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- COURTESY OF LACEY KERTZ
- Lacey Kertz was elected homecoming queen in her senior year.
Kertz's newfound wealth took her popularity to new heights. As Helms tells the RFT, "Suddenly, everybody wanted to be Lacey's friend." Those friends enjoyed free dinners at the Macaroni Grill. Servers scored $20 tips.
The financial settlement also reopened lines of communication with her biological family. "I had never been the most important person to anybody," Kertz says. "I figured I could buy their affection." She took her half-brother shopping for clothes and bailed her uncle out of jail. Kertz's mother, Anderson, moved into her townhouse, and Kertz gave her $20 to $40 a day to spend "on gas." When Kertz's father found out about Anderson's allowance, he asked his daughter, "Are you stupid? That's how much a crack rock costs." The money was gone in a year.
Around the same time, Kertz started taking pain pills for more than pain. Opioids activate the reward processing system, the same part of the brain that responds to food and sex. Over time, overuse of drugs like Vicodin and Oxycodone fundamentally alters the brain, causing dependence. Younger patients, whose brains are still developing, are particularly susceptible to opioid addiction. Research shows that about ten percent of chronic pain patients will at some point abuse their medication.
Kertz, too, got hooked. When her prescription ran out, she bought Vicodin from friends. Some of these friends, she understood, obtained prescriptions for the sole purpose of turning a profit. Forty-nine American states have implemented drug databases to prevent this practice. Missouri is not one of them.
Other times, pills would fall into Kertz's lap. "There were people in my life that had the drugs, and the 'right time, right place' kind of thing happened," she explains.
Kertz's foray into prescription drug abuse preceded a national epidemic. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that deaths from prescription pain relievers increased about 340 percent from 2001 to 2014. Missouri, particularly the greater St. Louis region, was one of the hardest-hit areas. For every 100,000 people in Missouri, sixteen will die of a prescription drug overdose, three more than the national average.
When Kertz was twenty, she met a man named Travis DeNoyer at a gas station. That night, they went on a date and then slept together. By both accounts, it was a one-night stand.
Weeks later, Kertz drove from a White Castle to a QuikTrip across the street and acted in manner that compelled someone to call 911. The details are fuzzy; Kertz doesn't remember them. Police took her to Mercy Hospital Jefferson, where a psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. She also found out she was pregnant.
Homeless, Kertz stayed at Jefferson Mercy for three months, while Helms worked with social workers to find her a place to stay.
They settled on Haven of Grace, a homeless shelter in St. Louis for pregnant women. During her months there, Kertz felt "lonely and scared." It was the longest she'd ever stayed in the city. The noise, traffic and bus system felt a world away from the rural calm of Jefferson County. As the only white person in a shelter of black women, she felt out of place. "It was almost a different culture," she says.
On February 12, 2009, Kertz gave birth to her older son, Clayton (not his real name). Betty Helms hosted a welcoming party at her church. Clayton was a "very, very good" baby, she recalls. He rarely ever cried.
Kertz, who was raising the boy at Haven of Grace, felt that she understood unconditional love for the first time: "There's nothing in the world more beautiful than your child."
At first, Helms picked Kertz up from the homeless shelter every other weekend, and Kertz and Clayton would hang out in her former foster home. Encouraged by Helms, she eventually landed a job at a telemarketing company in Festus. She disliked sitting all day, but made enough to move into an apartment with her son.
One day between calls she offered Skittles to a coworker named Neil Swyres. After a few dates at the pool hall, the movies and the Cheesecake Factory, they became exclusive.
Swyres was "nice," "not bad looking," and appeared to "have his life together," Kertz recalls. His middle-class upbringing signaled a chance to live "a different lifestyle than what I led," she says.
Reluctant to shatter this fantasy, Kertz ignored certain red flags: Swyres was hesitant to talk about his past. He lived with his parents, but never introduced them to his girlfriend. He sneaked around to meet her. Despite a master's degree in teaching, Swyres made a living selling "overpriced newspapers" over the phone, as Kertz describes it. She knew her beau had been married, but was not entirely clear on how it ended. "He is a good liar," she says now.
A couple months into their relationship, Swyres invited Kertz over to a mutual friend's house. "I have something to tell you," he said.
His story was troubling. In 2009, while Swyres was a gym teacher at Bayless High School, he struck up an online chat with someone who claimed to be a fourteen-year-old girl. He masturbated for her through his webcam. He also arranged to meet up. There, he learned that the "girl" was a 56-year-old detective. (Neil Swyres declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Swyres pled guilty to two counts of attempted sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of use of a child in a sexual performance. Facing a maximum 24 years in prison, he instead received five years probation and 120 days of shock time at the St. Charles County Jail.
"You have lost your career. You have lost your wife. You've lost your dignity," a judge told Swyres at his sentencing, according to the Suburban Journals. The state also banned the former schoolteacher from the Internet and unsupervised contact with children.
Then 23, Kertz was startled by her boyfriend's secrets, but resolved to stick by his side. "I didn't understand the seriousness of it," she explains.
Swyres' parents strongly advised him against dating Kertz, she says. For one, Kertz had a child, and any contact with Clayton could send him to prison. But that wasn't the only reason.
"I guess you could say I'm from a different class from them," she says. "He always had to lie about me, and it really upset me because I loved him."
In 2010, Swyres proposed, using his ex-wife's ring. The couple talked about having children, rationalizing that a kid would force Swyres' parents to accept their relationship. "But it's not like we didn't want it. He loved kids, and I loved kids," Kertz says. "We just didn't think it through."
They never did marry, though they continued their relationship. And two years later, when Kertz went to urgent care with colon problems, the doctor informed her she was again pregnant. Carson Swyres was born on December 20, 2010.
Betty and James Helms were there, just as they had been for Clayton's birth. Once again, James was the first person to hold the baby, a cherubic newborn weighing seven pounds, six ounces.
But while Swyres was there with his mother, he was forbidden from holding his son.
Once again, after Carson's birth, Kertz bounced around. She first moved back in with Helms, working sales at a lawn care company and as an assistant at a nursing home, where she'd sometimes bring her children to play with the senior residents. She moved through apartments and a condo with her two sons. She started taking a class for supervisors of sex offenders so Swyres could be around her son, but never got around to finishing.