Bonded by Loss: Two mothers fight for justice for their sons who died of Fentanyl overdoses

HOLMEN, Wis. (WKBT)- The drug epidemic is tearing families apart right here in our own communities.

La Crosse County has already set a record for the number of drug overdose deaths in a year and there’s still more than 3 months left.

So far in 2020, there have been 30 drug overdose deaths, 7 of which happened within a two week period at the end of August and beginning of September.

And the majority of the deaths are linked to the powerful opioid Fentanyl.

Two moms have bonded over the loss of their sons in separate drug overdoses and are determined to let others know their sons are more than just numbers.

“He was a great person, he was willing to do anything for anyone. Was just a fun guy to be around. He was always a character, always trying to do something and make people laugh,” said Tari Gullickson of her son Keaton Bendel.

Mishelle Gulley described her son Dustin as “all boy growing up, into everything.”

“He made everybody laugh, he always, he joked about everything. He would light up a room when he walked in.”

Two young men with their whole lives ahead of them.

Tari said, “It has been the worst 8 months of my life.”

Two mothers who are left trying to make sense of their losses.

“An officer took me aside and said he’s gone,” said Mishelle.

Tari and Mishelle, both of Holmen didn’t know each other a month ago.

“I’m grateful that I have her,” said Tari.

But now, they don’t know what they would do without one another.

Mishelle said, “I feel her pain, I know her pain.”

Keaton Bendel was a 2012 graduate of Holmen High School. He was set to get married next weekend.

“Never in my wildest dreams would’ve thought my son would be a statistic,” said Tari.

Keaton had his struggles growing up. He lost a lot of people that were close to him, including his dad just a few years ago. And he and his girlfriend had a baby boy when they were in high school.

“He was happy being a dad, he was a wonderful dad.”

But not long after the birth of his son, things started to go downhill for Keaton and drugs entered the picture.

Tari said, “Which I wasn’t aware of at the time when it started but I’m learning now that he was doing some pretty harsh drugs.”

After being forced out of his home for about 6 months because of the drug use, Keaton decided to come back and take on his responsibilities. He seemed to be getting life back on track.

“Everything was looking great, he was happy about life.”

He remained sober for many years, but on January 18th, 2020, at just 25 years old, Keaton lost his battle with addiction.

“Never did I think that I would lose a child, much less to a drug.”

“Trying to figure out how to live my life without my son in it, is very difficult.”

Just six months prior to Keaton’s death, Mishelle was living her own nightmare.

“Sunday morning, July 21st. I lost my only son.”

Dustin Stockowitz was also a Holmen High School graduate, class of 2007.

“The all american-kid in high school.”

He started using when he was around 20 years old. He became addicted to pain pills.

“I don’t know how long it was when I found out he was injecting heroin.”

He had done outpatient and inpatient treatment, got clean and relapsed, even overdosed a number of times. But the drugs just kept pulling him back in.

Mishelle said, “It wasn’t him, I know it wasn’t him, it was the drug.”

“These kids didn’t ask to be addicts, nobody is born wanting to be an addict.”

“He got back into the meth and the heroin, he started ‘speedballing,’ as I’ve heard, which is injecting meth and heroin together.”

In between his drug use, Dustin was also building a family with his fiance.

He had a a girl. “She was daddy’s princess.” And two boys. “He loved them kids.”

But on a summer day last year, It all came to a sudden end. This overdose would be Dustin’s last.

“All I could do is hear myself, hear myself say I want to see my son,” said Mishelle through tears.

Both Mishelle and Tari would eventually learn what killed their sons.

“He was a gamer so we were told, typically gamers try to, they’ll take things to keep awake through the night to say with the gaming community,” said Tari.

“What he thought was cocaine turned out to be 100% Fentanyl. There was no cocaine in his system.”

Mishelle said of Dustin’s death, “He died of a Fentanyl laced heroin overdose. It’s not accidental, that’s murder, that is murder.”

“They know my son did not purchase that drug. Two other people purchased it and brought it to him.”

“Had he know what that was, he wouldn’t have taken it. He had so much to look forward to and was so excited to be marrying the love of his life and raising their son,” said Tari.

Now they want justice for their sons.

Tari said, “I know, there are so many people who are buying what they think is something else and it’s turning out to be Fentanyl and it’s killing them.”

“In my eyes, they’re murdering people.”

Mishelle said, “They just keep letting them go and letting them go and letting them go, more and more people are dying, it’s not right.”

“We need a judicial system that will stand up for these people who’ve died because of these dealers. Stop letting these people get away with it. Stop the signature bonds.”

“I hope that somehow we can find out where he got this from and whoever is make this and selling it to be put away and brought to justice,” said Tari.

Two moms on a mission. “I will not stand silent,” said Mishelle.

“Something needs to happen and these people need to be held accountable, we can’t just keep throwing them in jail and then letting them out and thinking they’re not going to do it again because they’re not going to stop,” said Tari.

For their sons, because their lives mattered too.

Mishelle said, “I’m supposed to go first, not my child.”

“I don’t want any other mother, father or anyone to have to go through what I’ve gone through,” said Tari.

Mishelle is going through a tough time again right now because her oldest daughter is also addicted to drugs and has been living on the streets.

She’s tried to help her numerous times, but with no success. Mishelle is afraid she’s going to get the same call she got about Dustin.

“All I want is to save my daughter and to save even one other parent from having to go through this.”

Mishelle also says one of the barriers for getting people help with their addictions is there are very few treatment places in this area and it’s cost prohibitive for a lot of people.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, you can always reach out to 211.