Mother speaks out about her son’s death

Tammy Cooper is shown with her son Xavier Cooper, who died from an apparent heroin overdose in January. Courtesy photo

FORT VALLEY — Almost everyone in the Cooper family knew Xavier Cooper had a heroin problem.

His sister, Destiny Cooper, 24, who would put him up from time to time, said she would often have to babysit her big brother to help him stay clean

His mother, Tammy Cooper, 49, of Mount Jackson, stayed up at night worrying about when she might get “the call” in the middle of the night.

“I’d lay home at night in bed or at work, you wait for a phone call. You wait,” she said. “For any mother or father or whoever has to deal with this, you go to bed at night, or try to sleep, and the whole time you’re listening for that phone to ring.”

Eventually, the call came.

Tammy Cooper, of Mount Jackson, holds a photo of her son Xavier DeVonte Cooper, 22, who died Jan. 14 from an apparent heroin overdose. Rich Cooley/Daily

At the age of 22, just a month before his birthday, Xavier DeVonte Cooper, or Bubba, to his family, fatally overdosed on heroin Jan. 14.

The life of Xavier DeVonte Cooper

Xavier Cooper was born Feb. 16, 1994. He graduated from Stonewall Jackson High School in 2012. After living with his aunt in Texas for a few months, Xavier Cooper moved back in with his mother. He got a job at IAC in Strasburg. He worked on the floor, and he loved driving the forklifts.

Tammy Cooper said everyone knew when Xavier Cooper walked in a room. Not just physically – although he was a stocky-framed, broad shouldered man who could put you off guard if it weren’t for his hulking smile – but with his uplifting presence and ability to make others laugh.

“The thing that comes to my mind that everyone said is that his smile could light up a room,” she said. “He always had a smile on his face. He was always the jokester out of the bunch. He always wanted to make everybody happy.”

Tammy Cooper sheds tears as she talks about her son. Rich Cooley/Daily

It’s not as if his size was any great mystery to his family. Tammy Cooper said she had to buy a weekly supply of six gallons of milk to keep up with his astounding rate of cereal consumption.

He had loyal friends, and a steady flow of new girlfriends by his side, according to Destiny Cooper.

“There isn’t enough room in the newspaper to list them all,” she said of her brother’s romantic companions.

Xavier’s grandmother, Nancy Rush, said he was all she could ask for.

“As a grandson, all I had to do was call him if I needed something done,” she said. “All I had to do was call him if I needed something done and he’d be right here to do it. He’d always take my trash out, help with his papaw. He’d say, ‘I love you mamaw, I love you papaw.'”

He shocked the world with an impressive performance in a recreational softball league, and his family still keeps a picture in the living room of Xavier, mid-swing at a game.

In fact, pictures of Xavier Cooper line the living room of his grandparents’ house, where Xavier Cooper’s mother is staying. There’s a picture of him wearing a bright red and white umbrella hat (Destiny Cooper said the frame blocks a Snapchat caption that reads “Mary Poppins”), another of him playing with his toddler nieces and nephews. He was great with kids.

Along with the pictures, a decorative stone rests in the living room with a message carved into it.

It reads, “A beautiful soul is never forgotten.”

A dangerous path

According to Tammy Cooper, Xavier Cooper began his descent into addiction after another narcotics-induced tragedy rocked the family.

On Oct. 10, 2015, Xavier Cooper’s father, William Cooper, fatally overdosed on heroin. It devastated Xavier.

Though Tammy Cooper and William Cooper were long separated, she said such a premature death with so many implications can ripple through any split or schism on a family tree.

No one in the family really suspected anything was wrong with Xavier Cooper, though they eventually traced his habit back to the death of his father. But at the time, they just saw him secluding himself in his room for longer and longer periods of time.

At first, Xavier Cooper would snort heroin, not inject it, Tammy Cooper said. That hid the obvious giveaway of track marks on his arm, but even so, the family eventually caught on. They always knew when he was high, Destiny Cooper said. But no one knew what to do about it.

Tammy, who works as a nurse, said she tried to talk him into cleaning up, but her son wasn’t ready.

“I asked him why he was doing what he was doing,” she said. “He told me it’s because it helps you forget. Of course, the nurse coming out of me said, ‘Son, it helps you forget for that moment or that little bit of time, but when you’re done, it’s still there. Whatever pain you’re feeling, whatever you’re running from, it’s still there.'”

“And then he said, ‘That’s when you do more.'”

Tammy Cooper, Destiny Cooper and Rush all wanted desperately for Xavier Cooper to get help. And sometimes he would, but always on his own.

Xavier Cooper had a mantra for quitting, Tammy said. “I got this,” became his catchphrase as he’d kick the habit cold turkey. The withdrawals made him sweat through the night and stay up with a nagging restless leg syndrome.

He’d stay clean for a few days, maybe even a few weeks at a time, but one way or another ended up using heroin again. Eventually he started injecting the drug. Tammy Cooper said she thinks shooting made him feel closer to his father.

She thought about kicking him out of the house, like everyone told her to do. However, she figured he’s safer at home than out on the streets.

It was while emptying her dead son’s room that she found the needles under floor boards, the needles hidden in his mattress, and other residuals of a closeted user.

“If they’re a user, people need to understand, mothers like me think that, ‘Oh, if they’re home, they’re safe,'” she said. “You don’t know what they’re doing in their room. I never thought he’d do it here. But how wrong I was.”

Toward his last few months, things got worse for Xavier Cooper. Though he used to be a neat freak, he stopped shaving and started wearing dirty clothes.

