SANTA ROSA - The scene still plays over and over in her head: Walking into a Santa Rosa home and finding her 1-year-old son dead next to his unconscious father. Sitting nearby on a piece of foil was the killer – the powerful narcotic fentanyl.
Emily Guillory gets a break from the horrific images when she’s sleeping, but awakens every morning to the reality that her son Liam and the boy’s father Patrick O’Neill are gone.
Authorities later determined Liam likely ingested the fentanyl after his father overdosed.
“Unfortunately he was only here for a short time but I do believe he came here to save me and to show me what true love meant,” Guillory said, remembering her bright-eyed boy.
She spoke at length for the first time since the tragedy tore her life apart. Almost one year after the Sept. 14 incident, Guillory, 25, is working to make peace with what happened and confront her own demons with addiction.
She’s decided to focus her grief and pain on helping other addicts get clean and raise awareness for the opioid epidemic that continues to claim more lives around the Bay Area every year.
“If I can get through this and stay clean and help other people, that goes to show that anyone can save their life from addiction,” she said.
Guillory recently started working with a non-profit called the Lemon Aide Project, an organization that works to help addicts get into recovery.
The organization is planning a march on Aug. 29 at the old courthouse square in Santa Rosa to raise awareness for the epidemic. Guillory plans to share her story at the event.
She said she’s hoping that it will “open their eyes and be able to show them that recovery is possible for anybody and everybody.”
Her story begins before Liam was born. She and Patrick O’Neill used drugs together and eventually got hooked on heroin.
Their addictions became so sever they found heroin “wasn’t doing the job,” Guillory said.
They turned to fentanyl, a drug that can be 40 times stronger than heroin and is behind a sharp increase in overdose deaths around the Bay Area and beyond.
A month and a half before Liam’s first birthday, while he was staying with her sister, she overdosed.
“My heart stopped. I stopped breathing. And I’m just so lucky that the paramedics got there in time,” she said.
It was a wake-up call that prompted her to get clean and seek treatment. At the time, Patrick O’Neill was in jail on drug charges and she was struggling as a working single mother.
When O’Neill got out and was clean for several weeks, Guillory believed it was OK to let her son stay the night with his father alone.
That night O’Neill texted her a picture of Liam sleeping, showing he got his son to bed before 10 p.m. An hour later he called to say goodnight. It would be the last time they ever spoke.
“He was telling me how much he loved me and that he wanted to be a family again and he apologized for all of the actions that he had taken in our addiction,” Guillory said.
Then next morning she got up and went to her job in Petaluma, but when her calls to O’Neill went unanswered, she knew something might be wrong.
She rushed to the home on the 200 block of Darek Drive and made the horrific discovery.
“When I found them my brain switched to telling me I was in a nightmare,” she said. “It was definitely traumatizing finding them. Knowing that I was helpless. Knowing that there was nothing that I could do.”
Federal authorities later took action, arresting and charged three people who allegedly supplied O’Neill with the drugs. Like much of the fentanyl in the Bay Area, it was purchased in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.
U.S. Attorney David Anderson, who heads the office in the Northern District of California in San Francisco, announced the arrests. He said the case shows that drugs in the San Francisco neighborhood have a much broader impact.
As she continues working to heal from her tragedy, Guillory has gotten a tattoo of Liam and is planning a gathering next month for the one-year anniversary of his death.
She knows the road ahead won’t be easy but hopes that by helping others, she’s found a path forward in life.
“The world keeps turning,” she said. “No matter what happens, I just have to try to make the best out of every situation and accept things that happen for what they are.”
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky