Editor’s Note: This is one of two articles about heroin in Sedalia. To read about how law enforcement is dealing with the growing heroin issue in the area, click here.
Jessica Williams was a “brilliant, beautiful young lady who loved life,” but an addiction to heroin cut her life short at age 22. Instead of hiding their daughter’s addiction, Wayne Williams and Debbie Williams are putting the issue out in the open, literally.
Wayne has placed a large sign with Jessica’s photo in the front yard of his Broadway Boulevard home and the message gets straight to the point: “Jessica Williams, 22 died HERE Feb. 10th, 2016 of a HEROIN OVERDOSE. Heroin is here in Sedalia and your silence may kill others. TALK ABOUT IT!”
“We don’t discuss it, you don’t hear it in coffee shops. You hear the Royals, the Chiefs, but no one wants to talk about this big, black elephant in the room that is very much there,” Wayne told the Democrat as he sat in a recliner chair in his living room Tuesday afternoon while Debbie, who lives in Blue Springs, sat across from him on the couch. “He is no longer on the other side of the fence, he’s in our backyard. The purpose of the sign was that our daughter died of this, your son or daughter or spouse could be next. We have to communicate about this.”
Brilliant and beautiful
Jessica graduated from Blue Springs South High School in 2011 where she focused on forensics and theater. She spent a year and a half majoring in political science and theater at William Jewell College in Liberty, where she had an $80,000 scholarship, before transferring to the University of Missouri in Columbia, and she had been considering a law career.
“There was nothing but progress in her way, nothing but a life filled with wonderful things in her way,” Wayne said.
She has two siblings, Andrea and Cristopher, and a niece, Lydia, who she adored. Jessica was to be the maid of honor in Andrea’s wedding.
Jessica was smart, landing herself on the honor roll, and opinionated, dedicating herself to a number of causes. Debbie said Jessica liked to “fight for the underdog.”
“It was hard not to like Jessica,” Debbie said. “Prior to the addiction years, they were a little different, but her friends did not stop loving her. Even her teachers.”
“She was loved,” Wayne said. “Yes, I’m her father and that’s her mother and we’re going to be biased, but we know she was loved. We were told by many people she was loved. Even her lawyer was going to hire her, she impacted her so much. She was just a neat lady.”
Throughout the interview at Wayne’s home, both Wayne and Debbie reminisced about their daughter, sharing the important details only a parent could remember while Debbie scrolled through photos and videos on her phone, showing off Jessica’s infectious smile and laughter.
A strong addiction
Jessica transferred to MU to follow a boyfriend. Debbie said she knew Jessica had tried heroin a few times before moving to Columbia, as she admitted it to her mom, but her addiction struggle didn’t start until MU.
“It wasn’t long before (Jessica and her boyfriend) were using every day and we didn’t know until her best friend Ellen called Wayne and said she was really worried about Jessica,” Debbie said.
Jessica moved back in with her mother in Blue Springs after she went through a drug rehabilitaion program and her boyfriend broke up with her.
“After that, the next thing within a few weeks she stole my car and we couldn’t find her. Ellen and her friends drove all over,” Debbie continued. “She had driven to St. Louis and got drugs in St. Louis. (Police) found her wandering around an old apartment building she lived in. They took her to the hospital and she actually snuck a rig in — she hid it in her underwear and she shot up in the hospital bathroom and they found her.”
After another stint in rehab, things started looking up. Jessica got a job and found a new boyfriend, Garrett. The pair moved in with Debbie, but during a family gathering in Sedalia, Jessica and Garrett were arrested in December 2015 after a traffic stop.
She spent 21 days in jail while her parents searched for a rehab facility, as the judge would release her from custody if she entered rehab.
“It took two weeks to find a rehab bed. I’m talking about the state of Missouri,” Wayne said. “That’s how serious this is.”
“Even if you want to go get help, there’s no where to go,” Debbie added.
After rehab and a few more days in jail, things were looking up again, but Jessica would continue to swing back and forth through withdrawal, addiction and being clean.
