Teen’s Loss: “I Miss Him So Much”

Posted on:

< < Back to



Something was wrong with Cole.
On a Saturday afternoon in mid-February 2011, Danielle Smoot walked into her 16-year-old son's bedroom and found him curled under his New England Patriots bedspread.
Cole was a kid who could sleep until dinnertime if he wanted, but with school Monday through Friday, wrestling meets on Saturdays and church on Sundays, he hadn't had much opportunity for that since winter break.
But this wasn't teenage lethargy.
A foot peaking from beneath the comforter was mottled purple and beige, like human marble. His lips were blue; his face ashen.
Danielle reached for his neck, fumbling for a pulse.
She screamed for her husband, Shane, who bounded up the stairs and into Cole's room. Erik, then 14, watched as his parents rolled his older brother onto his back, maneuvered him to the floor and drained blood from his mouth.
The night before, Shane and Danielle had caught Cole strung out on methadone. At 11:11 p.m., they had checked him into the emergency room. By 2:47 a.m., the doctor had discharged him.
By that afternoon, he was dead.
From the time Danielle gave birth to Cole, she devoted herself to raising him and, later, his brother. But these days, she's stuck in a place between a painful past and a future that hurts just as much.
"You just exist," she said. "This is our reality. It's a day-to-day thing."
Snow had fallen on New Carlisle, a city of 5,800 people in western Clark County north of Dayton, and freckled the lawn outside the Smoots' four-bedroom, brick house at the end of their street.
The Smoots came to Ohio
21/2 years ago when Shane, who works in acquisitions for the Air Force, was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He and Danielle, both 38, had met at a base in Texas and were married 19 years ago. The family called themselves the "Core Four"- Shane, Danielle, Erik and Cole – because they moved about every three years. In every new neighborhood, school and town, they were all they had.
For the boys, that never lasted long. Cole, a sophomore at Tecumseh High School, "was like the Pied Piper of kids," Danielle said. "He would always be the one coming up with outlandish activities to do and convincing everyone else they were a good idea."
Like inner-tubing down the creek in the woods out back when the current was strong. Or staging "arena fights" with crawdads, pitting the biggest of the bunch against one another. Or riding the high-speed Oklahoma wind by catching it with a bed sheet while wearing a pair of wheeled Heelys sneakers. That stunt landed him in the emergency room.
Cole took after his mom: chestnut-haired, sprightly, quick with a quip and small – 5 feet 4 and
108 pounds.
"It used to bother him that he was short, and I would tell him it's the heart that makes the man, not the height," said Shane, 6 feet 1 and a life-size GI Joe in Army fatigues. "Because he was little, he was always so in your face. … He had that little-man syndrome."
Wrestling for Tecumseh, Cole loved to win – badly. Competition was slim in his weight class. He once had to wrestle a girl and told his mom he was nervous. He wanted to win, but he didn't want to embarrass her by pinning her too quickly. Cole pinned her, then immediately offered his hand to help her to her feet.
He had a nose for adventure and an eye for mischief, but he had a big heart.
So it shocked his parents when, at about 8:30 p.m. on Friday,
Feb. 11, 2011, Cole emerged from his room trembling. His hands were clammy, his skin pale, his pupils constricted to pinpoints – a clear indication to his mother that he was under the influence of an opiate.
Danielle, who was studying to be a nurse at the time, recognized the signs instantly. She sent Erik away while she and his father pressed Cole. He slurred his words, denying everything. Then he said he'd taken a Percocet, presumably left over from his parents' recent nose surgeries.
But as the night progressed, things didn't add up. Percocet enters and leaves the body quickly, and Cole's symptoms weren't regressing.
This wasn't his first experimentation with drugs. During the summer, his parents had caught him with marijuana. He'd popped open a window and sat on the roof, puffing a joint. Danielle and Shane took him to the police department and pressed charges.
Cole's probation officer later told him that he'd probably go to juvenile detention if caught again. And he knew his parents wouldn't save him from that kind of punishment.
A drug charge as a juvenile would haunt him into adulthood, and Cole had big plans for the future.
He had skated through his honors classes, but he was fascinated by science, especially biology. He wanted to follow in his Aunt Diane's footsteps and become a pharmacist.
