Weatherford Democrat

February 3, 2013

DEADLY DOPE: Heroin deaths hit Weatherford hard

A story of three local men whose addictions cost them their lives


Weatherford Democrat

— First in a series

By CHRISTIN COYNE

Jay Menefee was a proud father of two young children with an aptitude for mechanical work.

Michael Lowrance was a professional welder and a gifted artist.

Sean Briggs was a devoted uncle attending Weatherford College with plans to get a degree in psychology to help others.

But last fall, the three 24-year-old men, who at one point attended Weatherford High School together, lost their battle with drug addiction, dying of heroin-related causes within a month of each other.

Each man fought a drug addiction for years, beginning in their teens, the families and those close to the men say. Several family and friends noted that the men had other friends around their age who also died of similar causes in recent years and don’t believe the problem is being adequately addressed locally.

Though heroin isn’t one of the most commonly used drugs, experts say it is one of the most dangerous, often quickly leading to addiction and even death.

At least four other deaths in Parker County during 2012 were attributed to heroin-related causes, according to public Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office records. 

Jay Menefee

Jay Menefee was a proud father, a hard worker and a talented man with much potential, according to those close to him during the last years of his life.

He had two preschool age children living in Weatherford and those who had recently lived with him described him as a jovial, pleasant man to be around.

“Jay had loads of personality,” said James Knight, the house manager where Menefee stayed for six months in an attempt to overcome his addiction, describing Menefee as easy to get along with.

Menefee was also a talented artist who had received a full scholarship to Texas Wesleyan University but those close to him said his substance abuse prevented that.

Mechanically minded, he had recently started a job learning the HVAC business and picked it up quickly, according to James Reeves, Senior Pastor of Celebration Fellowship in Fort Worth.

Within a matter of weeks at his new job, he was coming back to the church and working on their units, Reeves said.

“You probably would meet Jay in a normal situation and would never dream he had such a long history of dealing with drugs,” Reeves said, describing him as a good-looking young man they had come to love during his time at the church.

Menefee told her that he first started using drugs during high school while living with a family member who had a drug addiction, said Karen Byrum, who views Menefee as her adopted son.

Byrum’s son and Menefee were good friends in junior high school but drifted apart in high school as their lives took different directions. They grew closer again when Menefee reached out to the family after spending time in jail and converting, according to Byrum.

She and her husband put Menefee in touch with a program being run at the time by Celebration Fellowship.

There, Menefee significantly turned his life around.

“I really believe Jay wanted it because he worked it hard,” Reeves said of Menefee’s months of sobriety at Refuge House.

He not only completed the program but was doing so well, Knight said he allowed Menefee to live with him in his home before Menefee moved into his own apartment shortly before his death.

Though Menefee had been going through a rough patch at the time, those close to him were shocked when Menefee was found dead at his Fort Worth residence on Sept. 21. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner ruled his death an accident as a result of heroin intoxication due to incautious consumption.

Dealing with a recent break-up, Menefee had used heroin for the first time in about 6 months the day he died, those close to him said.

They suspect it was because he had been sober so long and his body couldn’t handle the same amount it could when he was regularly using, Reeves said.

“The lure of those drugs, it’s a curse,” Reeves said.

“If you dance with the devil he’ll want to take you home early,” Byrum told those at Menefee’s funeral. “Make a choice. Honor Jay’s memory. Don’t let your children grow up without their mommy or daddy. Get help for whatever substance you may be abusing. And, don’t condemn those who are struggling.”

Byrum, who also knew Briggs, said she has never known anyone who has died from a gunshot wound. But she has had some connection with six young people who died of drug overdoses within a two month period last fall. 

Drug use is an out of control problem that Weatherford needs to acknowledge so the community can deal with it, Byrum believes.

Because Weatherford is such a wholesome, good community, it’s difficult to acknowledge that, Byrum said.

Her hope is that parents will start educating their children early, before they become teenagers, and that young people will realize just how dangerous “what they are playing with is.”

