A breath of tragedy changes Naples family foreverBy Jennifer Brannock Naples High School freshman Charles Gray already had his 16th birthday on Dec. 13 all planned out. He was finally going to be able to get a job he wanted and his driver license. Plus, his parents had promised to pay for the final parts he needed to complete the computer he had been building. Charles' mother and stepfather, Mona and Larry Casey, had big plans for him beyond his birthday. He was going to attend the University of Miami, so he wouldn't be too far from home, and earn a degree that would enable him to help others in his home city, Saipan, capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Mona Casey still looks for dishes and furnishings to buy for the apartment she hoped her son would one day occupy. But a tragic mistake ended those plans suddenly. The 16th birthday Charles had longed for will pass without him Wednesday. Charles died Sept. 15 after inhaling Freon from his neighbor's air conditioner to get high. “One of the hardest things about losing a child that age is that you have so many things planned out for his life,” Mona Casey said. “The hardest thing is knowing all these dreams won't be fulfilled.” From the time he was a baby, Charles was always goofing off. He lived to get a laugh. “He doesn't keep me bored,” his little sister, Isabella Casey, said. “He was an entertainer,” Larry Casey added. “He was always making people laugh and smile.” Although he was exceptionally smart, Charles struggled to pay attention in class. Still, he brought home As on his tests, and managed to get his work done. “He loved going to school, but I think it was more for the socializing,” Mona Casey said. “He never studied, but he still did great on his tests.” When he wasn't tinkering with his computer, Charles was learning to play the guitar, or playing practical jokes. “I don't even think I can tell you some of the jokes he pulled,” his mother said, laughing. “He's very witty. Something will happen, and he'll come up with a response right off the top of his head.” Charles also enjoyed visiting his family in Saipan, and returned from a summer on the Pacific island just before the start of school. Like many kids, Charles had an inquisitive nature that sometimes led to trouble. Charles began experimenting with marijuana last year. “When we found out about that, we took care of it right away,” Mona Casey said. “He admitted everything, and was very honest with us. He promised me and assured me he would never do anything else.” After several talks with his parents, it seemed Charles had turned himself around. “At the end, we really felt like he was getting himself together,” Mona Casey said. “The chores were getting done, school was going well. We were always telling him how proud of him we were.” Mona and Larry Casey had never heard of inhalant abuse, better known as huffing. It can be done using everyday household items, such as spray paint cans, cooking sprays and air-conditioners. Mona Casey said a friend of her son's told her Charles had only tried inhaling Freon once before with a group of friends. When he died, he was alone. Charles' autopsy showed no traces of any other drug in his system, Mona Casey said. “When the paramedics took him away, I still didn't know what had happened,” Larry Casey said. “One of the officers handed me the air-conditioning cap, and it just blew me away.” Three months later, Mona Casey is still dealing with conflicting bouts of grief and anger. “He told me, ‘Mom, I'm smart enough not to do anything else,'" she said. “When it happened, I felt this sense of betrayal. “I'm still very angry, and in a state of shock.” Despite their anger and depression, Larry and Mona Casey want people to know their son's tragic story, so other parents won't have to feel their pain. “You'd think, OK, if we're going out of town, we should lock up the liquor cabinet, but you wouldn't think to lock up your prescriptions, cooking spray and things like that,” Larry Casey said. “That's the scary thing about Freon: It's free, and it's in every house. We are our kids' drug dealers.” Students at Naples High School are still dealing with the shock. “It affected a lot of people,” sophomore T. J. Curfman, 16, said. “It was a really sad thing to see someone die so young.” “It's a caution,” sophomore Bryant Ireland, 15, added. “I think it made people really scared.” All the Casey family can do now is move forward with Charles in their hearts. Half of his ashes are spread in Saipan. The rest are in a brown box Mona Casey carries with her wherever she goes. “I haven't found an urn for him yet,” she said. “I need something that is going to be ‘so Charles.' “I want the perfect place for him.?
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