Rickielee Benecke tried to make the most out of her Christmas holiday by spending one-on-one time with each of her four grandchildren. It was the only way she could get through what would be an excruciatingly gut-wrenching holiday.
Benecke lost her 23-year-old son Keegan just before the Thanksgiving holiday to an accidental overdose from heroin laced with Carfentanyl, a lethal synthetic opioid.
To honor her son, Benecke is sharing his story. She also wants to help others.
“The reason I really want the awareness is actually for Keegan because he really cared about helping others. He really wanted to be sober and he really tried to go through the steps to be sober and he was really trying to make a difference in his life,” she said.
But Keegan Pelo made a fatal mistake on Nov. 3 when he snorted heroin that had been cut with an opioid developed for use on elephants and other large animals. The difficult-to-detect substance is so powerful that an amount equivalent to a few grains of salt can be deadly.
Keegan's was one of at least 40 overdose deaths in McLean County in 2017, a 150 percent spike from the year before. Those deaths are part of a nationwide opioid epidemic that's killed tens of thousands of Americans in recent years.
Keegan's overdose was a devastating scene. Benecke recalls the terrible night.
“It looked like he stood up from the kitchen table to go to bed and just fell over the table and that’s where I found him.”
She later found a note on the kitchen counter. Turns out it was evidence her son did not mean to kill himself.
“He had written a note to me, asking if he could borrow my car the next day so that he could go to the gym and work out. So he had a lot of things planned and a lot of things ahead of him even for the next day," she added.
She describes Keegan as someone who lit up a room, a passionate and talented artist who loved kids, wanted to adopt every puppy he saw and who welcomed the misfits in the world.
But Benecke says her son suffered from anxiety and depression that began about the time he was 10 or 11 years old. He was under a doctor's care and took medication but never liked the way it made him feel. So he struggled with the darkness and negative thoughts that were complicated by trauma that affected the entire family, including sisters Shayla and Erika.
Trauma Provides a Trigger
Benecke was once married to former Bloomington Police Sgt. Jeff Pelo, a former trusted cop turned serial rapist who was given one of the longest sentences in Illinois history—440 years in prison.
During the trial and sentencing in 2008, Benecke stood by her husband calling him “an incredible family man, husband and father,” but in 2011 she no longer believed he was innocent and divorced him. She knows the highly stressful time that had an impact.
“Not having your father around certainly causes pain and trauma. People want to numb themselves from the pain. So while it kind of goes hand in hand, one did not cause the other,” she said. Benecke said she has learned addiction is a lifelong battle and painful memories can be a trigger.
"It is very hard to fight through and go through the steps and stay sober.”
But before her son's death, Benecke thought that her son would be able to manage just fine after going through a 30-day, inpatient treatment program and maintaining regular visits as part of outpatient therapy. He was also upbeat and planning to take classes to become a sign language interpreter to, as she put it in his obituary, "help bridge the communication barriers that exist in the world."
Benecke herself suffers from hearing loss and has fought for people with disabilities in her personal life and as the director of advocacy and advancement at Bloomington's LIFE CIL (Center for Independent Living).
"I thought OK, everything is going to be better now; like the addiction is cured. But addiction like other diseases is not something that can be cured. It's always there. So different struggles that come up play into having that urge for one more fix," she said.
Jeff Pelo is serving his sentence at Menard Correctional Center in Southern Illinois. He wrote a letter that was read at his son’s memorial service in which he thanked Keegan for the six letters his son wrote during the last 10 weeks of his life.
Pelo wrote, “You made me feel like a father; like a dad again. You brought such joy into my life and helped me live again. Each letter was like the sun rising on a new day. Your letters would take me to such an emotional high. Thank you. I love you.”
Keegan’s older sister Shayla is also recovering from opioid addiction. She is working toward sobriety and regaining custody of her 9-year-old son Kayden who is now being cared for by her sister Erika. At her brother's memorial service Shayla said, “I wouldn’t wish addiction on anyone.”
His mother’s goal is to make sure no one has to go through the pain of losing a child in such a tragic way.
“The pain it has caused his entire family and all of his friends, his nieces and nephews who adored their Uncle Keegan, that is not something he wanted. That is not something a family should have to go through,” Benecke said fighting back tears.
For drug users, Benecke wants them to consider the reality they could face permanent loss of life for a temporary high.
“It’s very much to me like playing a game of Russian Roulette because you have no idea what’s being mixed in these things (drugs). It’s very much lethal," she said.
Warning For Parents
For parents, Benecke warns pay attention to what kids are telling you, even in casual conversation. She and Keegan had a strong relationship with open communication, better than many mothers have with sons in their early 20s. But Benecke wishes she would have followed up when Keegan made statements during their many talks such as the time he revealed heroin was easier to get in Bloomington than marijuana.
Shortly before rehab he also made an off-hand comment.
"He told me I didn't want to know all of the kinds of drugs he experimented with. I naively and very much did not press the issue and now looking back, I wish I had pressed that issue," she said.
In addition to sharing Keegan's story, Benecke is working with state Rep. Dan Brady on what could be a package of bills to provide more money for treatment, education and support for law enforcement dealing with the growing opioid and heroin epidemic which has already claimed a life in McLean County in 2018.
Once she stops reeling from her loss, Benecke suggests there could be other ways to honor her son’s legacy of caring for others, including private fundraisers to raise awareness and support for addicts who can’t afford treatment.
A new state helpline is available 24 hours a day at 1-833-2FINDHELP. It will put a caller in touch with a trained screener who will search for state-licensed treatment options near the caller’s neighborhood or hometown. Help is also available immediately by calling PATH at 211.
Project Oz in Bloomington also offers a comprehensive list of resources for treatment and talking to children about drugs including heroin.
You can also listen to GLT's full story:
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.