By J. Brian Charles
Jonathan Alexander Hayes was driving while high on opioids. It was the morning of Nov. 1, 2016, and the 24-year-old was approaching the busy intersection of Oleander Drive and Independence Boulevard in Wilmington, N.C., when he overdosed.
Ahead of Hayes’ truck was the Richardson family. Mason, who was three days shy of his third birthday, was riding with his mother and four-year-old brother when Hayes rear-ended their car.
Hayes’ truck was traveling so fast that it kept going, striking another car before finally coming to a stop roughly 100 yards down the street, according to the Wilmington Police Department.
Two-year-old Mason was killed in the collision.
Emergency personnel at the scene revived Hayes with a dose of the drug naloxone, which is administered to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It, was by some estimates, the fourth time Hayes had received the drug in less than six months.
For the city of Wilmington, the incident was a wake-up call — one that will make it an incubator for addressing the opioid epidemic. “The flashpoint was the death of Mason,” says Mayor Bill Saffo.
Wilmington, which sits along the southern swath of North Carolina’s coast and whose Antebellum homes and beautiful beaches attract thousands of tourists each year, is now the nation’s capital for opioid abuse, according to a study by Castlight, a health-care information company. More than 1 in 10 residents abuse opioids.
The spike in opioid addiction and overdoses caught Wilmington flat-footed back in 2012. “I don’t know why,” says Saffo, “but we got hit pretty damn hard down here.”
Between 2014 to 2016, opioid overdose deaths more than doubled from 24 to 53 — and those, says Saffo, “are just the deaths we know about.”
Crime also increased. “We started to notice the presence of heroin on the street and the drug gangs [were] becoming more active,” says Mitch Cunningham, deputy police chief. “The number of shots fired was up, as were aggravated assaults.”