MANATEE -- During his life, Robert "Bobby" Lee was a beloved son and brother who adored fishing, music, women and making people laugh. On July 15, fellow addicts dumped his body in the street while he was suffering an opioid overdose that would end his 28-year-old life.
It devastated his entire family, who had already lost one young man in a drug-related case. Lee's mother, Lori Lee Reek, lost another son, Nikolas, in 2008 when he was 19 and hit by a driver under the influence of drugs. The loss of a second son, she says, makes her feel like life has stopped.
"I do what I have to do. I go to work, because I have to. Other than that, I don't do anything. It's just hard to go on with life knowing that he doesn't have a life here on earth," Lee Reek said. "(I feel) like I have no heart. It's just gone. I just have nothing, it seems like, to live for, except my daughter and my husband and my grandkids."
Bobby Lee was one of more than 150 suspected overdose deaths due to heroin and fentanyl in the Manatee-Sarasota area in 2015. Each of those deaths leaves behind innumerable families and friends that feel Lee Reek's loss, a bereavement that permeates the Manatee-Sarasota area and is difficult to quantify in its consuming grief.
Manatee County had the most per capita overdose deaths in Florida due to heroin and fentanyl in 2014. Fentanyl is a painkiller between 80 and 100 times more potent than morphine, and much of Manatee County's heroin supply has been found cut with fentanyl.
Lee grew up in Bradenton and wrestled for Manatee High School. His cousin, Kristen Vollick, grew up with him and remembers that he was an athlete who never cared for drugs at that point of his life. His 15-year-old sister, Samantha Reek, remembers a brother who would play his guitar on the beach to get girls to come talk with him.
Then Lee's brother died in 2008 after he was hit on his motorcycle -- two years after Lee had lost his best friend in a vehicle accident -- and Lee's family said he battled demons ever since.
It started with drinking and marijuana, but it eventually moved to prescription painkillers and, in the past year, to heroin. That's when Lee Reek said she really noticed a change come over her son, turning him from her lovable clown into an angry, isolated person.
"He was not the same. He had no joy in his life when he did heroin," Lee Reek said. "And I thought, that's why kids do drugs, to get away from the bad feelings. But they don't realize that it doesn't -- it just brings you back down."
Path of an addict
Lee followed a typical addict trajectory over that year of heroin addiction, wavering between shooting up and wanting to get clean, stealing from family members to pay for drugs and then apologizing and feeling ashamed. But his mother thought they had finally reached a breakthrough in July. He had detoxed at Centerstone, an addiction treatment center in Bradenton, and signed up for a rehabilitation program in St. Petersburg.
Lee Reek traveled to visit her husband in central Florida one weekend, having Lee stay with his grandmother. She called Lee that Monday to tell him she would be staying until the end of the week, and reminded him to call the treatment center to tell them they would be coming the following Monday. He agreed and told her he loved her before hanging up. It was the last time her son spoke to her.
A family member called Lee Reek two days later, saying Lee was in intensive care but the hospital wouldn't tell them any details. She rushed home, frantic and crying for the entire three-hour ride. And though she was distraught, she said it didn't occur to her how serious it was, that Lee would never be the same again, until she got to the hospital and saw him in a vegetative state.
"Apparently he was dragged out of this drug house and into the driveway, and they left him there," Lee Reek said. "Some people noticed that it was about half an hour that this person was laying in the driveway, so they went to check on him and he wasn't breathing."
The incident report of Lee's overdose by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office shows deputies interviewed three people at the scene of the house, who all denied that Lee had come into the house and said he had just laid down out front on his own. Two were acting like they were under the influence of an "unknown substance," deputies wrote.
Two juveniles interviewed by deputies said they were riding their bikes back and forth down the street and saw Lee lying outside and not moving. When they asked a man at the house if he was OK and if they needed to call 9-1-1, the man told them Lee was OK and later moved a large cooler in front of his body to block him from the street, according to the report.
Lee was taken to the hospital, but his brain had gone without oxygen for too long. Samantha Reek said she didn't realize how bad it was until she saw him.
"When we walked in he was cold, and he was shaking and having tremors and stuff," Reek said. "I just remember turning to my mom and wanting to collapse, just seeing him there, shaking, with a tube down his throat, it was very, very hard."
Lee Reek learned that her son had overdosed the previous Sunday but had been given medication by emergency services, left the hospital and didn't tell anyone.
The family eventually decided to take Lee off life support, and he fought for another nine days before he passed away on Aug. 7.
Doctors told them there was no heroin in his system, and Lee Reek said they haven't gotten the autopsy results back yet. But they were told he likely died due to fentanyl.
"I don't know if he kind of wanted to just be done with the demons, but the nurse in intensive care said that a lot of these addicts, knowing that they're going to rehab, like to do the one more time before they go in," Lee Reek said. "And sometimes they do a little too much. And him being new to it (fentanyl), I don't think he knew his dosage."
A family's pain
Months later, Lee's death still haunts their entire family, especially his mom. The "what ifs" constantly run through her head: If she would've been home; if she would've called him again to make sure he had called the treatment center; if she would've known he had previously overdosed on Sunday, then maybe she could have prevented her son's death.
But Lee Reek isn't just heartbroken -- she's angry. She's angry that drug dealers don't face harsher penalties as they hand out drugs that kill. She's angry that it was so difficult to get an affordable treatment program for her son. She's angry at politicians for not doing more to keep drugs from coming into the country. Most of all, she's angry that people would drag her dying son into the street and leave him alone in his final conscious moments.
"I consider it murder, what these people did to Robert. He was in their house, and they didn't want to be involved with police, so they pulled him out and left him in the driveway to die," Lee Reek said. "And I think the person that did that is a murderer. But so are these people that are bringing it into the country. It all goes to killing our kids and our people. And it isn't just Bradenton. It's everywhere."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby