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Photos by Madeline Gray
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Dec. 2 at 8:47 a.m.

Fran Laughinghouse keeps this 2012 prom photo showing her late son, Alex, far right, and three of his friends, from left, Nixon Floyd, Richardson Sells and Cole Thomason. Cole is the only one still alive.

GREENVILLE, N.C. — On that terrible day nine years ago, Ellie Laughinghouse Crout was running late. The memorial service for her half sister was starting in an hour and she still hadn’t left home.

The 5-week-old child, Lacy, just seven pounds, had been found facedown in her crib two days earlier, devastating her half siblings, who had been so eager to welcome the baby.

And now Ellie’s phone was ringing. Annoyed, she answered and snapped at her mother, whose tone signaled more calamity. Ellie’s youngest brother, Jackson, distraught over the baby’s death, had gone out with friends the night before. When his mother tried to rouse him from bed that morning, he was gray, with almost no pulse. Tests would show he had four different kinds of anti-anxiety medications in his blood. Five days later, just before his 19th birthday, he was taken off life support.

“I hate the saying, ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘It’ll get easier,’ because it doesn’t,” Ellie said. “It doesn’t get easier. Grief and loss never do. I think they just get different. You learn where some days you’re an emotional wreck and others, you don’t think about them as much. Or you think about them with a smile.”

Oct. 2, 2013, was not the day the drug epidemic reached Greenville. But beginning with Jackson’s death that day, a group of at least 16 young men and women who grew up together in this small, eastern North Carolina city would succumb to overdoses of opioids and other drugs over nine years. More of their peers became addicted or overdosed but managed to survive.

“It was almost like a generation that went to war didn’t come back,” said J.D. Fletcher, whose son died in 2019.

In a nation that suffered more than 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 alone, there are many Greenvilles — places where the powerful opioid fentanyl and other drugs have produced clusters of overdose deaths, or picked off victims one at a time. Here, drugs worked their way inexorably through a group of friends, year after year, for nearly a decade. In one family, loss piled upon tragic loss until almost no one was left.

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The deaths shattered families and shook the worldview of parents who believed the drug subculture affected other people’s children. Many are still mystified at how addiction invaded the fortress they had tried to construct from comfortable homes and good schools.

Some have sought to find meaning in their children’s deaths, urging the community to acknowledge the drug crisis in its midst and take steps to prevent more young people from dying.

“It was getting to the point that we couldn’t ignore it anymore,” said Maria Rodriguez-Cue, whose son, Mingo, died in 2017, at age 22. “You could pretend that this couldn’t happen to you … [but] it could happen to any of us. And it continues to happen.”


There is no single explanation for the run of deaths. Each teen seemed to follow his own path to substance use, propelled by trauma, depression, boredom, hopelessness or poor self-esteem — lost to the easy availability of drugs and a susceptibility to addiction.

The dead are nearly all boys and nearly all White. Eight were good friends, or friends of friends, a typical crowd that coalesced by eighth grade at St. Peter Catholic School, or early in one of two public high schools. They were a few years apart in age, but connected in some way. They palled around, spent nights at each other’s homes, played ball together.

When drugs took over their lives, some accumulated criminal records, mostly for charges such as possession and driving under the influence, the kinds of offenses that accompany substance use disorder.

In a 2008 photo of the St. Peter seventh- and eighth-grade basketball teams, three of the 18 boys pictured are now dead. Two other teammates not shown also have died.

Three of the 18 boys in this 2008 photo of the seventh- and eighth-grade basketball teams at St. Peter Catholic School -- Mingo Rodriguez-Cue (43), Stuart Fletcher (34) and Alex Laughinghouse (arms crossed) -- died of overdoses. Two others not shown in the photo also died after taking drugs.

Beyond the core group of friends, Greenville lost eight more to overdoses, including Megan McPhail in 2014; Kennedy Wainright in 2015; Kyle Griffin and Michael Suggs, who overdosed on the same night in 2016. In the months since the reporting for this story began, Haylee McArthur and Raducanu “Ryan” Nease also died after overdoses.

“It came and it took them,” said Joe Hughes, the St. Peter basketball coach and history teacher who spoke at three funerals and attended five more. “It just, it took them.”

On the Friday of Lacy’s memorial, Ellie called her other brother, Alex, to tell him about Jackson’s overdose. They went to the service to mourn Lacy, making excuses for Jackson’s absence. Numb, Ellie remembers little of the ceremony, where family and friends grieved a tiny newborn they were told had succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome — an explanation that would later become more complicated.

After the memorial, Ellie and Alex told other family members about Jackson. Then they went to the hospital and found their brother withtubes and wires protruding from his body at all angles. Bloody gauze littered the hospital room floor. A priest had been called to administer last rites.

For five days, Jackson’s mother, Fran Laughinghouse, let his friends come say goodbye. She also hoped to scare the hell out of them.

That worked for some of Jackson’s friends, who “realized that it could have also just as easily been them,” and veered away from drugs, Ellie said.

For others, the drugs’ grip was too strong.