On New Year’s Day 2007, Tom Stiles resolved to do something he had been putting off. He climbed the stairs of his two-story house in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, where he worked in sales for a company that made identification card systems, and entered his office. On his desk was a box full of possessions that had belonged to his son, Jake, a sophomore at Southern Methodist University who had died from a drug overdose after a party celebrating the end of the fall semester. The weeks since his death had gone by in a fog of tearful phone calls and visits from relatives. Friends from church had persuaded Tom and his wife, Rhonda, to get out of the house and go to Honduras for Christmas to participate in a charity mission. Now they were home and still numb. Jake had grown up here with his older sister, Amelia; the closet of his old room was still full of the polo shirts he had worn—two at a time, for some reason—to high school every day, like a uniform. A number of mothers who had known Jake as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool had come to his memorial service. He had taught their kids to swim.
Jake had been found lying on his couch in his room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house by friends the afternoon after the party. The medical examiner discovered alcohol and cocaine in his system, along with something more unusual: fentanyl, a prescription painkiller similar to morphine but much more powerful. Used to treat patients who have already developed a tolerance to opiates, it is typically administered through a slow-release skin patch to avoid the risk of overdose. Abusers of the drug often cut a thin strip off the patch and take it orally, which gives a quick and potent high. Tom was surprised to learn that Jake used cocaine, but it was the fentanyl—something he had never even heard of—that he could not get his head around. Where on earth, Tom wondered, had his son found something like that?
Jake had seemed to love college life. With his curly hair and pudgy frame, he resembled the actor Seth Rogen, and he had the same gift for self-deprecating humor. A month before his death, he had won the title Mr. University in a sorority-sponsored talent contest in which he read aloud an essay on how to date SMU girls. “Keep in mind these key topics that are always on the minds of SMU students,” he wrote. “Any sort of gossip (especially Greek related), luxury fashion, luxury automobiles, lavish vacations, one of your multiple homes, your parents’ professions, and any other materialistic part of your life that is easy to embellish.” Jake’s grades had been poor the previous spring, but Tom and Rhonda, a social worker, had attributed the decline to the distraction of Jake’s pledgeship in SAE.
At Jake’s memorial service in Naperville, a man who introduced himself as a representative of SAE’s national office, located in nearby Evanston, had approached Rhonda and offered his condolences. Then he said something that left her humiliated. “There’s not much we can do with kids who already have a problem,” he told her. Rhonda’s pastor, overhearing the exchange, quickly steered her away from the conversation. A couple weeks later, however, Tom found himself reading something similar in the Dallas Morning News. “Some students come here with these problems,” Jim Caswell, SMU’s vice president for student affairs, told the News on December 21. Caswell also said that drug abuse at SAE was “isolated and not a chapter-wide problem,” a comment that echoed the findings of fraternity officials, who had told the Daily Campus, the SMU student newspaper, on December 8 that Jake’s death appeared to have been an “individual isolated incident” and that there was “no reason to believe the chapter or chapter members were involved.” With the medical examiner’s finding of death by accidental overdose, Caswell told the News, the investigation had now been “resolved to our satisfaction.”
Tom was not the type to pick up the phone and chew somebody out, but the implication that his son had been an addict was infuriating. He and Rhonda considered themselves strict parents. When Jake came home inebriated one night the summer after his freshman year, they had made him write out a plan for how he was going to bring up his grades the next fall. He had seemed okay when they saw him over the Thanksgiving break. But he’d also been upset over something that had happened at a fraternity party just before the holiday, an incident that, looking back on it, was portentous. Jake’s close friend and roommate at the SAE house, Clark Scott, had overdosed on alcohol and drugs at a fraternity party and nearly died. Jake had insisted that he was not using drugs himself, but he was clearly shaken and seemed almost reluctant to go back to SMU to finish the semester. Jake had a tendency, as Rhonda would say, to get “overwhelmed” by things; he had taken the antidepressant Zoloft for years. Tom and Rhonda found themselves wishing, not for the first time, that their son had not gone to college so far away, and they looked forward to Christmas. “You just have a couple more weeks,” Rhonda had told Jake. “Then you’ll be home for a nice, long break.”
Tom began pulling Jake’s things out of the box and laying them on his desk. He spotted Jake’s cell phone, a narrow black Samsung, which he flipped open and turned on. Jake loved to send text messages, and the inbox and outbox were filled with dozens of notes. At the top of the inbox was a message from one of Jake’s high school friends, sent the day after his death. It read, “Jake ill nevr 4get u. u were such an amazing person. U were always kind-always happy. U had a true zest 4 life and im so glad