A somber journey: After losing son over a decade ago, Waynesville man still seeks solace
The immediate grief of having to bury a child seems insurmountable, and the lifetime of what-ifs seem like enough to drag a person to unimaginable depths.
But what for most is horrific speculation is a reality for others. John Chapman Sr. knows.
Over the last 10 years, fentanyl has flooded the illicit drug market. But even before it was really on law enforcement’s radar, in 2009, John Sr. lost his son, John Jr., to a fatal fentanyl overdose. John Jr. was just 21 at the time, had a good job and seemed to be on the right track to live a comfortable and fulfilling life — and then in an instant, it was over. He fell asleep one night in his bedroom after ingesting fentanyl and never woke up.
As time goes on and John Sr. continues to deal with his own grief, he has taken more steps to help other grieving parents who’ve lost a child too early, whether to overdose or something else. John Sr. said some days are good and some days are bad, but the memory of his son and the pain of losing him are always there.
John Jr. was born Aug. 23, 1988, and was raised almost entirely by John Sr.
He enjoyed sports and particularly excelled at wrestling. He also excelled in machine shop classes at Pisgah High School and went on to work at General Electric in Asheville after graduating in 2006. After John Jr.’s passing, Chip Singleton, the machining instructor and wrestling coach, established a scholarship in John Jr.’s name.
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“Normally I get to award the scholarship at the banquet dinner that they have for all the Haywood County Schools Foundation that gives out the scholarships,” John Sr. said.
While Chapman figured his son was drinking socially and perhaps smoking some marijuana, he never imagined that opioids had entered the picture. Chapman believes that at the time his son tried fentanyl, he was not anywhere near a serious addict but was experimenting. In fact, that may have been John Jr.’s first time ever using fentanyl.
Once his son died, John Sr. began investigating his drug use.
“I looked back about a month, month and a half, I could see that he had been doing some pills, maybe,” John Sr. said. “Then I just stopped. I said ‘it's not going to benefit me to know how long he had been doing that.’”
While John Sr. stopped trying to understand what his son’s prior drug use looked like, his efforts to seek out the man who’d sold him the fentanyl intensified.
John Jr. and a friend has been experimenting with prescription opioid pills. The friend’s aunt had a boyfriend who sold the friend two patches — the patches had been prescribed to the aunt by a doctor for pain. Westerman told the friend it was enough to last him and John Jr. for three days if they kept it in their mouths for short periods, “like chewing gum” Chapman said, enough to get the desired effect.
“It was an obsession,” John Sr. said, adding that he didn’t work for six months as he tried to find out more than he even wanted to know deep down inside.
Chapman decided to talk to the man who sold the fentanyl that killed his son. It didn’t take long to find him.
“I said ‘I got a couple questions for you,’” John Sr. recalled. “‘And the way I see it, you can answer one of three ways. You can choose to say nothing. And I'll learn to live with that. You can tell me the truth, which is what I really, really, really need. Or you can choose to lie to me, in which case you better start praying to whoever it is you pray to, because I'm gonna send you to meet him.’”
John Sr. said the man cried as told the truth. Chapman accepted what the man had told him, but he added that he spent the next month or two talking to the Canton Police Department to try to get them to bring charges in his son’s overdose death. John Sr. said he felt like they were putting him off.
“I've never been a big fan of cops … a lot of times I lived just on the other side of what would be legal,” he said.
Eventually, John Sr. spoke with Police Chief Brian Whitner, now retired, who said there wasn’t much that could be done about it. Now, there’s a death by distribution statute that can bring second-degree murder charges to a person who delivers a drug that another person overdoses on, but back then there wasn’t.
“[Whitner] said, ‘John, what do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘What would you do if it was your son? That's what I want you to do,’” John Sr. said.
John Sr., overcome by frustration, recalled a conversation he’d had on the phone with his own father, who urged him to slow down and consider what he hoped to accomplish versus what he would actually accomplish.
