Photos by Madeline Gray
Video by Drea Cornejo
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.
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.