Michael Lowrance

Born in Fort Worth in October 1988, Michael Randall Lowrance was raised in Weatherford, attending local schools and Couts Memorial United Methodist Church with his family.

Described as an “avid outdoorsman” by family members, Lowrance loved hunting, fishing, skateboarding and bicycling.

He was also a gifted artist, copies of his own drawings later adorning the biography distributed at his memorial service.

But Lowrance also struggled with drug addiction after a family tragedy during his high school years. 

“Michael tried desperately to fight his addiction,” Lowrance’s family said in a statement. “His trouble with drugs began with the sudden passing of his beloved sister, Lindsey, in 2004. Lindsey was only 19 years old when she passed away. At 15 [years old], Michael was hit very hard by her death. In fact, he was a lost soul after her passing.”

On Oct. 19, Lowrance died at his home in Aledo. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office has ruled his death an accident due to mixed drug toxicity. They reported finding heroin, methamphetamine, codeine and alprazolam in his system.

During his fight with addiction, his family supported him, realizing that “there is no easy path for those who struggle with addiction,” his family wrote, adding that they pray “his early passing could be a warning to others and hope that his story helps at least one other family in the community.”

Sean Briggs

Intelligent and athletic, Sean Philip Briggs had a strong Christian faith, a compassionate nature and many friends, his family said.

“He loved children, people who were the underdog,” his mother, Kathy Briggs said.

A good-looking young man with big blue eyes and a bright smile, his family jokes that he left many broken hearts in Parker County.

Briggs grew up in Weatherford, playing football and baseball during high school and going to camp and doing other activities with the youth group at First Baptist Church of Weatherford.

He’d also taken his young niece, who didn’t have a father in her life, under his wing, his family said.

At the time of his death, he was working at a local restaurant and attending Weatherford College.

One course shy of completing the requirements to obtain an associates degree, Briggs planned to transfer and obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

His parents say their son intended to become a substance abuse counselor and talked of helping those who faced the same struggles he had dealt with since high school.

Though his addiction had significantly impacted his life, it also didn’t define the person they knew as passionate about life, his family said.

Several of his friends told the family at the funeral that they had no idea he struggled with a drug addiction.

During a difficult period for his family, Sean Briggs, who wasn’t the partying type, began using drugs at the age of 15, his mother said, who believes that his addiction to opiates was sealed when he was prescribed hydrocodone after his wisdom teeth were removed at the age of 17.

For years, he went through a series of battles with addiction, including time spent in a rehab facility and an outpatient program that he was participating in at the time of his death, and had more than one friend die due to drug overdose.

“Sean hated drugs,” Kathy Briggs said. “He wanted that out of his life. He didn’t want any part of that any more but it was just bigger than him.”

He had made significant progress and managed to get himself cleaned up and on an upward path just before his last relapse, when his family believes he received heroin from a particularly potent batch that led to his death.

The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office recently ruled his Oct. 5 death an accident due to acute heroin intoxication.

“He’s just one of those unfortunate ones to get caught up in the drug scourge that Weatherford seems to close its eyes to,” his father, Philip Briggs said.

Weatherford is losing its best and brightest to drugs and there does not seem to be a concerted local effort to deal with the problem except turning people over to the law, Briggs said, adding that by the time the law is involved, it’s too late prevent addiction.

“This kind of illness, this knows no economic or social status, knows no ethnic status, it is a scourge that is everywhere,” Briggs said, adding that it will continue until the community wakes up to the reality that the problem exists and doesn’t just happen to others.

“It’s too easy in this town to go get things,” his older sister, Tara Briggs said. “I remember him saying that all he has to do is make a phone call.”

“They need to know this is a growing problem in Weatherford and that addiction is a disease - you can treat it but it doesn’t go away,” Kathy Briggs said.

Though she described the local drug addiction problem as overwhelming, Briggs hopes to begin addressing what she sees as a lack of local faith-based programs to help those affected by substance abuse. She had started the process to create a Celebrate Recovery group in connection with her church.