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'It has no respect for persons'

Authorities believe drug overdoses claimed the lives of 13 Benzie County residents since 2013

  • 7 min to read

BEULAH — The words that give Mike Fekete comfort fill the dog-eared pages of his Bible.

He cradled the leather-bound book under the wood-planked ceiling of Eden Bible Church in Beulah, surrounded by friends and worshipers. Fekete flipped to a blank page before Genesis where there is no biblical guidance, just six words from his son scrawled on a small piece of yellow paper.

“Smile, your son loves you – Jake.”

It’s encouragement from his son, Jake, 22, a young man known to his family and friends for such compassion. Jake Fekete died March 26, 2014 from what a medical examiner later listed as a drug overdose, an all-too-common recent occurrence in rural Benzie County.

‘Good kids’

Ted Schendel, a career law enforcement officer and Benzie County’s sheriff, pulled his patrol car onto the shoulder of Aylesworth Road on a November afternoon. The tree-lined spot about seven miles from Schendel’s Beulah office is where a deputy on May 15, 2013 found Justin Smith, 23, lying on the ground outside a pickup truck, one foot still inside the vehicle.

Justin, who injected heroin and took methadone that day, died of an overdose.

Authorities believe drug overdoses, mostly from heroin or other opiates, claimed the lives of 13 Benzie County residents since 2013. It’s a staggering number for a county with 17,000 residents, where victims and their families often grew up together, attended the same schools and churches, and are laid to rest by the same funeral home.

The deaths prompted a variety of reactions. Some, like Mike Fekete, turned to faith. Others, like Schendel, initiated change that outpaced the law itself.

“Regardless of circumstance, our job is to protect people,” Schendel said.

An overflow crowd later attended Justin Smith’s funeral service at Eden Bible Church, where his cousin Jake Fekete spoke to the mourners.

Gaylord Jowett, owner of Jowett Funeral Home and Cremation Service, remembers that day and another about a year later when he handled services for Jake.

Jowett handles most funeral services in the small, rural county, including most services for Benzie County’s fatal overdose victims in recent years. He encountered few overdose deaths when he bought the funeral home in 2004, but that changed in the past six years.

“Now it’s running all age groups. It’s not just young kids, it’s 40- and 50-year-olds,” he said.

Benzie County emergency medical personnel this year responded to 27 drug overdoses. In October, sheriff’s deputies investigated two deaths — William Clyde Sutherland, 65, and David Wiggins, 34 — as potential overdoses.

Benzie County’s overdose rate isn’t much different than Grand Traverse County but it’s a smaller pond and the losses cause ripples. Jowett said Justin’s and Jake’s deaths created the biggest waves in the community.

“Here you have two cousins, good kids,” he said.

‘It’s still unreal’

Keri Schneider still expects to “just run into” her stepbrother.

Perhaps one day she’ll walk into a restaurant and catch a glimpse of Justin, his blue eyes sparking from the kitchen. His grin telling her he’s still up for fun and adventure. She smiled when she recalled his love for his nieces and nephews.

“It’s crazy coming to see him here,” Schneider said on a blustery November day in Gilmore Cemetery outside of Elberta. “It’s still unreal.”

She couldn’t bring herself to visit Justin’s grave for a year after his death. His black headstone, tucked away in the cemetery’s gentle hills, is adorned with mementos. For a while, friends left empty beer cans and spoons used to cook heroin, but now the stone is ringed with coins, flowers, a socket wrench and even old Halloween decorations.

“He was a good boy,” Schneider said. “But the drugs turned him into a person who wasn’t him. Someone you couldn’t trust. It wasn’t him; it was this addiction that takes over your head.”

Justin’s addiction likely started with prescription pills before he moved onto the now-cheaper and more readily-available heroin, Schneider said. She researched opiate addiction after Justin’s death. Her studies also led her to a Quincy, Massachusetts program credited with saving hundreds of people from overdoses.

Quincy police officers, often the first to respond to overdoses, started to carry naloxone — also known as Narcan. The harmless drug can revive an overdose victim by reversing the effects of heroin and other opiates.

“I initiated it, but (Schendel) looked into it,” she said. “… He said even if it just saved one person it would be worth it.”

Schendel’s deputies now keep white, pocket-sized devices containing a doses of naloxone in their patrol vehicles. In 2014 they became the first in the state to carry the drug in a program inspired by the Quincy program.

The trail-blazing effort — now emulated across the region and state — began before Michigan legislators passed a law giving police officers access to the drug. Schendel said he didn’t check the law before he started the program.

“I never really looked at it to see if it was illegal or not,” he said. “For me, it was a no-brainer decision, a common-sense decision to save a life.”