“I said, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna kill him myself,” John Sr. said. “I told him in court he was a lucky man to be alive and that if it wasn’t for my parents, he’d be dead.”
Eventually, prosecutor Reid Brown brought the case before a grand jury and secured a second-degree manslaughter charge. A plea arrangement was agreed upon — an arrangement John Sr. said he was OK with. He was happy to at least see an admission of guilty and some degree of accountability.
John Sr. got to make a victim impact statement, but he said it didn’t make him feel any better. None of it made him feel any better.
John Sr. recalled his son’s funeral. People he didn’t even know, friends from school and work, showed up. But John Sr. felt like he was going through the motions — shaking hands, accepting condolences — all the while just wondering why.
Over time, the condolences, phone calls and drop-ins ceased but the grief held strong.
“Everybody else's life goes on, and I'm wondering, why was the sun still shining every day?” John Sr. said.
But as that tragic transition went on, John Sr. met several people who would help him along his way, both to understand what happened and how he could honor his son’s memory by trying to make a difference.
“I don't think I will ever move on, but early on, after my son had died, I had a couple of really good friends that were very helpful,” he said. “We sat on the porch until after bedtime on many nights.”
One friend Chapman eventually made after his son had passed was Bill Hollingsed, the former Waynesville Police Chief who’s long been vocal in Raleigh regarding bills he believes would curb the opioid epidemic. John Sr., who owned a flooring business, met Hollingsed when he did an installation in his house. Later, at a lunch a local church was holding for parents who’d lost children to overdoses, he ran into Hollingsed again.
“We became pretty close,” John Sr. said. “Over the years, I’ve done a lot of drug education work with him.”
Another was Ellen Pitt, who runs the regional DWI Taskforce but also spends time educating the public on narcotics and sometimes helps grieving families. John Sr. said he respects Pitt’s tenacity in her mission.
“Everybody listens when she talks; she don't waste any of her breath,” he said.
Perhaps most crucial was Pastor Bruce Cayton, who passed away in 2015 but led the congregation at Clyde’s Oak Grove Baptist Church for 31 years. Although John Sr. knew Cayton prior to his son’s death, the way Cayton was able to guide him through the trying time only strengthened his faith.
“He was without a doubt the best person I’ve met in my entire life,” John Sr. said. “He told me what I needed to hear at that time, that it was OK to be mad at God and that how you react in in a moment like this means everything in the world.”
John Sr. attended Oak Grove Baptist until Cayton retired and now goes to Pinnacle. He said his faith is still strong. Chapman described Pinnacle as a change of pace, a more modern church with more casual dress and “louder music.”
“It’s very convenient. I live a mile from there,” he said. “They had church three different times, so I couldn't come up with an excuse to no go. I started going there and, and I've been going there ever since to be honest. So that just felt like home to me.
John Sr. also met people who’d been through the same life-altering experience of losing a child to an overdose, including some who also attend church at Pinnacle. Chapman dug into a program he’d heard about, Compassionate Friends, a group for anyone grieving the loss of a child, grandchild or sibling, not necessarily just due to overdose. He started going to meetings in Hendersonville and Brevard, but those was too far, and he’d get home too late.
He founded a local chapter with the help of local counselor Robin Minick, who had wanted to starter a chapter before but was unable to since she hadn’t lost a child, despite counseling people who had. They started it in 2013 and now meet at Long’s Chapel monthly. People who attend the meetings simply tell their stories in whatever way they want to a room full of people who understand the depths of despair associated with losing a child. John Sr. said one never knows how telling their story may help another parent who’s struggling.
Once a year, Haywood County’s Compassionate Friends gather at Long’s Chapel for a special ceremony, during which each member lights a candle in memory of their lost loved one.
“Do I tear up? Sure I do,” he said. “But it makes me feel better every time I get to mention his name, because he's not being forgotten.”
