On a crisp spring morning, Mike Belisle dives down the purple slide in his yard, pieces of his graying ponytail standing up on end. Three little boys watch and giggle. There’s a lot of laughter inside Belisle’s small farmhouse on an acre lot about 2 miles south of the Florida-Georgia line.
There are also toddler tantrums and sleepless nights with a crying baby.
It’s not the way Belisle, a 58-year-old truck driver, and his wife, Lynne, 56, planned to ease into retirement.
That was before his daughter and her husband were found dead of an opioid overdose on the side of Interstate 4 near DeLand, their three sons still buckled into their maroon car with its engine running.
Now, the Belisles are raising Joey, 5, Aiden, 2½, and Nicholas, 1½.
“I’m going to be 75 when the youngest one is 18,” Mike Belisle said. “We’re going to spend the rest of our lives raising kids because of drugs. Me and Lynne, in a perfect world, we’d love to just be grandparents. But we’re not the only ones out there having to do this. This is an epidemic.”
What killed Daniel Kelsey, 32, and Heather Kelsey, 30, on a December night last year wouldn’t become clear for another six months. But from early on, family members and police suspected they were two of the thousands of opioid overdoses sweeping the nation and muscling through Florida’s suburbs, beach towns and big cities.
Autopsy reports released in June confirmed that the two died from lethal doses of fentanyl, a drug often used for pain relief in terminally ill patients that is at least 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
“This is a poster case for what’s going on in America today,” said Volusia County Sheriff Michael Chitwood, whose agency investigated the case. “(Heather and Daniel) were not criminals. … they weren’t street urchins out there doing robberies and burglaries. They were people who had a disease and the disease killed them.”
Opioids killed a record 33,000 people across the country in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Florida saw drug overdose deaths increase by nearly 23 percent from 2014 to 2015, higher than every other state except Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. After addiction wins. After the funerals. After people start — or at least try — to go back to their everyday lives.
“People like Daniel and Heather … people like them need to be made aware of the damage and carnage left behind when they make foolish choices,” Mike Belisle said. “They are not in this all by themselves.”
‘I know you’re scared’
It was about 1:40 a.m. Dec. 31 when Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Richard Gelsey noticed the 2005 Ford Freestyle pulled off to the side of I-4 with its flashers on. A woman appeared to be slumped against the outside of the car. A man was lying in the grass a few feet away.
Thinking they might be asleep, Gelsey sounded his horn several times. They didn’t move. He called for backup.
When Road Ranger Tyron Nichols arrived, video from the trooper’s dash cam shows they walked toward the pair, shouting, “Hello!” and shaking the couple’s legs.
“That’s when we noticed there were three little kids in the backseat,” Nichols said.
It was cold, with the temperature dropping to 33 degrees in those early-morning hours. The children were dressed in jackets and sweaters, but the front passenger door was wide open. Music from what sounded like a Looney Tunes cartoon was blaring on the car’s DVD system.
“How’s it going, buddy? You OK?” Gelsey asked Joey, the oldest boy.
One of the boys cried, “Daddy” over and over again as the strangers unbuckled them from their car seats and carried them to the road ranger’s truck as their parents lay motionless on the ground.
“What’s your name? How old are you?” a paramedic asked as the boy continued to wail. “I know. I know you’re scared.”
Police think the boys may have been alone in the car for as long as 3½ hours.
Paramedics, who arrived by 2:16 a.m., signaled to Gelsey, who was with the boys in the truck, that the children’s parents were dead.
The trooper began to sing “Jesus is the answer,” a refrain from the chorus of the hymn with the same name, as the boys quieted.
“OK, let’s go find Daddy,” one of the children said as he played with the trooper’s flashlight.
Best day ever
Looking back now, Mike and Lynne Belisle say drugs are the obvious culprit of the chaos that seemed to follow Heather and Daniel.
The couple, who married six years ago in a simple ceremony at Gemini Springs Park in DeBary, spent most of their lives in Seminole and Volusia counties but moved to Quincy about two months before they died after stays with other family and friends never seemed to work out. Police and family members suspect they each started using prescription pain killers before turning to heroin.
Despite Heather and Daniel’s struggles — neither graduated from high school, though Heather obtained a GED from Seminole State College — they remained devoted to one another. “Daniel” was tattooed in cursive on her wrist and “Heather” was inked on his forearm.
For the final month of their lives, the two showed signs of moving past the instability that seemed to plague them. After living with Mike and Lynne for about a month, Heather and Daniel moved into a rental home of their own with their boys. Both had steady work — a construction job Daniel had found through the Belisles’ church, while Heather scheduled appointments for a contractor who installed floor coverings.
Heather insisted on holding Christmas dinner at her new place and roasted a pork loin. Family snapshots from that day show Heather and Daniel smiling and sitting on the floor next to a tree trimmed with colored lights as the boys tear open their gifts.
