‘This is happening here:’ Jefferson County families turn loss into purpose as fentanyl claims more lives than ever

Left: Jessica Kelly with her son who she left behind after taking a fatal dose of...
Left: Jessica Kelly with her son who she left behind after taking a fatal dose of fentanyl. Right: Jessica Kelly and her mother Patty Wade.(KMOV)
Published: Aug. 4, 2022 at 9:12 AM CDT
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FESTUS, Mo. (KMOV) - Katie Moss was close with her cousin, Jessica Kelly. They grew up in Festus in eastern Jefferson County, a town of about 12,000 people.

“She was my older cousin,” Moss said, “so I of course looked up to her. Any time she was coming to pick me up, I was ecstatic.”

Moss was driving into town with her cousin and listening to music one of those times. Suddenly they ran out of gas in the middle of the drive. They were lucky to be close enough to a gas station to coast right in.

“We were just laughing the whole time because we barely made it,” Moss said.

Jessica had a contagious laugh.

Moss and Jessica’s mom, Patty Wade, recount the story of her life in two distinct sections. In one, there’s the young woman they knew and loved, a good person who loved life, had a kind heart and helped other people. In the other, there’s the person who struggled down the unforgiving path of drug addiction.

Both Wade and Moss watched the person they loved go down that path for 15 years, as both chapters of her life collided before they ended simultaneously in April of 2018.

Jessica Kelly spent much of her life struggling with drug addiction.
Jessica Kelly spent much of her life struggling with drug addiction.(Courtesy of Patty Wade)

“Watching someone you love that is so full of life at one point,” Moss said, recounting Jessica’s final, fatal overdose. “And then the next thing you know, they’re laying in a hospital bed hooked up to all of these machines and can’t say a word to you. It’s just really heartbreaking.”

Jessica was often in the hospital due to overdoses. It caused many sleepless nights.

“It’s a nightmare,” Wade said. “There were so many times I’d lay in bed and wonder where she is, and you expect a phone call because she did overdose quite a few times, and I’d get a call in the middle of the night or during the day, and she’d be at the hospital.”

Jessica went to Jefferson College after high school but quit after a few months of taking classes. That’s when Wade thinks her daughter’s addiction began. Soon, she grew distant, only calling home when she needed money. Wade helped her with money for a while but eventually stopped, knowing it was going to her drug habit.

Moss has seen addiction run deep in Festus and the surrounding Jefferson County area. She recently had a close friend die of an overdose. In the years before, she saw the toll addiction took on her cousin for over a decade. Moss has even struggled with addiction herself.

“It’s either a struggle to stay high or a fight to stay clean,” Moss said.

Jefferson County has the second-highest opioid overdose death rate in Missouri at 41 deaths per 100,000 residents. St. Louis City, St. Louis County and Franklin County are also among the counties with the highest rates in the state. The St. Louis region is the epicenter of the Missouri opioid crisis.

The main driver behind the exponential rise in overdose deaths is the synthetic opioid fentanyl. There were no fentanyl-related overdose deaths recorded in Jefferson County in 2010. In the three most recent years where data were available(2018-2020), more than 75 people died from the drug on average annually.

Jessica and Renae Drennen’s son, Robby Rainwater, used to be friends and were close in age. They both went to Festus High School. Robby was an avid skateboarder and younger kids looked up to him because of it.

“Everyone said he had an infectious smile,” Drennen said. “He was just a really sweet person. Everyone wanted to be his friend.”

Robby and Jessica both died of a fentanyl overdose a year apart from one another. Robby was 31 when he died in 2017, and Jessica was 32 when she died in 2018.

Drennen barely knew what fentanyl was when she saw it on her son’s death certificate.

“I knew that my mom’s friend had cancer and she had a fentanyl patch, but that’s the only time I had heard of fentanyl,” Drennen said. “And I was wondering why he would have any kind of fentanyl to take his life. I didn’t know where he got it.”

Renae Drennen lost her son Robby Rainwater to fentanyl in 2017.
Renae Drennen lost her son Robby Rainwater to fentanyl in 2017.(KMOV)

A more accurate representation of Robby and Jessica’s deaths may be that they were poisoned. Fentanyl is often laced into other drugs, and two milligrams of it can be lethal.

Drennen did not believe her son had a previous drug problem of any kind. He had just landed a new job at Ardagh Glass in Pevely, Missouri and passed the drug test. Wade said her daughter would not have knowingly taken fentanyl.

“The stuff that people are buying on the street has an unpredictable potency and people really don’t know how strong the product is they’re using,” Dr. Fred Rottnek said.

Rottnek is the medical director for the Assisted Recovery Centers of America and spent 15 years as the medical director at the St. Louis County Jail and Juvenile Detention Center. He said illicit drugs are often being tainted with fentanyl or high potency amphetamines.

“So when fentanyl is cut by the dealer,” Rottnek said, “they’re not using precise techniques that we might have used in organic chemistry or in the science lab.”

Buying drugs on the black market has become a risky game. Users are often unaware of how strong the product is they’re buying, and dealers are often unaware of what they’re selling, or at least how much of it.

The amount of fentanyl in this bag is enough to kill five non-tolerant people.
The amount of fentanyl in this bag is enough to kill five non-tolerant people.(KMOV)

Drennen and Wade are far from the only parents grieving a tragic loss. Drennen was at a meeting for people who had lost loved ones to an overdose and saw some faces she recognized.

“When everyone was introducing themselves,” Drennen said, “I realized I had met some of these parents or seen them at football games or basketball games with my kids and that they had lost one of their children as well.”

The others in the group lost sons and daughters who were around the same age as Robby and Jessica. It was shocking for Drennen to see.