Shane had a gut feeling to check Cole's room. He plucked a pill from a tissue box. It was one of Erik's prescribed medicines. Shane didn't know how it had gotten in there, and he doesn't think Cole was hiding it. But that didn't matter.
He shouted from the top of the stairs: "I found your drugs in your room."
"The ones in my closet?"
"No, not those. But come here. Go get your drugs out of your
Cole pulled out a handful of pills: 15 methadone tablets and five Soma muscle relaxants wrapped in a folded, white index card.
Shane didn't lecture Cole on the way to the hospital that night; it wouldn't have done any good. Cole was loopy.
The possibility of death never crossed Shane's mind.
At Wright-Patterson Medical Center, Cole told the ER doctor that he'd swallowed 10 milligrams of methadone, a Percocet and some Ibuprofen. His vitals were normal, and they gave him a drug test.
In his notes, the physician typed: "The pt does not display a opioid toxidrome."
"He's out of the danger zone," he told Danielle.
Cole and his parents left with a prescription for medicine to help with his nausea and instructions to call on Monday for a follow-up.
It was 3:30 a.m. by the time they rolled into their driveway. Erik was sound asleep in a basement room. Cole had a wrestling meet at Urbana High School the next morning, but it was clear he wouldn't be going.
Before trudging off to bed, Shane hugged Cole, who swung his arms limply around him.
"I love you," Shane said. "Everything's going to be OK."
Danielle warmed some leftover ravioli and poured Cole a glass of Kool-Aid, but he couldn't keep anything down.
As his parents walked upstairs, Cole peered up at his mom: "I'm really sorry for doing this to you," he said.
"You didn't do this me," she said. "You did this to yourself."
Cole brushed his teeth, Danielle tucked him in, and they prayed.
The next morning, everyone slept in.
Methadone is a synthetic opioid, a type of narcotic (from the Greek word narcosis, which means "to sleep").
Like Vicodin, Percocet or Oxy-
contin, it works by binding to special protein molecules in the brain called mu-receptors. One of the effects is pain relief. Another is respiratory depression.
But unlike other prescription opioids, methadone – especially in high dosages and in bodies unused to its effects – can linger for days.
In overdoses, the breathing rate gradually ebbs: 12 breaths per minute…eight, six, four. … Eventually, the person suffocates.
Dispatcher Rebecca French was taking calls on the second floor of the Clark County sheriff's office on that Saturday.
"Hi, uh, my name is Shane Smoot. I live (on) McKees Mill Run, um, in New Carlisle. … um, I think my son is dead."
"Wha – Why do you think your son's dead, sir?"
Cole wasn't breathing and was unresponsive. Shane put French on a speakerphone as she talked him through CPR.
In less than five minutes, the first deputy sheriff was on the scene, followed by at least 10 EMS crew members and firefighters in two ambulances, a fire engine and firefighters in personal cars.
Jacob King, the fire chief from nearby Bethel Township, one of the first responders, had just dropped off his 12-year-old daughter at basketball practice at Bethel Elementary when word came over the radio about a 16-year-old non-breather. He thought of his daughter as he turned for New Carlisle.
King said they did everything they could. They gave Cole CPR and three different medications to counteract the methadone's poison and kick-start his heart.
Before wheeling Cole's body out on a stretcher and into the February cold to the waiting ambulance, the crew hesitated inside the house. King looked at Danielle and Shane as his team continued CPR.
"Come over here," he said, "and take a moment to tell your son to stay with us, to come back. Take that moment so you can cherish it before you leave."
Shane put his hand on Cole's shoulder. Together, he, Danielle and Erik prayed out loud:
"Stay with us."
A team at Dayton Children's Hospital briefly continued the effort to save Cole, according to a hospital log:
2:18: CPR in progress.
2:19: Compressions ceased. No pulse. Compressions resume. Noted: Patient is cold to touch.
2:24: Meds administered.
2:25: Compressions ceased. Unable to obtain blood pressure. No pulse noted.
2:26 p.m.: Time of death.
Lured by wailing sirens, screeching tires and flashing lights, a half-dozen kids from the neighborhood arrived on the lawn outside the Smoots' house.
An older boy, who lived a few houses down the street, sprinted toward the Smoots' when he heard what had happened. He reached Danielle just as she was leaving with the squad and told her everything he knew: Cole wasn't the only student at Tecumseh who'd gotten prescription painkillers that week.