“She’d have moments,” Debbie said. “She was the kind of addict where she’d be clean. She went 60 days one time. She was 40 days clean. A couple days before she overdosed, she was curling her sister’s hair. She would have moments and then you think, ‘OK, this time’s going to work.’”
This time, Jessica moved in with Wayne in Sedalia.
“The night before she died, Jessica and I sat at that dining room table and talked for an hour and a half about addiction, about how to deal with the problems of addiction, when she had urges that hit her she had coping mechanisms from the different rehab places,” Wayne said. “She felt pretty confident in it. She and I talked about her future, we went out and bought her some clothes, (her attorney Laurie Ward) was going to have (Jessica) work for her.
“We were getting her set up for the next step, a small step back to her reality, a real life.”
That same night, Jessica drove to Columbia and bought her last dose of heroin.
“When she came home, she was very happy and I said ‘how was your evening?’ She said it was great,” Wayne said. “‘I love you,’ ‘I love you too,’ and she went to bed.”
Feb. 10, 2016
Jessica was found dead in her room Feb. 10. Pettis County Coroner Robert “Skip” Smith said the toxicology results came in last Friday, confirming Jessica died of a heroin overdose.
Even before that tragic day, both Wayne and Debbie said Jessica had changed dramatically, such as sleeping habits and her vocabulary.
“Any parent if they look for it, they will see it,” Wayne said. “Jessica stopped taking showers, she’d wear the same clothes for two or three days in a row. All she wanted to do was find her next fix.
“We raised Jessica right, we raised her morally right, but she still lied, she stole. This was the drug doing this.”
“It was not her,” Debbie added.
“It’s hard to accept that your little darling daughter would do these things,” Wayne added.
Debbie and Wayne now know all the drug jargon and both know where Jessica kept an opioid blocker in case of an overdose.
“It’s a sickness that you can’t control, you truly can’t,” Debbie said. “She was under the spell of the drug. She thought she could control it.”
Remembering and helping
Debbie and Jessica both got compass tattoos on their forearms to help Jessica remember to stay the course. In the days after Jessica’s death, Debbie got “I love you” in Mandarin Chinese, a language Jessica spoke, on her other arm, and sparrows on her foot to match a much larger tattoo Jessica had on her side.
During the interview Tuesday, Garrett called Debbie to let her know he had gotten his compass tattoo in honor of Jessica. Tuesday was his 24th birthday.
Garrett is more than 100 days clean, and told Debbie to pass on the message “for people who are struggling, there’s hope.”
“Garrett also said, people that are addicts, don’t feel like you’re alone and don’t give up hope and don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she added.
Wayne and Debbie said the grief comes and goes for them, but they want to publicly share their story to make sure no one else has to experience that same grief. Wayne said there’s no reason to hide it.
“It’s not about being brave,” Debbie said. “I’m not embarrassed that my daughter was a heroin addict because my daughter had more opportunities than most people would ever have in their lifetime, and if someone like Jessica could be drawn into that type of thing …”
Thousands of people have shared the Williams’ story on Facebook via photos of the sign and stories from news publications. A friend of Debbie’s told her she has a list of things to talk to her kids about and she has added heroin to that list.
“The fact that we have a family that’s stepping up and saying this happened to our family and we need to bring the awareness is very good,” Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said. “It’s always good to have peer involvement from the community, where some times law enforcement, we can preach all day long but until it affects someone you know, a lot of times it doesn’t become a forefront issue. I’m certainly sorry that this family had to be devastated from this, but the reality is it may be ultimately better for the community because it brings the issue to light.”
Jessica was buried last month in Memorial Park Cemetery. Debbie and Wayne are trying to remember the good and the bad about their daughter.
“Jessica never wore matching socks, ever. It drove my mother crazy. So Jessica took a photo and sent it on Facebook,” Debbie said. “… When we picked out her outfit, the most important part of the outfit was that her socks did not match, so her socks will not match forever.”
“We just miss our baby,” Wayne said. “We loved her very much.”
Nicole Cooke can be reached at 660-530-0138 or @NicoleRCooke.