Schneider said she believes a brief outpouring of community support for efforts to stem heroin abuse after Smith’s death ebbed. She distributed Narcan kits to people in the community and hosted a public training to show people how to administer the life-saving drug.

But she isn’t giving up, and wants to help set up a clean needle exchange in Benzie County.

Schendel said local officials also recently launched the Benzie Area Youth Initiative, a program he said will restart anti-drug programs in Benzie Schools.

“Even if it only affects one kid, it’s worth it,” he said.

But the county’s overdose problem persists. Benzie County sheriff’s deputies haven’t yet successfully used naloxone to revive an overdose victim.

Meanwhile prescription drugs, particularly opiates, seem to have overtaken heroin. A combination of morphine and hydromorphone claimed Jake Fekete’s life, about the same time Schendel launched his naloxone effort.

‘He loved hard’

Stacey and Mike Fekete try to focus on how their son lived, not the way he died.

“As a person, I think he was probably one of the most caring people that I knew,” she said. “He cared about everybody.”

Pictures of Jake in his high school wrestling uniform cover the couple’s refrigerator. His portrait hangs high on their living wall between pictures of their other children, Jordan, 26, and Jared, 21. It can be seen from their dining room, where Stacey remembered receiving a phone call a few months after Jake’s death.

The caller didn’t know Jake died. He had helped when her car got stuck in the snow.

“She just told me this whole big, long story about how he had helped her,” she said. “And he didn’t have to do it. He just did it because he cared.”

It wasn’t an uncommon story. Jake had a universal blood type and frequently donated blood. A theme of his funeral was that he “loved hard,” Stacey said.

But Jake’s deep well of feelings may have led to him to drugs. Mike said Jake struggled with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Drugs became Jake’s way to cope but they became a problem themselves, he said.

“There’s no cultural barriers, there’s no social barriers,” he said. “It affects the Hollywood crowd who are millionaires – they die from it – and there’s the people who are on the streets that are affected by it, and they die by it. It has no respect for persons. It certainly affected (Jake). He was exposed to it, to drugs, in high school. And when he went to (Grand Valley State University) it really got exposed to him there.”

Jake left the university and cleaned up. He enrolled in the Great Lakes Maritime Academy and found renewed purpose. He spent the day before his death at at Benzie Central High School talking about the program, from which he was poised to graduate. Things were the best they’d ever been in Jake’s life.

But Mike said the fear of change triggered Jake’s panic attacks.

“It cost him his life,” he said.

Stacey found her son dead the next day. She buried him, her mother and grandmother on May 15, 2014 when the ground thawed, exactly one year after Justin died.

Numbness defined the days after Jake’s death for his parents. They didn’t jump into action. The pain was too immediate. Everyone has their beacon, Mike said. Theirs is faith.

“This was going to show whether it was really real or not,” Mike said. “And I wanted that to be really evident in my life in front of people. That was real important to me, but in a genuine way. You can’t fake this.

“Grief is grief.”

He started a blog after Jake’s death where he writes about his faith, grief and how both relates to his life. He also reflected on the Book of Job.

“The Book of Job is a book about suffering, and heartache, and pain,” Mike said. “Job lost 10 children and he lost his family. He lost his income and everything was stolen and taken from him. He lost everything.

“And in the end, God confronts him … And after He confronts him, he says to God, ‘I have heard of you with the hearing of my ear, but now my eyes do see you.’ That’s what I really learned. I understand God so much better. I understand grace, God’s goodness. As difficult as this is, and many people blame God, God never changes. He is good. He permitted this. He allowed it. And it’s a test of my faith.”

‘When I need it’

A smaller crowd than usual filed into purple-draped chairs for Mike’s class in Eden Bible Church. It’s to be expected for the opening weekend of hunting season. He plowed forward with his topic — the temptation of Christ — before the Sunday service, growing more animated.

God does not tempt us, he said. He tests us.

“We will never be tested beyond what we can endure,” he said, nearing the lesson’s close.

Pastor Dan Ingersoll has counseled several families who have lost loved ones to an overdose during his 32 years caring for the flock at Eden Bible Church. He believes the ultimate solace comes from the Gospel, but he’s also there to listen.

“The greatest, I think, gift that the public can give the people is to be there for them,” he said. “And not go thinking you’re going to be the person who’s going to heal them, but just support them.”

Mike said he now feels he can comfort people affected by drugs. He’s helped counsel addicts, introduced them to what he called the “eternal” hope of his faith, and rested a comforting hand on their backs as they bowed their heads in prayer.

There’s a healing that comes from helping people, Stacey said. She, like her husband, keeps a note from Jake pressed inside her Bible. She thumbed through pages after the Sunday church service and couldn’t find it, but didn’t worry.

“I only find it when I need it,” she said.

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