There were other kids from the neighborhood who had the same drugs that killed Cole.
After Cole was pronounced dead, Shane phoned his neighbor. He rattled off names of kids who allegedly had gotten painkillers. Find their parents, he said. Tell them their kids have the pills.
"You got to go and find your son, too, and you got to find him now, because he has the same drugs Cole had, and Cole's dead."
No parent wants to hear those words, and the woman didn't want to believe it.
"I don't have time to argue with you," Shane said. "Go find him, because he has the drugs. And get the drugs away from him."
That morning, the woman's husband picked up their son from the wrestling match at Urbana High School. He asked if it was true. Did he have any pills? Did he take them? The boy denied everything.
But as they turned a corner and faced Cole's house, still ringed with yellow tape and deputies, flanked by cruisers with flashing lights, the boy cracked.
"Dad," he said, "I took the drugs."
One-fourth of a methadone tablet to be precise, 30 minutes earlier at the wrestling match.
His father whipped the car around and headed straight for Dayton.
Danielle and Shane saw the boy as he was wheeled into Children's Hospital.
He survived.
Investigators from the sheriff's office treated Cole's death as a homicide. All detectives were called in.
During his four years working investigations, lead detective Perry Roeser said he had seen overdoses routinely, but never a case involving a minor, particularly one like this.
"You think this can't be happening in this house or this neighborhood," Roeser said. "You just shake your head and just think something terrible went on here. How can this happen to these people?"
Roeser swept Cole's room for evidence, bagging two Gatorades, a Mountain Dew and a reusable water bottle, just in case. He found the most significant item in the closet: a black, zippered toiletry bag with six small white pills, later identified as morphine, packaged inside a folded index card.
On that day and the next four, investigators sought the source of Cole's pills. They spoke to 12 Tecumseh students and some of their guardians. Each interview presented new leads.
By the time they closed the case last May, they found that at least seven students had purchased, received or sold painkillers during school hours or school-sanctioned activities in the week leading up to Cole's death.
"It was a surprise," said Lt. Chris Clark, supervising detective on the case, "the amount of pills that are available to these kids, the amount of ease at which they can come across them and find them, and the amount of ease in which they can transmit them through the schools."
Investigators said witnesses gave this account:
The pills first were seen in the building on the previous Thursday during a second-period math class. A student at Tecumseh High from nearby Dayton dissolved them in Gatorade bottles, creating a stomach-churning cocktail of morphine and muscle relaxers, and passed them out to unwitting students during class.
The next day, during the same period, the student brought in a pile of pills. The drugs had been packaged and labeled with chicken-scratch codes, such as "6M15," meaning six morphine for $15. A substitute teacher on duty was reading nearby at the time.
The pills had nicknames. Morphine went by "Power Rangers," methadone by "Maserati." And prices were $4, or $3 if that's all you had. One girl exchanged the use of her pre-paid lunch card for a methadone tablet.
Kids walked around the school looking pale and ill, like zombies. They threw up in bathrooms. Some went home sick. Parents thought it was food poisoning.
The transactions were hardly secretive, taking place in the boys restroom, the high-school rotunda and between bells. Or, in Cole's case, outside the junior ROTC room before fifth period.
It was Friday. Sabrina Bradley, a 16-year-old, curly-haired girl with round cheeks and a shy smile, remembers how Cole called out her name. "Hey, Bradley, wait!"
Cole was giddy. He told her he couldn't wait to go home and snort morphine.
She told him that was stupid.
Danielle picked up Cole from wrestling practice that day at the usual time, 5:15 p.m. The Smoots usually ate dinner together, but Shane was working late, and Cole was trying to drop weight for the next day's sectional meet. He went outside with two boys from the neighborhood.
That wasn't unusual. But this was: One witness told deputies that the boys watched Cole take a pill from his closet and swallow it before heading outside. Later, near a creek in the nearby woods, Cole told them that the pill's effects were waning, and he wanted to go home to pop another.
Three days later, on Valentine's Day, Michael Allen, a student who is now 18, was talking with deputies at the sheriff's office. Amid terror, tears and perhaps some relief, he dropped his head to the desk during a tense, two-hour interview, and blurted: "I gave the pills to Cole."
