A Seven Days analysis revealed that 100 Vermonters died from fatal opiate overdoses in 2016. Family members of overdose victims graciously agreed to share memories of their loved ones. Click a photo to hear those stories in their own words.
Hobbs grew up in Massachusetts but in his late twenties made his way to Winooski, where he found steady work and seemed to have kicked a years-long drug addiction. In the spring of 2016, he drove to Athol, Mass., to see his father, the Rev. William Hobbs, preside over Easter services.
William Hobbs: He came to church looking so good, I thought he had gotten away from it. It was maybe a week or so before the overdose. He spent the night with us and had Easter dinner. We stayed up and watched movies on Netflix, and just talked about stuff. He loved "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
The autopsy report said that there were signs that he was injecting into his foot. When the police searched his car, they found a bunch of needles in the spare tire. The detective’s conclusion was he was hiding it from everybody. He was doing well, I think, and then not long ago, he was on some kind of a machine, a snowboard simulator, fell off and broke his ankle. I think he was given pain medication and that probably set him off again. But all of this is speculation. You don’t know.
When we went to his apartment and cleared out his stuff we found an application for a local school. He had filled out the paperwork to apply, and filled out the paperwork for a grant or a scholarship, but it never got submitted. There was this part of him that wanted to do that, but I think the drugs got in the way.
Billings, who had been released from prison earlier in the year, struggled for years with addiction and homelessness. But he maintained a relationship with his wife, Meaghan Billings.
Meaghan Billings: I was moving out of my apartment, and he was supposed to help me. We got into a little argument. He didn’t have the truck — he only had the truck for so many hours in the early morning, but I didn’t want to do it then.
I ended up seeing him later that day at the Cumberland Farms in Colchester. It was a coincidence. I ended up talking to him, and he said, "I love you, kiddo," and I said "Love you, too."
Later that night, he ended up leaving a last message, asking if he should put his wedding ring on, if we were going to work it out or not. Me and him were like best friends; we did better being best friends than lovers. We still hung out every day.
About 10:30 p.m., I got another phone call from his phone. It was a detective, telling me my husband was dead.
Adams developed an addiction to prescription drugs after being diagnosed with fibromyalgia. She went on weekly grocery shopping trips with her mom and stepfather, Doris and Ken Forbes.
Ken Forbes: We took her shopping to Market Basket in Claremont, N.H. and then Walmart. We always took her with us when we went shopping. She was cheerful, happy-go-lucky. We stopped at some point along the way, had some pizza. Sometimes, she was in a good mood, very talkative; other times she acted like she was stressed.
On this particular day, this Wednesday, she was very happy — just regular conversation. We dropped her off at her building, gave her a kiss and a hug. The next morning, Doris tried to call her and she didn’t answer the phone, but that wasn’t unusual because a lot of times she was doing stuff somewhere else.
That was Thursday. Friday, the state police drove over and found her.
Schoenbeck drove to Montpelier to meet his father, Roger Schoenbeck, and his sister for a special dinner a couple weeks before he died.
Roger Schoenbeck: His sister was here from California, and he and I were born a day apart so we all went out for a birthday celebration at J. Morgan’s Steakhouse in Montpelier. It was excellent — that was the talk. That, and visitations between west and east coast. He hadn’t been out there for a while, though he had a very good, ongoing dialogue with his sister about things he went through.
He’s living in Randolph; I’m in Stowe. We drove our own cars. We didn’t think it was the final goodbye in the parking lot. There was nothing special at that moment. My daughter and I talked on the way home about how much better he looked, that he was in better spirits. It seemed like he had confronted his demons and was doing better. I think he made one slip, and that was it.
The [authorities] contacted his mother first in North Carolina, then she called me. I won’t say you think it’s a joke, but it’s like, "Seriously?" But I could tell from her voice and the way she was breaking down. You always think of things after the fact: Gee, could I have done something better? I always say there ought to be a law against having to bury your kids.
Several days before he died, Rutland-born Maxham went out of his way to visit his mother, Linda Adams. He had previously completed a successful rehab stint.
Linda Adams: The week before, he was working in Ticonderoga, N.Y. On his way home, he stopped here. We are at the end of the road in West Haven, 10 miles off the main highway. It was a happy visit because I didn’t get to see him enough. He said, "I want to start riding horses again." I have horses at the farm. Him and I, since he was 8 years old, rode horses together and went camping with them.
The next Thursday, my niece was having a wedding at the Brandon Inn. My husband and I were on our way when I got the call to go the emergency room.
From the outside, [Jesse] looked like was living a normal life. I paid for him to go to rehab and I asked him after, "You doing OK? You need to go back?"
"No, I’m doing good," he said. "I’m doing good." They’re pretty good at lying. I found out after that he was spending his whole paycheck on his addiction. He kept things to himself. It was hard to talk to him about things he didn’t want to talk about.
Bean and her partner Ron Papineau spent her final weekend fixing up what would have been their retirement home. They had spent months refurbishing it together.
Ron Papineau: Monday morning, I was leaving for work in Colchester. I knew I wasn’t coming back until the following night. We had just got done having a great weekend in Moretown. It started as a camp, but it’s a home now. It was going to be our retirement home. It’s almost completed. We had her grandchild over.
We were talking about finishing a woodstove we started building. She was cleaning that up, cleaning the cement off the stones. When I found her on Tuesday, she still had the kneepads on. So whatever happened, happened fast. Things were just getting good. Her cleaning business was just taking off. She was as happy as I had ever seen her. All was good, or so I thought.
Nicoll struggled for years with anxiety and alcoholism. By midsummer, he had agreed to begin a rehab program — immediately after his little brother’s wedding, according to his father, Donald Nicoll, Jr. He died the week before it.
Donald Nicoll, Jr.: He could never get out from underneath the mental health aspects of what was going on — he couldn’t get help. But we had found somebody. We had the whole plan mapped out — phone numbers, addresses. He was anxious to get straight and get the help.
But he wanted to be there for his little brother. He was the best man. His attitude was, "Let’s get this wedding all done and then I will make this phone call and go through with all of this."
That evening, he came down for dinner. We had a really wonderful time. He was joking around with his mother, making her laugh. Everything was just perfect. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world to have him back. He was home; he was safe. He thought he had found a car but he didn’t know if he should invest the money. He came down and said, "Dad, I need some advice." What father doesn’t love that?
He hugged me and went back to his part of the house.
The next morning it was all over. He was sitting on his couch. I hope it was peaceful, because he looked like he kind of went to sleep and didn’t wake up.
Vera visited his mother Susan at her home in Island Pond several days before he died. She said her son got mixed up in drugs after a painful breakup.
Susan Vera: He talked about going back and getting a master’s degree. I said, "Come back and live here with us." It seemed like he was so unhappy working where he was working. Looking back, I don’t know if that stems from the drug use.
Six to eight weeks earlier, he had hooked up with a friend. They had dated in high school for years. She was going through a rough time. She lived in Essex Junction, and he had been going there a couple times a week. They were kind of slowly trying to hatch a plan where maybe he would move in, another friend would move in, they would all be in this house and kind of be a little family.
He said to me, "Right now, we’re just friends." He leans over the table and says, "OK, Mom, I hope it goes farther than that, but right now we’re just friends," and he cracked his little smile.
I said, "You know, Adam, not many people get a second chance. You’re very fortunate you guys are back in each other’s lives." He had hope, hope of doing something different.
After he died, she wrote me a five page, single-spaced letter [about] his last couple months. He would come over, they’d make supper together, they’d sit at the table, shoot the breeze and she’d have other friends come over. They’d go out for hikes, and they were making plans for the spring and summer. But it didn’t work out that way.
Hodgon abused drugs for years, a struggle his brother, Jason Hodgdon, attributes in part to his inability to move past the loss of his wife, who died of leukemia in 2004.
Jason Hodgdon: Shortly before he passed away, we had a party for my nephew in St. Albans. [Porter] showed up. He looked really good. He talked to everybody; he was his old self. We talked like we always talked, laughing.
>When my brother was normal, he’d just do anything for anybody. He put a driveway in for my aunt in Hartland, and she couldn’t praise him enough for how good of a job he did. When he passed away, my aunt was talking to my mom and said, "I was so proud of how he came down here and worked." My mom had to tell her, "You realize when he did that he was high?" Sometimes he could control it. If he had to be around people he’d take a little bit and get through it. People would look at him and didn’t know he was all screwed up.
Then he’d go out with his "friends." He didn’t have friends — he had pushers. He had druggies. A lot of people didn’t know my brother was an addict. Some of the greatest people are addicts. But there comes a point where you realize you’re not talking to the person you love anymore. You’re talking to the drugs.
Several months before she died, Gramm moved out of her parents’ Colchester home and in with her boyfriend. Her mother, Brenda Williams, recalled the time they spent together at the end of 2015.
Brenda Williams: It was Christmastime. She was sitting on the floor, and she said she should have never moved out, she made a mistake, she should have stayed and saved for a mobile home. She didn’t seem down or anything. She didn’t seem unhappy. Just that she had made a mistake and shouldn’t have moved out. I was thinking it was more for financial reasons, but now I don’t think it was. She struggled with alcoholism; she was going to AA but said nothing about any drugs. We were clueless about that.
Then we went to Florida. We emailed her, but she would take two or three days to get back, and it was very brief and not like her. I think things started in that time.
I don’t think the drug use had been very long, but I have no way of knowing that. Her boyfriend said he had left and gone to the store and when he came home, she wasn’t breathing; she was blue. He said she was up and joking around and doing the dishes when he left. I don’t know how much is true.
Carter was homeless when he died. But two weeks before, he showed up at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, where his family had gathered to tend to his gravely ill grandmother. He spoke with his uncle, Paul Somerville:
Paul Somerville: Just before my mom died, he showed up the waiting room in the hospital. He looked terrible, but he was in good spirits. He was concerned for his grandmother, obviously. Shawn had this way of propping himself up and puffing himself up a little bit, not in an egotistical way, but to make people believe he was in good spirits. "Don’t worry about me, everything is going to be fine." He was in that mode. We knew my mother wasn’t going to come out of the hospital. We were having those kind of conversations.