Two days before he died, he wrecked his car and was charged with driving while intoxicated and the possession of a controlled substance. The charges were posthumously dismissed.

According to her Tammy Cooper, her son was clean for the last six days before he died. Though his charges could suggest otherwise, in the end, the only one who really knew was Xavier Cooper.

In the days between his crash and his death, Xavier Cooper had been staying at his sister’s. He was going through the withdrawal process when a friend of his, who Tammy Cooper said was a heroin user, texted him. Xavier Cooper snuck out the back door and got into a car across the street.

Destiny Cooper told her mother, who began pleading with her son to come home. But she said Xavier Cooper told her he couldn’t stay locked up, and had to live his own life.

“He sends me a text. He’s like, ‘You can’t keep me locked up. This is my life. I’m not going to mess this up. This is my freedom,'” she said. “And that was the last text message I ever got from him.”

The bitter end

Tammy Cooper eventually took one of the girls who was with Xavier on his last day out to breakfast. She wanted to learn what happened before her son died.

At about 8:15 p.m. Jan. 13, Xavier Cooper snuck out and got in a car filled with passengers en route to score some heroin, Tammy Cooper said.

After they made their purchase, Xavier Cooper snorted some in the backseat. Another passenger heard trouble before she saw it.

“She heard a guy in the back seat with Xavier say, ‘Coop, Coop, are you OK?'” Tammy Cooper said, relaying the story. “She says she turned around from the front seat and looked to the back seat and he was out.”

Tammy Cooper said just about everyone in the car had overdosed on heroin before, and had some sense of protocol. They splashed a cup of soda and ice on him, which brought him back to consciousness.

But they didn’t take Xavier Cooper to the hospital. Tammy said they were worried about legal problems, both for Cooper and for themselves.

Unbeknownst to the passengers, House Bill 1500 protects drug users from simple possession charges if the suspects are accused after reporting a medical emergency. Alas, they took Xavier Cooper home.

Ultimately, he made it home with full consciousness. He came into his sister’s house just after midnight. He let her know he was home, they had a long talk out on the porch; he even cleaned the house and washed the dishes.

The last time Destiny Cooper saw her brother alive, he was eating a piece of chocolate and drinking a Sprite, just after 3 a.m. Jan. 14.

The next day, insurance agents called Tammy Cooper, looking to talk to her son about the car he wrecked days before. She called Destiny Cooper, who got out of bed to fetch her brother.

Xavier Cooper would often pull a mattress out in front of the television and fall asleep while watching. However, his sister knew something was wrong when she saw her brother sleeping on his stomach – he never slept on his stomach.

Eventually, she realized her brother was neither sleeping nor breathing. Xavier Cooper lay there, dead.

It turns out Xavier Cooper had more heroin in his pocket. When his blood work comes back, his mother said, it will show he died of an overdose of heroin possibly laced with fentanyl. But the only one who will really know if Xavier Cooper did any more heroin that night is Xavier Cooper.

A new normal

Authorities with the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force are still working to figure out just who supplied the drugs that killed Xavier Cooper. One man who was with Xavier Cooper that day, Ronald Lee Stickley Jr., 40, also overdosed that night. Though he survived, he was later charged with the possession of a controlled substance and the obstruction of justice.

Officers with the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office said in an earlier interview he lied to investigators several times during the investigation, leading them astray.

This past week, Si Schiavonne, coordinator for the drug task force, said heroin seized in the area tested positive for fentanyl during a law enforcement investigation of a separate incident. Cooper’s results are still pending.

In the meantime, the rest of the Coopers, with the death of Xavier Cooper still raw in their minds, are just working to get by.

Destiny Cooper has since moved into her brother’s old room. Tammy Cooper, on the other hand, is more ambivalent about going home.

“It’s kind of painful to go home, because that’s when it hits me that he’s not there,” she said. “Yet sometimes it’s comforting to be there, because I know he was always there.”

Her emotions range. Sometimes she’s mad at her son for what he’s put the family through. Sometimes she’s mad at herself, wondering how she could have saved her son.

Sometimes she’s mad at everyone in that car who didn’t take her son to the hospital. But even that’s not so cut and dry.

“If they would have taken Xavier to the hospital when he OD’d, they could have saved him, he would still be here” she said. “But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen another day, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month.”

For now, everyone is just trying to get through the days. Tammy Cooper said she still runs into old friends at the store all the time – no one knows what to say. Destiny Cooper still wears an “RIP Xavier DeVonte ‘Bubba’ Cooper” shirt with his picture on it.

In the end, some questions will remain unanswered. Tammy Cooper said at this point she wants to see people become more aware of how to handle a drug problem with a loved one. She said she still sees an aggressive attitude from the public toward addicts. People see them as lower class, or weaker.

“Heroin is not prejudiced,” she said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, black, white, yellow, green, it’s not prejudiced. Some people think that it’s lower class – There’s so many nasty things said about addicts or people with addiction. That you’re scum, or you don’t work, it’s just not true.”

She is still hoping to help anyone struggling with addiction, or anyone with a family member struggling with addiction.

The woman who told Tammy Cooper about everything that happened before Xavier Cooper died is still using. Tammy Cooper said she just hopes that woman calls her for help, before anyone else gives her “the call” about that woman.

“That’s my way of, maybe not hanging on to Xavier, but helping someone else, where I couldn’t help him,” she said.

Xavier Cooper is survived by his mother, Tammy; his sisters, Destiny, Desta, 24, and Deanna, 10; his brother, Ian, 23; and his grandparents, Charles and Nancy Rush.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com