Investigators charged him with seven counts of trafficking drugs and one for possession. Allen was on the wrestling team with Cole and lived just around the corner. Witnesses said the Dayton boy recruited Allen to help sell the pills. His aunt and guardian, Stacia Allen Jones, maintains that her nephew never sold drugs; he mostly told kids where and how to get them.
Cole called him "Big Mike." They car-pooled together.
In Clark County Juvenile Court, Allen admitted to two counts – the possession charge and giving two pills to Cole. Judge Joseph Monnin sentenced Allen, a first-time offender, to six months in a rehabilitation detention center in Troy. He went home the day before Thanksgiving.
Less than a week into the investigation, Roeser chanced on an odd connection to an overdose case he had handled a month earlier, in January 2011.
A student told deputies that he had overheard the Dayton boy boasting that he'd stolen the pills from his mom, who occasionally cleaned for her son's in-laws in New Carlisle. The mother-in-law, a retired nurse, had suffered from nerve conditions and physical disabilities for years. And she had died less than a month earlier from an accidental drug overdose.
Roeser remembered that he had never seen so many prescription-drug bottles. So Roeser paid a visit to her widower in late February 2011 and asked the man about his cleaning lady and her connection to his late wife's pain medication. The widower said he had asked her to box up the pills. They should have been tucked away in a closet upstairs. That day, he found they were missing.
The detectives never were able to link the morphine in Cole's room to morphine in the Dayton family's house. At some point, the Dayton youth stopped showing up at school, and his mother began referring investigators to her attorney.
Launching an investigation outside their jurisdiction would have meant jumping through too many legal hoops, Roeser said, so the detectives didn't pursue it.
But he will never forget that house.
"I'm telling you, there were pills and pill bottles in every dresser drawer, every cabinet. The curio cabinet was full of drugs. There were pills scattered on the floor. It was incredible how many pills there were," he said. "Oh, God, I couldn't even put a number on it. There were hundreds, hundreds of pill bottles."
More than 800 people attended Cole's funeral. Some sat cross-legged on the floor and in the aisles, and a long line of people waited to get inside. It was so crowded that they shut the doors to keep more people from squeezing inside.
The Montgomery County coroner later determined that Cole had died from acute methadone intoxication. The toxicology report showed that he hadn't taken a Percocet, like he had said, or any other painkiller.
Shane and Danielle guess now that Cole thought he'd never get caught with the other drugs and figured the Percocet that Danielle kept hidden in her dresser drawer was an easy cover.
But perhaps, more than anything, they figure that Cole didn't want to double-cross his friends.
Danielle recalled having asked Cole why he had done it – risk his future, his health and his parents' trust for the thrill of a high. Cole told her that he was in a lot of pain – he'd gotten impetigo, a common skin infection among wrestlers, and the antibiotic he was taking was tearing up his stomach. It didn't help that he wasn't eating, so that he could keep his weight down for wrestling. But Danielle didn't buy it.
"While I think that might be a contributing factor, I think the main reason he did it was because the majority of his friends were doing it," she said. "I think it all comes down to that. It was a lapse in his judgment, and he gave in."
On the recent eve of the anniversary of Cole's death in February, snow fell like feathers. The Smoots' house hadn't changed much, except for the addition of a Boston Red Sox urn that sits on a side table at the edge of the living room.
The kitchen is bright yellow and smells like chocolate-chip cookies. Upstairs, framed family photos and the boys' baptismal certificates hang on the walls.
Cole's room hasn't changed much, either, and for that reason the door is kept shut.
It's sometimes the little things, Shane said, "that take your breath away."
There are Cole's origami penguins, folded from a church bulletin; his detention slips, dated
Feb. 5, for failing to wear his ROTC uniform; a piano keyboard; his wrestling medals and baseball collection.
Sometimes, Shane finds himself in Cole's room, surrounded by the red and white walls. He's searching for something, but he doesn't know what. A strand of hair. A memory. A part of Cole he hasn't yet grasped.
"It hurts, I guess. That's why I'm here with tears filling my eyes. I want to choke him and hug him at the same time – if I could see him again," Shane said. "Because of all the pain and agony that he's drug this family though. Because of one stupid decision.
"But I miss him so much."
Deanna Pan is a fellow in Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau.