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In memory of Keith Wagner

Created by Family Of Keith Wagner

Keith Wagner

A Rocky Start
My son, Keith, began his childhood in Fayson Lakes, a rural lake community in New Jersey. Keith was a wonderful child, with two loving sisters, Margaret Loretta and Cheryl Marie.

Keith had an incredible smile that would often get him out of trouble.  In fact, at the beginning of each school year I would warn his new teachers about his charming grin. They would laugh because everyone knew if Keith smiled at you, it was nearly impossible to discipline him.

Unfortunately, we left Fayson Lakes because our neighbor’s husband would tease Keith all the time because of his handicap. Keith had a hearing problem when he was a baby, which affected his speech. He also had dyslexia, which made things difficult for him. He'd come home crying all the time.  It was such a strain to have him hurt by this adult that we moved to Kinnelon, NJ, but it was a neighborhood without children.  Again, this was tough on Keith. I felt like he couldn’t catch a break!

A Student Athlete
Keith was very athletic and all of the coaches tried to encourage him to be part of their programs.  He was nicknamed “Wheels” for his speed and “Superman” for his strength.
Keith was on the lacrosse team in 8th grade as well as the wrestling team, but his grades suffered because he was concentrating too much on sport. His coach always said that school came first, so I was forced to pull him out of lacrosse so that he could graduate 8th grade. This was especially hard on Keith since he loved his team so much, but he understood how important school was and he didn’t want to be held back.

I'm don’t want to brag about Keith as if he did nothing wrong.  He'd forget about the rules, or get into some kind of mischief that all boys try to get away with.  But there just wasn't any evidence of him being into any type of drug use, which is why his death was the ultimate shock. I didn’t feel the need to discuss the dangers of drug use on a consistent basis with Keith, because I didn’t think he needed to hear those things.

A Fateful Decision
Keith was supposed to go to the movies with his friends one night in August, but instead he went to hang out at the local strip mall. The movies should have ended around 10pm, with enough time for him to hang out and come home before his curfew at 11pm. He called later that night to ask to stay out later.  I was tired and told him it was okay as long as he had a ride home. I trusted Keith, and didn’t think he was out causing trouble. I gave him an extra hour, to be home by midnight.

Before they came home, Keith’s friend wanted to buy cigarettes.  While buying them, he also shoplifted three cans of Glade aerosol. The boys were “huffing” and getting high off these products – something I would never see Keith doing.

Keith’s friend got behind the wheel of the car after the boys had gotten high and was driving with his hands off the steering wheel, trying to act tough and scare the other boys. Keith, who was in the front passenger seat and his friend was sitting in the back, were trying to get him to slow down and take control of the wheel. But the driver was out of it and passed out at the wheel. Despite the screams and efforts to wake up and stop the car, the driver’s foot was trapped on the gas, and the car went full-speed ahead.

At first the car hit a stone wall, but it didn't stop until it collided with a huge tree down the road. The car impacted at such a strong force that the engine dislodged and hit Keith in the chest.  Paramedics claimed that he was DOA.  The driver was helicoptered out and he and Keith’s other friend in the backseat survived.

We didn’t find out that Keith was also using inhalants with his friends until the time of autopsy, which was so hard to accept. Why would he do this?

At the grand jury hearing, Keith’s friend who was sitting in the backseat claimed post traumatic amnesia and recanted his very descriptive police report, which hurt the case. By the time the boys were transported to the hospital on the night of the accident, too much time had passed to find any amount of the inhalants in their blood stream, even though the cans of evidence were sitting in the car with them. Because of this, there was not enough evidence for the driver of the car to take full responsibility for Keith’s death. He received only a two years loss of his license and 250 hours of community service from the town Judge.  He was also supposed to visit Keith's grave each month for a year, with the possible penalty of a 60 day jail term.

How I Cope
I became an angry parent.  I made up business cards with Keith’s picture and my website and gave them to every parent who would stop and listen to me.  I got on the internet and wrote about Keith on every bulletin board I could gain access to.  I handed out flyers, and I kept telling every mother about how Keith died

It was through my internet campaign that Senator Anthony Bucco contacted me and asked whether or not I would be willing to testify before the State Safety Committee in Trenton, New Jersey.  I did, and along with his sponsorship as well as the support of Assemblyman Merkt, Keith’s Law was included as an addendum into the then current DUI Law for New Jersey.
Keith’s law made the use of inhalants, vapors and fumes chargeable by evidence only when involved in a motor vehicle accident. This would have been particularly important to Keith’s case, since a blood test can only confirm use for about an hour and the driver of the car wasn't charged with manslaughter because inhalant abuse wasn't part of the law at the time.  I am proud that something effective has come out of this terrible experience, and I will continue to dedicate my life and my work to inform others about the terrible fate of my son, and the dangers of inhalant abuse.
I advise parents to be cautious and aware of your children and take an extremely active role in their lives. If necessary, take away their privacy if you’re worried about them – check their phones and become computer savvy. Don’t let them become their own worst enemy.


This Memorial was created to commemorate a loved one's life and to let other families know they can turn to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids for help when struggling with their son or daughter's substance use. Please consider sharing this page to increase awareness of substance use disorders and to provide hope and healing for others.

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