Mom Brooke McKearn put out an Empty Chair Campaign display in honor of her son Nikolas Barrett Graves, 23, who died on Dec. 22, 2018 after trying heroin containing Fentanyl.

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.”