnight for a two-week stretch.
“After he passed away, I read about how (addiction) changes the brain receptors," she said. "I wish I had been more compassionate."
Mother's Day death
On the last night of Bobby Halsey's life, he texted his mother and asked her for $20. She told him no, but he got it somewhere else and died an hour later.
His grandparents, who he lived with, found him the next morning.
It was May 14, Mother's Day, of 2017.
The drug that he took was laced with a lethal dose of fentanyl. They found an unopened text on his phone from a girl right around the time he is believed to have died.
"I can't believe you bought that crap," she texted.
Maggie finds comfort in knowing he died in a house filled with love, that at least she knows where he spent his last minutes.
She also appreciates the then-Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputy who administered a lifesaving dose of Narcan eight months before Bobby died, something Maggie didn't find out about until after his death.
Last month, she met with Chad Goleta, now a Walton County Sheriff's Office investigator, to thank him for giving her extra time with her son.
Those eight months were precious, especially in light of the decades she will spend without him.
But she is angry, too. In an area where drug addiction has reached epidemic proportions, according to local authorities, there are few beds available and even fewer for those without money and insurance.
Four days before Bobby died, his mom took him to a rehabilitation center in Pensacola, where she was told he’d need to wait for a bed to open up.
He couldn't wait.
At 35, Bobby lived longer than many victims, despite fighting addiction for most of his adult life. But, his mom points out, he was incarcerated, and therefore clean, for two of the last three years before he died.
“He never really hit rock bottom,” Maggie said. “He thought he could control it."
The 'demon' just got into him
Brennen Henry was just 23 when his mom, Julie, found him slumped in his bathroom in their Rocky Bayou home. She performed CPR on him until EMS arrived, then, exhausted, begged them to take over.
"Ma'am," they told her. "He's already gone."
Every child is special to their parents.
But for Julie, her baby boy was extra special because he was conceived through artificial insemination.
She and his dad raised him well, and carefully. They made sure one of them was home every day when he got home from school.
He was a sweet boy, who gave soft, mushy kisses as a child. He was kind. He had a "mudding" truck that he didn't like to get dirty.
His only exposure to drugs, as far as his parents knew, was using marijuana in high school, for which he was disciplined.
But on May 5, 2010, a few weeks before he graduated from Niceville High School, his parents came home to find the house quiet and his truck in the driveway.
They checked Brennen’s room and found him slumped over, unconscious and gasping for breath. In the emergency room, it took personnel 45 minutes to stabilize him before taking him to the intensive care unit at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.
“What happened?” he asked his mom, when he finally regained consciousness.
“You overdosed,” she told him.
After graduation, he worked locally and seemed to be fine. But two years before his death on April 10, 2016, they started noticing troubling signs.
One day, he locked himself in his bathroom and Julie could hear a girl pleading with him through the door. She got the master key, unlocked it and as she opened the door, saw him throwing drug paraphernalia into the tub.
Twice authorities revived him with Narcan. A third time his father performed CPR and saved him.
Over those years, he came to his mother several times and told her he hated his life, that he wanted a "normal" one. Pack your bags, she would tell him, and she would take him to rehab. Thirty days later, he'd come out and stay clean for several months, before relapsing again.
On the night before Julie found him dead, the family had watched a movie together in the living room. Brennen was recovering from a life-threatening illness that had kept him clean for months.
"Everything seemed fine," his mom said. "The demon just got into him super quick. He just couldn't do it.
"I thought that was behind us. I thought our new journey had begun."
A fuzzy kindergarten photo shows Rhiannon Riess and Keith Crum peering up at the camera. They were friends then and stayed friends all the way through their graduation from Crestview High School and beyond.
When Keith died of a heroin overdose on Oct. 21, 2016, Rhiannon was devastated, her mother said.
But it didn't stop her from shooting up the same drug that killed him.
Almost a year to the date later, she overdosed and died on a lethal mixture of heroin and fentanyl. The man who sold her the drugs is awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter for her death.
Keith, a red-headed spitfire of a young man, loved to make people laugh, go fishing and play video games.
He took care of his friends and loved his mama, even though he preferred texting to talking to her on the phone.
Corrin Mohon knew her son was troubled. She and his father divorced when he was 10, leaving him depressed and anxious. She tried to get him to see a therapist, but he went a couple of times and then stopped. He said he could handle it.
But when he was a teen, he started smoking pot and drinking. She would catch him and discipline him, but he didn’t stop.
By the time he died, he'd been in jail a couple of times on alcohol-related offenses. His mom bailed him out the last time about 18 months before he died.
"Everybody told me to show him tough love," she said. "I kicked him out a couple times. Whatever I did wasn't helping."
He was 24 when he died in a friend's Crestview apartment, surrounded by people who “scattered like roaches” when he started having seizures, police told his mom. No one called the police for hours and by the time they found her son, he was dead and cold to the touch.
Autopsy results found five drugs in his system, including Xanax, methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl. His mom had no idea.
"'Are you in any hard drugs?' I asked him. He'd say, 'No mom, I wouldn't do that. I'm good.'"
"It's still very raw and it's been three years," she added. “The guilt, it eats you up. It’s like it’s your fault."
'She didn't know she was dying'
As a mental health counselor, Rhonda Riess has been spared one of the most punishing aspects to losing a child to addiction. She doesn't blame herself. She knows that even if she had known Rhiannon was shooting up heroin, she could not have stopped her.
She might have tried, though.
“She didn’t live with us ... and I also know that until somebody is ready to change, you can’t make her change.
“Had I known then what I know now, I would have taken her in and locked her in a room. That’s illegal and it wouldn’t work. But I would have done that.”
On Friday, Sept. 28, 2017, Rhiannon's parents got the call that their daughter was in the hospital. She'd shot up a fatal dose of heroin laced with fentanyl and was put on life support. Her parents sat with her for two days until a transplant team could harvest her liver, the only organ that can be donated by someone using intravenous drugs.
Rhonda wasn’t with her daughter in her last conscious moments. But in the hospital, Rhiannon looked peaceful.
“Once those drugs were in her, she was gone. She didn’t know she was dying,” she said. “The last thing she knew, she was high. In a bizarre way it’s comforting to know that she had no idea.”
After she died, her parents took in Rhiannon's dogs and her live-in boyfriend, who was also an intravenous drug user. When he overdosed on their front porch, Rhiannon’s father performed CPR and saved him.
Now he’s in jail, alongside other drug users who can’t seem to stop breaking the law anymore than they can stop using drugs.
She still allows Rhiannon's boyfriend to call collect from jail.
“I think of how many times when I was young I did things that I could have wound up dead,” she said. “Risk-taking activities.
"They never dreamt that the first time they did drugs they would be hooked," she added. "People do stupid things all the time. They don't deserve to die for them.
"If we all died because we do stupid things, we wouldn't have anybody alive."