Two days ago, Dawn Harrison told a story of recovery.
It was about her son, 24-year-old Logan Whiteaker, who had battled a titanic, decade-long opiate addiction. It was about the time he overdosed on heroin and lost consciousness, the night his father performed CPR to keep Logan alive just long enough for the ambulance to arrive. It was about the hours she stayed at home, waiting for the phone call that said, "My son is dead. My son is dead."
"Now," she said Monday, surrounded by Logan and her husband in a room full of Hamilton County Drug Court participants, "I don't have to wait for that call."
But less than one day after Hamilton County Drug Court celebrated the graduation of 11 participants, Logan Whiteaker was found dead in a Red Bank home, a hypodermic needle next to him on the floor and a small amount of suspected heroin on the bathroom counter, according to a police report.
"Yesterday at Drug Court, I made the comment that I never had to worry about getting 'that' phone call again," Harrison said Tuesday. "But I got that phone call this morning: 'Mrs. Harrison, I'm sorry, but your son's passed away.'
"And I still don't know what happened."
In Drug Court, an alternative sentencing program founded in 2005 for addicts to recover outside of prison, Whiteaker was a shining example. He'd found a construction job, passed 18 months of drug tests, and began work on a restitution plan for the thousands he owed in court fees.
"He was doing everything right," said Drug Court coordinator Elaine Kelly. "And that's when you see how insidious this disease is."
On Monday, standing before his peers, hundreds of court dates removed from his December 2014 program start date, Whiteaker sounded dumbfounded.
"What does it feel like to stand here?" Judge Tom Greenholtz asked.
"I never thought I'd be here," he replied.
After graduation, the 24-year-old joined his stepfather, grandfather and mother at Outback Steakhouse, where he loved the seared ahi. After dinner, the 24-year-old left to run some errands but agreed to swing by his mother's house. But Whiteaker never showed.
So, Harrison said, she sent him a text message.
Whiteaker didn't answer, which wasn't unusual. Maybe he was tired, she rationalized. "It was been a long day, and he'd not been feeling well."
Harrison slept, but woke the next morning to a phone call from a family member who said Whiteaker didn't show up for work at Wilkerson Construction, his workplace of the last three weeks.
She knew Whiteaker started dabbling with drugs at 13, her precocious son who absorbed science fiction novels for days on end. He tried the whole "skateboarding thing" but it didn't pan out.
She knew Whiteaker couch-surfed after he left home as a 14-year-old, falling in and out with drug addicts, dropping in and out of Hixson and Soddy-Daisy high schools — the same boy who once joined his middle school football team because he liked one of the cheerleaders.
She knew Whiteaker was a full-blown addict by the time he returned to her home at 17, but Harrison vowed to help him anyway.
"I spent every dime," said Harrison, a business analyst at Unum. "He just kept falling back, falling back. He went to jail a few times. And the last time, I had to put him in jail. That seemed to be a turning point — and I had to let him go. It was when he was done at the end of that, I was able to get him into Drug Court."
She watched him secure a construction job. She watched the color returning to his face the longer he stayed sober. She watched as he registered for court-ordered GED classes at Chattanooga State. She relished in the small kisses her ordinarily reserved son would leave anytime she offered her cheek.
And, on Tuesday, still without answers, now without her son, she remembered this story:
"When he was little — it's funny now, but it wasn't funny at the time — I was married to my second husband and he had a son that was a few years older than Logan, and he had a rocket with batteries in it that would take off. And I told my husband, 'Do not let him play with the rocket, he's very curious.' We called him Curious George. Well, I heard a scream and I saw Logan — he was wearing basketball shorts, and they were on fire. He had the bottom part of the rocket, and you don't put the battery in until the rocket's ready to go. And it flew up through his hands and landed on his legs. He ran up the stairs and screamed, 'Mom, mom, it hurts!' He was probably 7 or 8. I carried him to the car and hauled him to Erlanger."
That day, he ended up with second and third-degree burns — all because he was way too curious.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347 with story ideas or tips. Follow on Twitter @zackpeterson918.