Although COVID put a damper on the group for a couple of years, Chapman said they’ve gotten it going again and John Sr. even helped to start a chapter in Asheville.
An unthinkable epidemic
When John Jr. lost his life in 2009, fentanyl wasn’t on many people’s radar. Although the government began tracking illegal fentanyl and the danger is poses in 2005 and the DEA busted its first lab back in April 1990, it wasn’t until only about a decade ago that the Mexican drug cartels figured out they could receive shipments of fentanyl precursors from China and make the drug cheap.
That just so happened to coincide with the peak of the prescription opioid epidemic. Once the government cracked down on those prescribed drugs, illegal opioids, including heroin and fentanyl boomed.
In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Asheville Police detectives said they started seeing heroin in about 2013, and it wasn’t long before fentanyl entered the picture. Now it’s everywhere. Fentanyl immediately became known as the most dangerous opioid, given the small threshold between a therapeutic dose and a fatal dose.
“There was like two years of death before Narcan (a lifesaving substance that reverses opioid overdoses) became as widespread as it was. We were dealing with overdoses on a scale that really hard to keep up with,” said Capt. Joe Silberman, who heads up APD’s criminal investigations division, said.
Opioids caused 107,000 fatal overdoses last year, with the majority being caused by fentanyl. The drug’s dangers are well-documented at this point, and yet it’s as prevalent as ever.
Robert Murphy is the special agent in charge of the DEA regional office in Atlanta, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas. He said fentanyl is the “scariest” thing he’s ever seen over his whole law enforcement career. He noted that he was most shocked to hear that people were actively seeking fentanyl, despite its danger, and wouldn’t even be happy with heroin.
“That explains the enormity of the addiction with fentanyl,” Murphy said.
Since fentanyl is so potent and so cheap for cartels to make, it’s now become prevalent in every corner of the United States, and it’s even found its way into other drugs, often without the user even knowing.
While counterfeit prescription opioid pills are common, so too are other drugs being laced with fentanyl, even uppers like cocaine. Murphy said when his own son went to college, he was afraid that he may end up using fentanyl, even while thinking he was just experimenting with drugs that have the reputation of being less harmful.
“I kept drilling it into his head,” Murphy said. “I’ve seen what it does.”
John Jr. had a sister. John Sr. said that while she was stubborn growing up, his son had a way of reaching her; they shared a unique bond.
“She could know something was coming from me, but he’d say it, and she’d be okay with it,” John Sr. said. “I know that sounds odd. But they were very close.”
John Sr. said the trauma his daughter has lived with the passing of her brother has echoed in the life of her daughter, John Sr.’s granddaughter. Even though she never met her uncle, John Sr. said she knows so much about him that it can seem like she was close to him.
“She’ll tell people about her uncle John,” John Sr. said. “I can’t believe that she never met him since she knows so much about him. I don’t think it’s affected her in a negative way really; I think it makes her understand her mom a little bit.”
He said his granddaughter has, in a sense, reinvigorated his sense of purpose, and he’s found a new kind of love. When she was born, he considered that the God he’d been mad at created that person, someone whose life he could cherish.
“And I got to thinking, well, I can be mad as hell at God for the rest of my life and be like I am now for the rest of my life, or I can choose to be thankful for what He's given me,” John Sr. said. “At that time, I chose to be thankful for my granddaughter, and have been ever since. And now I have a second granddaughter.”
He recalled that one night when she was staying with him, she wanted ice cream and he said no. It was too close to bedtime.
“She said, ‘you don't love me, papaw,’” he recalled.
That hit him hard. Where new love grows, so does new vulnerability.
“I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, little girl. Do you believe that? It's OK to say that if you feel that way, but do you really think that I don't love you?’” John Sr. recalled. “She said, ‘Well no, Papa, I know you do. I said, ‘you just don't know how much you mean to me. You saved your papaw. Do you know that?’ She said, ‘I know that.’”