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Beloit mother honors son during Empty Chair Campaign

BELOIT — “This can happen to real people, and I never saw this coming,” said Beloit mother Brooke McKearn.

McKearn is encouraging parents and caring adults to be watchful of young people and to ask the right questions. With increased stresses due to COVID-19, the odds of depression and anxiety are increasing. For some, that could mean self-medication, and for addicts, that self-medication could mean death. If someone who is self-soothing through drugs doesn’t die from their drug, they may likely die from the Fentanyl in it.

McKearn knows the heartache that addiction can bring. Her son, Nikolas Barrett Graves, 23, died on Dec. 22, 2018, after trying heroin containing Fentanyl. She shares her story to raise awareness of addiction and mental health issues and she believes drug toxicity deaths warrant a criminal investigation.

Her son’s autopsy states he died from acute Fentanyl poisoning.

“He tried heroin and it was pure Fentanyl. Not one trace of morphine was found in his autopsy,” McKearn said. “All sorts of drugs are being laced with Fentanyl and you aren’t going to know it’s Fentanyl until you parents read your autopsy report. It could happen after only trying a drug one time.”

This week McKearn put out a display of her son in light of the Empty Chair Campaign being held from Sept. 20-27 through The Forgotten Victims of Drug-Induced Homicide. The organization promotes the criminal investigation of drug toxicity deaths and honors victims.

Twenty states have drug-induced homicide laws on the books including Wisconsin and Illinois, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The laws hold drug distributors criminally responsible for overdose deaths. The laws have their opponents, however, who believe the laws can result in friends or family members or partners of victims getting charged in their deaths and ever-escalating incarceration rates.

However, McKearn believes dealers need to be held accountable.

“The dealers should be classified as murderers. They put an unknown substance knowingly into these drugs which may kill,” she said.

The first step, McKearn said, is requiring a police investigation for all drug toxicity deaths.

McKearn, a medical assistant for many years in an emergency room who now works in a school, thought she had warned her two children against the dangers of drugs after seeing the deadly effects of them in her hospital work.

During her divorice in 2008, she said her son, Nikolas, took it particularly hard, but seemed to do better in the following years. He went on to do some international travel with his father, visiting Germany, Brazil and Switzerland. One summer, Nikolas volunteered in Namibia, Africa to help children there to set up organized sports. During his senior year, Nikolas went to Germany and graduated from a high school there. His mother described him as bright and cultured, not one who would fit the stereotype of addiction. He was popular, active in sports and outgoing.

When he returned to Beloit he had plans to attend culinary school, but started working for a bit and may have fallen in with the wrong crowd. At age 22, his mother noticed his former bright and bubbly personality was changing.

“A good friend of his said he had been using Xanax and buying it off the street,” McKearn said.

Xanax is a somewhat commonly provided anti-anxiety drug. If abused it can be highly addictive and if mixed with alcohol or other medications can be dangerous.

McKearn soon discovered the lack of long-term recovery options for her son. Nikolas went to Rosecrance Recovery Center in Rockford twice, but with the family’s insurance he was only allotted a 30-day stay. With it taking 12 to 14 days alone to undergo detox, McKearn felt it wasn’t long enough to get to the root of his addiction and get him the help he needed.

With waiting lists to other treatment centers and his addiction continuing, she made a decision she sometimes questions. His family then sent him to a 90-day treatment facility in Florida where he had 103 days of sobriety. He then moved into a sober living house in West Palm Beach. With so many recovery centers in Florida, McKearn feared dealers were preying upon the high number of addicts in the area as well as some unscrupulous doctors who would dole out prescriptions. She also worried about so many ex-addicts living together in sober living environments far from home and the potential for relapse.

Her worst fears came true when she heard her son died of an overdose on Dec. 22, and his body was flown home on Christmas Eve.

Within five days McKearn traveled to Florida to retrace her son’s steps and sort out what happened. She found his dealer’s number through a text-only app on her son’s phone and contacted the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. The dealer was never found, and the investigation was dropped in February of 2020.

She learned the day before he died, he went to a doctor in Florida who gave him a 90-day supply of Klonopin, a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety, despite his Xanax addiction. Later, his autopsy would indicate the Fentanyl poisoning.

Although painful, McKearn said she wants to raise awareness of the dangers of addictive prescription drugs and raise awareness about how those with an addictive nature or genetic makeup can easily fall prey to drugs in difficult times.

“As parents and as people we need to to take time and ask hard questions and be there for kids,” McKearn said.

Those who wish to reach out to McKearn about addiction issues can find her Facebook page: “Addiction awareness—what can we do to save a life.”

Long lines of mourners pay respects to Ginsburg at court

WASHINGTON — With crowds of admirers swelling outside, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was remembered Wednesday at the court by grieving family, colleagues and friends as a prophet for justice who persevered against long odds to become an American icon.

The court’s eight justices, masked along with everyone else because of the coronavirus pandemic, gathered for the first time in more than six months for the ceremony to mark Ginsburg’s death from cancer last week at age 87 after 27 years on the court.

Washington already is consumed with talk of Ginsburg’s replacement, but Chief Justice John Roberts focused on his longtime colleague.

The best words to describe Ginsburg are “tough, brave, a fighter, a winner,” Roberts said, but also “thoughtful, careful, compassionate, honest.”

The woman who late in life became known in admiration as the Notorious RBG “wanted to be an opera virtuoso, but became a rock star instead,” Roberts said. Ginsburg’s two children, Jane and James, and other family members sat on one side of the casket, across from the justices.

With her portrait on display nearby, Ginsburg’s flag-draped casket sat in the court’s Great Hall for the private service before it was moved outside so the public could honor her. Health precautions because of the pandemic led the court to limit the number of people inside the building, which has been closed to the public since March.