“I guess it opened up my eyes to what was really going on,” Drennen said. “I guess you just don’t think of it until it happens to you.”

Drennen, Wade and Moss sought to raise awareness by speaking publicly about a crisis hitting close to home.

“It’s not like you’re seeing it on TV, like someone has died somewhere else because of an overdose,” Moss said. “This is happening here, where I live, so it gets personal.”

Both mothers said they have experienced the stigma that surrounds addiction. It was painful for Wade to feel the judgments of others while also grieving her daughter’s death, as if someone dying of an overdose is somehow less tragic than other deaths.

After Jessica’s death, Wade saw someone she knew in the grocery store. They caught up with each other, asked how things were going.

“I said I lost my daughter and she asked me how and I told her and she’s like ‘oh,’” Wade said. “Not ‘I’m sorry,’ no hug, no nothing. Just ‘oh.’ And I wouldn’t be that way to anybody. A death is a death. It’s your child. You lost a child. Nobody should have to do that.”

Patty Wade, left, and her daughter Jessica Kelly attending a bachelorette party.
Patty Wade, left, and her daughter Jessica Kelly attending a bachelorette party.(KMOV)

Talking about her cousin brings back painful memories for Moss as she sits on the couch in her aunt’s living room. Addiction rewired Jessica’s brain into a survival mode where getting high was the only thing that could ease her sickness. It was hard to reason with her sometimes as she tried to get clean.

“It’s kind of like walking on glass,” Moss said. “You have to be super careful. Sometimes you think you can relate and unless you have been in that situation, it’s hard to and most people can’t.”

There was a time Moss was at Wade’s house to see her and Jessica. Moss was going to spend the night, just like old times.

“Jessica was kind of going through it,” Moss said. “She had just came back home, trying to stay clean. She was pretty messed up that night.”

They fought and Jessica left the house. It was a tough night, but Moss said she and Wade never gave up on trying to help Jessica.

“I don’t think it ends, honestly,” Moss said. “It’s something you have to live with every day.”

There were times Jessica stayed sober. She spent two months in jail for a drug possession charge and Wade left her there until she knew she could get Jessica straight to treatment. She was safer in jail, Wade said, where she couldn’t get high.

When Jessica left jail, it was the cleanest Wade had seen her in a long time. Jessica spent the night at Wade’s house before going to Indiana for treatment.

“We had so much fun because she had been clean that whole time she was in jail and it was like the old Jessica,” Wade said, her eyes beginning to water. “I kind of look at that as God giving me one last day with her...I mean, cause she was just so much her old self.”

It was one of the last times Wade saw her daughter sober.

Jessica found a place to live at the Harris House Foundation in south St. Louis after getting back from treatment. Wade was going to pick her up the day a relative was getting baptized.

“I kept texting her and she never answered,” Wade said. “And so I called her phone and some guy answered and he told me that Jessica spent the night, and he woke up that morning and she was unresponsive on the floor and he called an ambulance. He didn’t know where the ambulance took her, didn’t know anything.”

Wade called around and finally got on the phone with the right hospital.

“They said ‘hold on, the doctor wants to talk to you,’” Wade said. “When she said that, I knew it was bad cause doctors don’t usually get on the phone to talk to you.”

Jessica was on life support when Wade got to the hospital.

“The first time I touched her hand, it was so cold,” she said.

Jessica suffered cardiac arrest after overdosing and was completely brain-dead. The doctors ran tests the next couple days to show Wade there was nothing else they could do to save her daughter. Wade made the decision at that point to take her off life support.

Jessica died on April 24, 2018.

“I have peace in my heart that she’s okay now because I know how bad she suffered just living the way she did,” Wade said. “And, to me, my higher power is my God that said ‘you know what you’re coming home’ and so I had that peace and I look forward to being there with her someday.”

Jessica Kelly died of a fatal overdose on April 24, 2018.
Jessica Kelly died of a fatal overdose on April 24, 2018.(KMOV)

Robby left behind two kids, Mackenzie and Owen, who were 11 and 2 when he died. Drennen said Owen looks just like his dad. Mackenzie, she said, loved spending time with him.

“I would always try to get Mackenzie to go to the mall or go to the movies,” Drennen said, “but no, she wanted to hang out with her dad, like all the time, just her and her dad.”

Jessica left behind two children as well, Christian and Liam. Wade tries to bring up good memories of their mom the kids would remember.

Wade held onto a letter Jessica wrote to Christian, her oldest son, when she was in rehab. He’ll read it once he’s old enough to understand its meaning.

“In the letter, she does talk about her addiction and how much she hates being that way,” Wade said, “and she doesn’t ever want him to do that type of thing and how much she loves him.”

Wade wishes she understood addiction better when Jessica was alive. She used to argue with her about the choices she made.

“If I knew then what I know now,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been that way because I don’t really think they have a choice. I think they fight for their life every day.”

Wade and Drennen confide in each other. They share a strong bond, one of grief but also determination. They help other families through a support group, Grief Recovery After a Substance Abuse Passing (GRASP).

Drennen’s forearm tattoo is one way she keeps her son’s memory alive. A heart with a broken skateboard is figured into her skin in dark ink with words beneath it that read “Always in my mind, forever in my heart, my son Robby.”

In death, Jessica embodied the kind-hearted person she was in life. A registered organ donor, her liver was given to a 46-year-old man in New York. Her right kidney went to a 49-year-old man in Colorado and her left kidney to a 66-year-old man in Louisiana. She gave the gift of life to others as Wade made the decision to take her off life support, a silver lining to Jessica’s death as she passed away that April day in 2018.