CHRIS AND LEEANN CHEELEY’S eldest son Zach required the most parenting energy of their seven children. When LeeAnn once told a young Zach not to chop down her tulips, he went and hacked them down. He started fires in the yard. As a teenager he looked for adventures that involved breaking the rules: jumping fences at concerts or taking a jet ski out in the dark. He landed in juvenile detention once and stirred trouble at family gatherings.
“He lived with a world of shame. … He knew he didn’t fit in with our family,” said LeeAnn. “He was different than everyone else, and God created him that way.” She believes her son had faith in God and treasures his copy of the New Testament, filled with his notes.
After college he taught English in Ukraine for a year, living through a revolution there. When he came back to Idaho, he didn’t feel he fit in and couldn’t hold down a job. He did mostly marijuana recreationally and as a way to calm the constant angst he lived with, LeeAnn said.
When his parents asked him to move out, he convinced them to let him live at their lake cabin in Idaho through the winter, without heat or running water. He burned all the furniture for fuel and brought water from the lake to flush the toilet. When his mom saw him around Thanksgiving, he looked “terrible”: He had chapped hands, chapped lips, and scabs; hadn’t showered; and wore dirty clothes.
“It’s not like you can stop it,” she said. “You can warn him.”
He checked into a psych ward and seemed to be doing better. Months later during a family dinner, Zach started ranting at his sister. Chris and LeeAnn wondered afterward if they could keep doing family dinners together. But that was the last time they saw him.
Zach had ordered through a Chinese supplier U-47700, an opioid much more powerful than morphine. At the time it was easy to order such drugs from China, but the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) now classifies U-47700 a Schedule 1 substance under tight control. Mexican cartels now flood the U.S. drug market with fentanyl and other opioids, according to a new DEA report.
Zach had tried smoking the drug, but it shut down his lungs and sent him into cardiac arrest. He died later at a hospital. Two people received his donated kidneys.
“He assured me nothing like this would ever happen,” LeeAnn said.
At the funeral, she met Zach’s drug-addicted friends. LeeAnn says her kids would describe her as “straight-laced”—in church since childhood, she never smoked a cigarette or marijuana—but she connected with Zach’s friends.
A little over a year later, one of them wrote LeeAnn from prison: His wife was about to get out of prison herself and needed help. When she was released, LeeAnn was waiting outside in her car. She hadn’t seen or talked to the woman since Zach’s funeral.
LeeAnn rolled down her car window and asked if she needed a ride. The young woman climbed in.
She lived with the Cheeleys for several months. “It was hard having her live with us. She was high-strung like Zach,” said LeeAnn. Struggling with mental health issues and a meth addiction, she required attention that sometimes left LeeAnn’s remaining teenager at home ignored. But LeeAnn and the woman became good friends.
She eventually disappeared after losing legal custody of her child in foster care. For months LeeAnn had a hard time reaching her or her husband because they switched cell phones constantly. Since then they’ve had occasional lunches together but not much else.
“I did feel like, for that three months, that God used me to do something,” said LeeAnn. “I don’t know.”