Joey, who his family says is autistic, squeals at the memory of unwrapping gifts, shouting it was the “best day ever.”
“It was almost like he was making a memory,” Lynne Belisle said.
“We didn’t know it was going to be the last one,” Mike Belisle added.
It was the last time Mike Belisle saw Heather and Daniel alive.
The Belisles and other family members are unsure exactly what the children remember from the night their parents died just six days after Christmas.
Much of what happened that night remains a mystery.
‘Surprise’ planned for Daniel
Heather and Daniel packed up the kids and left Quincy about 4:30 p.m. Dec. 30 for a road trip to Central Florida, where they were planning a belated Christmas celebration with the Belisles and extended family in Gotha, near Windermere.
Heather, who had recently dyed her hair a warm chestnut, bubbled with pride on Facebook about the special treat she had in store for her husband on the trip.
“So excited for this weekend and all the surprises I have planned for my hubby …” Heather posted at 10:28 that Friday morning. “Ps. I made it so he can’t see this post.”
She added a winky face emoji.
Investigators say the surprise was supposed to be a detour to stay a night with Daniel’s mom in Ormond Beach before visiting Heather’s family.
Daniel hadn’t seen his mom, whom he called or texted every day, since Halloween.
At 8:47 p.m., a little more than four hours after they left Quincy, Heather made a phone call to Karen Hamm.
Heather told her mother-in-law that they stopped at a convenience store in Barberville, just north of DeLand at State Road 40 and U.S. Highway 17.
“She was very happy . we were laughing that Daniel still didn’t know,” Hamm remembers. “She said, ‘I’m in the bathroom and want to let you know we’re about 30 to 40 minutes away.’ ”
At 8:57 p.m., 10 minutes later, the couple’s phones started pinging in the DeLand area, according to Volusia sheriff investigators, who tracked the location of the couple’s cellphones.
Investigators wonder why, if the couple were driving to Ormond Beach, they didn’t stay on S.R. 40, the most direct route.
Their phone records don’t show any other calls made that night.
When they hadn’t arrived at Hamm’s house by about 10 p.m., she began calling and texting both of them, but got no answer.
“That’s what bothers my family the most,” she said. “Daniel would never, ever not return a phone call or a text. . they both knew I was very much a worry wart.”
It’s possible, investigators say, that Heather and Daniel visited someone in DeLand and could have bought the lethal dose of drugs there. But investigators also can’t rule out that they purchased the drugs in Quincy or elsewhere.
Investigators say the couple snorted the drug that they likely thought was heroin.
Because investigators didn’t find any drugs or paraphernalia in the car, they believe it’s possible the couple took the drug before getting on I-4, then one or both of them became sick and they pulled over.
The next, and final, time the cellphones registered a new location was 10:24 p.m., more than three hours before the trooper found them, at mile marker 122, about 4 miles east of the DeLand exit.
‘Make a life choice’
Heather’s blood results showed 23 nanograms per milliliter of fentanyl plus smaller amounts of fentanyl analogs — new drugs that are created when illicit manufacturers in China or elsewhere try to manufacture fentanyl but alter the chemistry slightly.
Daniel’s blood showed 40 nanograms of fentanyl and a smaller amount of an analog.
Fentanyl can kill in doses as small as 3 or 4 nanograms per milliliter of blood.
Mike Belisle struggles to understand how his grandchildren ended up orphans on the side of the road.
Heather and Daniel, he said, “did something unfathomable to me with their kids in the car.”
He suspects that the couple decided to “treat themselves” to drugs while on their trip after staying clean for at least a month or two.
He knows about brain chemistry and addiction. He knows a heroin addict can’t just quit. But he can’t reconcile that with another side of Heather and Daniel, the side he saw as caring parents.
“Are your kids and your family important enough to try to get a handle on your alcoholism or drug addiction?” he asked. “To me, it’s as simple as that. You’ve got to make a life choice.”
He applauds the recent bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott, which allows police to charge dealers who sell lethal doses of fentanyl with murder.
“Somebody killed them,” he said. “You might as well have put a gun to their heads.”
Chitwood, the Volusia County sheriff, said he would charge the person who sold the drug to the Kelseys with murder if investigators make an arrest. So far, their leads have fizzled. The investigation was closed in June with the deaths labeled “accidental,” though detectives could reopen the case if new information comes in.
Meanwhile, the number of accidental fentanyl overdoses in Florida is soaring. An estimated 6.8 people per 100,000 died from fentanyl statewide in 2016, a nearly 100 percent increase from the previous year.
And among white people in Florida, the hardest-hit group, the death rate from fentanyl, heroin and other opioids is now higher than the rate of people killed by car accidents or gun violence.
“It’s not going away anytime soon,” said Vickie Koenig, chief of policy and special programs at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
‘Never going to judge . again’
Karen Hamm, Daniel’s mother, sat in a small room at Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach with one question for the police investigators.