When he stood up to leave, I said, "If you ever need anything." It’s the code for "When you’re ready to get sober, when you’re ready to change your life, I’m ready to help." He understood. He said, "I know, Uncle Pete, I know." We embraced, like we always did. We didn’t fake hug — Shawn squeezed when he hugged. My last words were, "I love you," and he said, "I love you, too." I’m so grateful that it ended that way.
Jackson became addicted to drugs while living in Florida. Two weeks before his death, he moved back to Vermont to live with his sister Katy. His father, Joel Jackson, paid them a visit.
Joel Jackson: It was on a Friday. We had a nice chat. He was telling me about some of the things he wanted to do. He had picked up a little dog, and he was thinking about getting into training rescue dogs. He had his heart set on it. We were talking about his plans for the future. He was going to move in with his old schoolmate in Waterbury, who was like a marathon runner, granola, vegetarian, very clean-living, exercise guy. Jared was thinking it would be really good to be around him. He seemed fairly put together. He was making good plans. I gave him a hug, commended him on what he was doing, and told him if there’s anything he needed, we’re 100 percent behind him and would help him anyway we could. But I noticed he had lost a little weight from the last time I had seen him.
On Sunday, Katy had him helping her make dinner, because they were going to have some friends over. He went downstairs. His friends started to arrive for dinner, and Katy was looking around for him and sent my granddaughter downstairs to get him. She came running up and said, "I can’t wake up Uncle Jared." He was passed out over his computer, not breathing.
LaPierre suffered a hockey injury when he was 17 years old and became hooked on prescription pain medication, touching off a struggle with addiction that lasted the rest of his life. He married his longtime girlfriend, Shannon, in May.
Shannon LaPierre: The past few years were good. We wanted to build a home — that was our dream. We were buying land, we were thinking Essex, some place where we could have enough land. We had three Labs. There was so much to look forward to. We were going to start having kids.
He happened to be working in a building, putting flooring in. There was an individual there, selling [drugs]. Battling addiction and having it in front of him like that, I don’t know how many times it was put in front of him before he said, "Yes."
I honestly thought that wasn’t going to happen to him. I knew it was a battle, but he wanted more out of life than that. He died on a Thursday. He was supposed to go to camp on Friday to help his father with some stuff. They were going to fix something. And he didn’t want his dad doing it by himself. He worried about his dad working up there.
Salmon fought a years-long battle with addiction before he bought his last $10 bag of what was supposed to be heroin. His mother, Debbie Loyer, said she had been seeing signs of trouble.
Debbie Loyer: Clark was a boxer in his younger days. He was Vermont Golden Gloves boxer of the year. He worked out. When you saw Clark’s muscles were going away and he was getting skinny, you knew he was using. He would tell me, "Mom I’m not using," and I’m like, "Yeah, you are."
Our last conversation? I can’t remember. I seriously can’t remember the last time I told my son I loved him. It kills me. It seriously, seriously kills me. I’ve blocked a lot out.
I remember I got a card from him at Thanksgiving. I read it over and over. It says, "You’re the only person who has ever been there for me and I can’t begin to say how much I love you and I would do anything to protect you." He said he’d never forgive himself for everything he put me through and he tried to get clean so hard and he just can’t do it. I have a pile of his cards saved, like a memorial. I open them a lot of times and re-read. I still, to this day, walk by son’s urn every night to tell him good night. Every night.
Despite the resources devoted to treatment programs and preventive measures in Vermont, the death toll from opiates continues to rise. Read our in-depth analysis of Vermont's opiate abuse problem and 2016 overdose deaths.
Investigating the breadth of the opiate abuse problem in Vermont, Seven Days filed a public records request with the Vermont Department of Health for death certificates for every fatal drug overdose in 2016. We quickly realized that pinpointing opiate overdoses is not as simple as we had assumed. Our findings may not match the Department of Health's own forthcoming annual opiate overdose tally.
Why? Many people are killed not by one drug, but by a mixture of multiple drugs. Alcohol is sometimes a factor. Some overdose victims have underlying health problems, such as heart disease, that contribute to their deaths.
For these reasons, the health department has complex criteria for declaring a death an "opiate overdose" and conducts investigations of every fatality.
Even the term "opiate" is more complicated than you might think: The health department supplied a list of 56 prescription medications that double as oft-abused opiates. Most of them we'd never heard of.
For this story, Seven Days included people whose death certificates reported that opiates were a cause or contributing factor in their death. Like the health department, we excluded drug-related suicides. Last year, there were six.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Last Impressions"
Tags: Healthcare, overdose victims, opioids, heroin, fentanyl, prescription drugs, Dilaudid, cocaine, Christopher Hobbs, Rebecca Gramm, Jared Lee Jackson, David Billings, Jodi Lynn Adams, Blake Schoenbeck, Clark W. Salmon III, Jesse Lee Maxham, Penny Marie Bean, John Stephen Nicoll, Adam Vera, Porter Hodgdon Jr., Shawn Michael Carter, Eric LaPierre, interactive, Video
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