Through the day, thousands of people paid their respects to the women’s rights champion and leader of the court’s liberal bloc. As darkness fell, the line stretched nearly half a mile from the court as people filed past. The casket was to be on public view until 10 p.m. Wednesday and from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

Inside earlier, the members of the court were arrayed in their seats in order of seniority, now changed by Ginsburg’s death so that Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer flanked Roberts. Breyer took the spot Ginsburg held when the court last gathered for a justice’s memorial, in 2019 following the death of John Paul Stevens.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Washington, D.C., compared Ginsburg to a prophet who imagined a world of greater equality and then worked to make it happen.

“This was Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work. To insist that the Constitution deliver on its promise, that we the people would include all the people. She carried out that work in every chapter of her life,” said Holtzblatt, whose husband, Ari, once worked as a law clerk to Ginsburg.

Outside, some people waiting to pass by the casket said they had driven through the night.

Beloiters split on trick-or-treat Halloween celebrations

BELOIT — With Beloit not scheduling trick-or-treat hours for this year’s Halloween, Beloit residents appear to be split on how to celebrate the holiday while observing safety precautions due to COVID-19.

The city announced on Tuesday it would not schedule hours following Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommending that municipalities avoid traditional neighborhood trick-or-treat events, with the CDC listing trick-or-treat activities as “high risk.”

The Downtown Beloit Association also will not have its traditional Halloween parade and downtown activities associated with the final Farmers Market of the season.

In a Facebook post asking residents how they would celebrate without regularly scheduled trick-or-treat hours, many said they would still seek out homes that had porch lights on and decorated on Halloween, while others said they would take precautions. Some outright said they would forgo the holiday all together out of safety concerns for their children.

Beloit resident Angie Taylor said she felt kids “need something normal.”

“If they can have cruise night and the bars (open), the kids can have trick or treating,” Taylor said.

Stacy Womack said she was suggesting families place pictures of pumpkins in windows similar to what people did in the springtime with hearts for first responders and medical workers.

“This gives family’s ideas of houses to go to with there child/children,” Womack said.

Cathy M. Bown said if students can’t be in-person in the Beloit School District, “they can’t go door-to-door for candy.”

Some residents said they felt it was a good decision to not schedule trick-or-treat hours.

“It makes sense,” Berta I. Eddy said. “We’re supposed to be trying to minimize contact with strangers.”

A Facebook group called Halloween in Beloit had 922 members as of press time on Wednesday, with some members posting ingenious ways of distributing candy through a PVC pipe. Many group members were posting addresses and areas where trick-or-treating would take place.

Across the state line in Illinois, multiple outlying Winnebago County communities have yet to weigh in on trick-or-treat events.

Rockton Planning and Development Administrator Tricia Diduch said village trustees have yet to make a decision on the issue.

Diduch said the board would not make a decision until “at the earliest, their first meeting in October on Oct. 5.”

Roscoe Village Administrator Scott Sanders said the Village Board would discuss the matter on Oct. 6.

“The Winnebago County Health Department will be issuing recommendations and specific guidance by the end of the week,” Sanders said.

South Beloit Mayor Ted Rehl could not be reached for comment regarding the city’s plans as of press time Wednesday.

For more information on specific CDC guidelines for Halloween, visit cdc.gov.

Beloit man who saved woman and children from burning home receives prestigious national award

BELOIT — A Beloit man who helped save a woman and two young children from a raging apartment fire on May 24, 2019 has received national recognition for his heroic actions.

Luis A. Mendoza, 29, was named a recipient of the Carnegie Medal, an award given to individuals in the United States and Canada every year who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others. It is considered the highest civilian honor for heroism in the country, according to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

Mendoza awoke to find a fire rapidly spreading outside of his kitchen that blocked his path to the back door of the Oak Street apartment. As he moved to the front of the house, he heard a 24-year-old woman call for help from the apartment in the basement. Mendoza went to the basement and found the woman with her two sons, ages 3 and 6. Carrying one of the boys, he led the woman carrying the other son to the top of the stairs, but advancing fire forced them back down into the basement.

Mendoza used his fist to break out a small basement window, where he helped the woman and children escape. Mendoza returned to the kitchen, where heat was blistering and exited the house through the front door, suffering second-degree burns to his face and hands in the process in an attempt to find his pit bull puppy, Blue, who was later rescued at the site of the burnt out residence.

In the days following the incident, Mendoza told the Beloit Daily News he was “glad everyone was able to make it out” of the home.

“It was pretty hectic and it all happened so fast,” Mendoza said in a May 2019 interview with the Beloit Daily News. “It seemed like there was no time to react.”

In learning of the award, Mendoza said he was “pretty overwhelmed.”

“It’s an awesome experience with them,” Mendoza said. “After I got the call, I ended up researching them and seeing what awesome stories some award recipients had. It’s a big honor. I was totally surprised. They explained everything to me about the award and I couldn’t believe it.”

Over a year later, Mendoza said he still has burn marks on his body, but said he had “fully-recovered pretty well.”

The Carnegie award dates back to January of 1904 following the Harwick mine disaster near Pittsburgh, which claimed 181 lives. An engineer and a miner went into the stricken mine in a valiant attempt to rescue others. The tragedy and the sacrifices moved Carnegie to promptly take action to honor “heroes of civilization.”

With this announcement of the 17 recipients this year, a total of 10,185 Carnegie Medals have been awarded since 1904. Throughout the 116 years since the Fund was established by Carnegie, more than $42 million has been given in one-time grants, scholarship aid, death benefits, and continuing assistance.

Mendoza said he was told a ceremony for the presentation of the medals has not been worked out yet due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn more about the 2020 recipients and past awardees, visit carnegiehero.org