New billboards in Warren County, Missouri, raise drug awareness by featuring pictures of residents who died from heroin, fentanyl, or opioid overdoses.
Kristopher was a loving, kind, generous person, his mother, Lisa Alsawad, said.
She gushed about her boy’s greatest traits.
“He was very outgoing, very protective,” she said. “He would help anybody.”
“I mean, he was just a loving, generous, loving person who got caught up in…” She trailed off, shaking her head.
Kristopher had gotten caught up in the heroin epidemic that has ravaged families and communities across the country.
“He wasn’t even himself anymore,” Lisa said. “I was oblivious to it for a while and then I was told and that’s when I started noticing signs. It’s amazing what you learn, what you don’t want to learn.”
Kristopher has now been gone for 12 years.
“I can remember exactly to the point where I was standing when we got the call about my nephew,” his aunt, Sabrina Wipfler said. “He had recently just gotten out of treatment. So he had been clean and then he hooked up with some of his old friends and they’re like ‘oh, go ahead’ and you know, ‘let’s try that.’ His tolerance, I guess whatever was different because he had been in treatment and he did it and then the people that he was with, they said that he fell asleep and was gargling enough to annoy them. So they left him and when they came back, his body was dead and they just threw him out.”
Kristopher was initially listed as a John Doe.
Sabrina has made sure no one forgets him – or many others who have become the tragic victims of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.
Kristopher’s pictures, and the picture of 39 other Warren County residents who died after overdosing, are now featured on four billboards that line Interstate 70 through the county that were unveiled on Oct. 3.
Two billboards can be seen by traffic driving west toward Kansas City – that’s where you can find Kristopher’s picture.
Two more billboards can be seen by traffic heading east toward St. Louis.
The 40 pictures are a stark reminder of a crisis that has quietly been pushed to the back burner in communities across the country.
“I just like doing something different and unique,” Sabrina said. Her plan started with her saying she was only going to do two billboards.
But then she had three leftover pictures.
And then she ended up with enough for the four.
“Four billboards later and I still have a list of people wanting to get on there,” she said.
Her passion for the cause comes not only because she lost her nephew. Sabrina could easily be looking at a picture of her own son on those billboards had history been even a little different.
“I don’t know why I was fortunate enough that my son made it and his 12-plus years clean,” she said. “But yet my sister’s son didn’t make it and so many other people’s children didn’t. I feel I have to get back and keep talking about it and let it be known that it can happen.”
The anguish and pain never go away, Lisa said, but it does get easier to talk about.
And it has to be talked about, Kelli Clodfelter said.
“I lost my son in 2014. He was 17 years old and I definitely didn’t see it coming,” Kelli said. “And it was only five short weeks after I’d lost my daughter to SIDS. She was laid down in day care for a nap and didn’t wake up. And my 17-year-old son, through his own grief, made a decision that took his life.”
Kelli found out at the hospital that her son had overdosed on heroin.
“I was mind blown,” she said. “I had not heard the word heroin anywhere in this community. And I decided then, after losing two children in five weeks, that I either had to lay down and give up or I had to fight.”
And that’s when Kelli, and the community at large, learned just how deadly the epidemic is.
“I started putting on huge walks here in town. People started coming out of the woodwork,” she said. “This was just some problem that just happened. It had been happening but nobody was talking about it.”
In 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 11 deaths from opioid overdoses in Warren County, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
That gives the county an opioid death rate similar to St. Louis County despite the Warren County population being more than 27 times smaller.
“Whether you’re on a walk, billboards, or you’re out talking to people wearing a shirt, you have to talk about it,” Sabrina said. “You can’t just shut your mouth and not say anything because then you’re not teaching people not to take a pill or not to do something.”
And that’s a big reason she decided to put up the four billboards.
“Nothing is going to grab your attention more so than faces you’ve seen in this community and realize that they’re no longer here.”
And it’s critical that attention and focus stay in the forefront for anyone who wants to end the epidemic.
“Hopefully more and more parents are paying attention because I promise you don’t want to hear it the way I did,” Kelli said.
There is a stigma that says drug users are “junkies,” a certain type of person a good person wouldn’t want to associate with.
In reality, though, most drug users are people who made one bad decision.
“I think if you sat down and you talked to these parents, these kids, they were good kids. They were happy kids,” Kelli said. “These were not kids out thugging and stealing and doing all these things.”
Kelli said her son met a man who moved to the county from St. Louis.
“He was 25 years old, but he looked like a high school student,” she said.
He was attending parties and handing out free capsules.
“And the next thing you know, we have a bunch of kids that are seeking it out here,” Kelli said. “It just spread so quickly. And I have never ever seen a drug that did what this did.”
Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. When people overdose on heroin, their breathing often slows or stops.
This can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain, a condition called hypoxia. Hypoxia can have short- and long-term mental effects and effects on the nervous system, including coma and permanent brain damage.
“It’s the sickest thing I’ve ever seen, but it gets a hold of these people and I don’t think anyone understands what their bodies go through,” Kelli said.
“I don’t think anybody wakes up one day and says ‘hey, I want to be a heroin junkie. You make a bad decision and you get something in your body that just tears you apart and then you seek it to make the pain stop.”
And that’s the problem with addiction.
“We all made stupid mistakes, but today is different. Today, their stupid mistakes are taking their life,” Kelli said. “There is no second chance. You don’t get to come back from this and that has to be drilled into these kids’ heads.”
As part of the billboard unveiling, Sabrina had an event at Casa Tequila in Warrenton to celebrate the memory of the forty angels pictured.
At that event, Alicia Davis spoke.
Alicia is a recovering heroin addict who, on Oct. 28, will have been clean for seven years.
She remembers that day quite clearly.
“On October 27, 2016, I was picked up on a warrant,” she said. “That day was the last day I ever used. That day saved my life. … I am living proof recovery can happen.”
Alicia spoke during the Oct. 3 event.
“To all of our fallen angels, you have not been forgotten,” Alicia said. “To all of their families and friends, their lives matter.”
Knowing that means a great deal to the families who have had to say goodbye.
“It means something when you buried your child,” Kelli said. “And as time marches on, it means something when someone still says their name, someone recognizes they were there.”
Kelli’s son is also featured on one of the billboards.
“Jordan was always a leader and is still leading a cause,” she said. “He’s still here. He’s still fighting. He’s still the same person he was and he would not have stopped if he was here.”
Sabrina wants to ensure all 40 of the individuals pictured on the billboards can help people for as long as possible.
The billboards will stay up until the second week of January. Sabrina said she’s planning a fundraising event in November to try to raise enough money to keep them up even longer.
“I would like to raise enough money at some point to pay it all off for a year or two years or whatever, but I would like to see the boards stay up completely.”
Lisa would like to see them stay up for as long as possible, too. And not just because of the work her sister has done to fight the heroin and opioid epidemic.
It also gives her son’s life an additional purpose.
“Kristopher didn’t die in vain,” she said. “He’s still helping people.”
About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at firstname.lastname@example.org