Jay Sparks' road to addiction started with his grief over his father's death. It ended on the floor of a stranger's bathroom. His mom, Laura Sparks, struggles to make peace with not only her son's death, but lack of local available resources for addicts.
SEAGROVE BEACH — In tracing the steps that brought Jason "Jay" Sparks to the bathroom of a near-stranger’s Niceville home, his mom, Laura, starts with her husband’s death in 2011.
The grieving teen tried to self-medicate the pain, which lead him into the dangers of addiction. He started with marijuana and pills and, within a few years, graduated to his drug of choice, methamphetamine.
On April 17, 2018, he was found dead in a house where no one claimed to know his name.
“The harder I fought to save him, the more brick walls I ran into,” Laura said. “When he’d say he wanted help, I’d call and there’d be a six- to eight-week wait for a bed.
"There's a huge problem in our community that no one's talking about," she said. "I think we need to start talking about it."
Jay was raised in the rural community of Bruce on 10 acres of land with his mom, dad Nicholas, and older sister, Bree Sparks.
When Jay was 15, his dad was diagnosed with cancer and died 19 months later.
"For the first six to eight months, things were good," his mom said. "Jay stepped up and he looked after me. He knew I was scared of the dark and he made sure he was home every night. He was doing everything he needed to do and also trying to deal with his grief."
'Put him in jail'
At some point during that journey, Jay began to fill the void with friends who did drugs and he started doing them, too. When he was high, he would become angry and take it out physically on his mom. She said authorities told her if she had him arrested, he'd be sent to a juvenile facility, released and come home even angrier.
But when he turned 18 and the violence continued, Laura had him arrested, hoping that would get him the help he needed. A friend bailed him out that time, and also when he was arrested two more times in the span of just over a month.
By the third arrest, though, he'd run out of friends with money and Laura refused to get him out of jail. The next few months were a disturbing immersion in a criminal justice system she knew nothing about.
"I was like, 'Why are you setting bond for him? He keeps going to jail, getting out. He needs to have consequences. Keep him in jail."
She said the State Attorney's Office kept telling her to drop the domestic violence charge, but she refused. She told them the only way she'd agree to a settlement was if they court-ordered him into drug rehab.
"It's not a drug charge," she said they told her.
"But it's because of his drug use," she replied. "I need you to help me get him help."
Jay was ordered to go to rehab for six months, but walked out after eight weeks. When he went back to court for violating that order, authorities were going to drop everything, she said.
"I said, 'No, you need to put him in jail. He didn't do what the judge told him to do,'" she said. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and served three, before being released for time already served.
He came back home and stayed clean for a few months, before using drugs again. For the next three to four years, he would "couch-surf," staying with friends, or occasionally at home, when he wasn't in jail.
In March of 2018, Jay was out on probation, but violating its terms. Laura had promised she would never turn him in again, but someone else did.
Probation officers came to her house, where he was supposed to be living, and asked her to take him back. She told them she was scared to have him in her home when he was so deep into his addiction. She also warned them that intervention was needed.
"I told them that he was spinning out of control and that he was using drugs again,” she said. “I said, ‘You have to find him and put him in jail. If he’s not, he’s going to hurt someone or he’s going to die.”
The probation officer called Jay in for a drug test. On his way to their office, Jay called his mom and told her he was going to fail and that he would call her when he was booked into jail. But when he failed, the officer told him to come back in three weeks so he could be arrested.
Jay never went back.
During that time, Laura messaged her son every day on Facebook and was comforted when he read her messages, even though he wouldn’t reply. She knew he was still alive.
She saw him once, on Easter Sunday.
"Even though he was struggling, it was Easter Sunday and he loved his family, so he wanted to make sure he was there," his mom said.
'He didn't make it'
On April 17, 2018, seven days after her son would have been arrested, Walton County Sheriff’s Office deputies knocked on Laura’s door.
“Do you know why we’re here?” she remembers them asking. “I thought they were here to tell me they found him and arrested him."
“Is he in jail?” she asked.
"No, he overdosed. He didn’t make it.”
A man found him when he stopped by to pick up one of the residents and tried to use the bathroom. Jay was slumped over the bathtub. He wasn't breathing. A syringe was found 54 inches from the body, according to the Niceville Police Department incident report.
Neither the man who found him nor the woman who lived there claimed to know Jay. The homeowner told police Jay had been crashing there for a few days, but didn't know his name.
The girl he was dating at the time fled because she had an outstanding warrant.
Authorities finally identified Jay through a prescription bottle found in his backpack, as well as Facebook photos and mugshots.
His body was taken to the District 1 Medical Examiner's Office, located in a back building of Sacred Heart Hospital.
Desperate to see her son, Laura drove there, but was turned away.
“I was told by the medical examiner that I watch too much television, because people don’t go to the hospital and identify bodies,” she said.
Finally, three days after he died, she was able to view him at the funeral home where he was being cremated, but only after paying an additional $750 for them to make him presentable.
'There's always hope'
In the years since losing her son, her grief has entwined around anger, making the two inseparable.
“Losing my son was a nightmare but how I was treated was almost as bad,” she said.
She is angry with the probation officer who sent him away, angry with the law enforcement officials who didn't arrest him more and keep him off the streets, angry with the Niceville Police Department. She's angry that Walton County Sheriff's Office deputies don't carry Narcan, which can bring someone back from an opioid overdose, even though her son overdosed in another county.
Six months after Jay died, the toxicology report came back, indicating that he'd died after overdosing on methamphetamine and fentanyl.
Around that time, she arranged to meet with Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson. She says he told her that Jay's death was inevitable and that he was a lost cause.
Adkinson remembers that conversation, though not those exact words. He said family members of addicts come to his office several times a week begging him to arrest their loved ones.
"I give her the pass on everything she says," Adkinson said. "Her child is gone. She's the mother who wanted to do everything she could to help her child. She really tried everything."
He understands and says, as a parent, he would feel the same way.
Since Jay's death, Laura and his grieving sister are discussing founding a recovery center on the property in Bruce where Jay spent his childhood. She has also founded a non-profit, Sparks Hope, that will launch a support group for moms like her by the end of the year.
It won't bring Jay back, but may provide much-needed resources for other folks needing rehab.
"Jay was so much more than his addiction, he got dealt a bad hand with his dad dying and he went down a bad path," Laura said. "He was more than his addiction.
"There's always hope. As long as they're breathing there's hope."