“Can I see the kids?”
A Volusia County Sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door of her Ormond Beach home early the morning her son and daughter-in-law were found dead and escorted her and her husband, Rodney, to the hospital, assuring her that her three grandchildren were unharmed.
She and Rodney were shown into a curtained-off area in the hospital where Joey looked up and excitedly yelled to Rodney, “Pops!”
Aiden, with a mop of curly blond hair, and Nicholas, who was learning to walk, were there, too.
The trooper had waited with the boys and let them play with his cellphone. A nurse had brought them juice and crackers.
The boys didn’t know why they were in a brightly lit emergency room with strangers listening to their heartbeats and taking their temperatures.
And they didn’t understand why their mom and dad weren’t with them.
But Hamm was beginning to swallow the reality of it all.
“There’s such a stigma,” she said. “And I was the same way before this happened to me. . I saw those pictures on the news of people who passed out with their kids next to them and my first thought was … drug addicts . losers. I told my husband I am never going to judge anybody again.”
Who will raise the kids?
Three little boys now needed a home, but where would they go?
Mike Belisle soon got a call from the Department of Children and Family Services, asking if he and Lynne could become their grandchildren’s new parents.
He reached his decision quickly.
“It’s sad that Heather and Daniel died, but my biggest concern and what was mostly on my mind was those three boys,” Belisle said.
The rest of the family agreed Mike and Lynne would be the best guardians for the children.
Hamm said Heather once told her that she wanted her dad and Lynne to care for her sons if anything ever happened to the young couple.
Heather’s mother, Alicia Wilkins, who remains a close friend of her ex-husband and his wife, is battling Parkinson’s disease and also supported Mike and Lynne taking in the children.
So Hamm kept the boys for a few days while the Belisles drove home to Quincy, a small town about 25 miles west of Tallahassee, to make room for a crib and twin beds.
It wasn’t the life they envisioned.
Mike Belisle, a Marine and Gulf War veteran and a former jet engine mechanic for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, has worked as a driver for the same Texas-based trucking company for a decade.
He and Lynne, married 15 years, each had children from previous marriages and made a commitment to love each other’s kids as their own.
“When we got married, we said if we were going to raise a family together, they’re all going to be ours,” he said.
They spent five years raising a granddaughter from one of Lynne’s daughters.
Before Heather and Daniel died, they were beginning to let the idea of an empty nest — and, one day, retirement — really sink in. Lynne turned their spare bedroom into an exercise room. Mike still worked, but thought about buying a Harley for the days when he no longer had to.
Today, seven months after Heather and Daniel overdosed, their schedules are filled with pre-school pick-ups and drop-offs, trips to the pediatrician and snuggles on the couch to read “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do You See?” or watch an episode of “Mighty Machines.”
He said he’s grateful to the family members who have pitched in and sent them diapers or clothes or donated to a GoFundMe account for his grandchildren.
“There’s been a lot of people involved in the caring (for) the boys,” he said.
Discipline, lots of love
Joey and Aiden, the two oldest boys, recognize their parents in photographs but don’t ask about them as much now.
For the first week or so after Mike and Lynne brought them home, Joey barely spoke. He occasionally repeated “you’re killing my mom, you’re killing my mom.”
His car seat was on the passenger side of the family’s vehicle, against the windows, and Lynne said she thinks he might have seen Daniel or the first responders trying to help Heather.
Aiden gives a wide-eyed grin, the one that reminds Lynne of Heather, as he grabs a photo of his parents sharing a kiss.
“My mom and my dad,” he says, pointing at the pair.
Joey joins in, asking to see from his seat at a tiny Mickey Mouse table in the Belisles’ living room. He takes the printed picture and is silent for a minute. “Who’s that?” he asks, propping the photo against his sippy cup.
He takes another look at the pair and then points, “mommy, daddy, mommy, daddy.”
The two oldest boys are seeing a counselor now, and Mike and Lynne hope it helps them cope with what they saw and remember from that night.
Joey is beginning to blossom.
At his school’s end-of-year program for parents, Joey led his class in a song about numbers and earned a certificate as the “most accomplished reader.”
“I could not have been more proud,” Lynne posted on Facebook along with a video of the performance. “Love this little man.”
And Nicholas wants to do everything his big brothers like to do, even developing the same affection for dinosaurs.
Mike and Lynne are raising the boys to say “ma’am” and “sir.”
Their current parenting philosophy includes home-cooked meals, plenty of structure and discipline and lots of love.
The Belisles know they’ll have a lot to explain to their grandsons one day.
Mike finds solace in how easy his grandsons wrap their little arms around him for a hug or snuggle onto his lap with a book — a sign that Heather and Daniel got at least one thing right.
“They did love them,” Mike said. “They are very loving children — that didn’t come from nowhere.”