Nikki Christmas had turned her life around — her loved ones could all see how well she was doing.
She had been addicted to pills, but with support from her mother, she sought help going through recovery at the Faith Home in Greenwood. After getting clean, she started working there and helped other women in recovery keep tabs on their medications and appointments.
She had found her purpose helping other women who were getting the same help she had sought. She called them “my girls.” At home, she was building a better life for her two young children.
But when a challenging time left her hurting, she tried to self-medicate again, her mother said. She bought a pill and took it sitting in her car in a parking lot on Calhoun Road.
“She didn’t stand a chance when she took that,” said Norma McCutcheon, her mother. “She didn’t stand a chance.”
Nikki’s body was found the next morning, still in the driver’s seat and holding her cellphone. The pill she took contained fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate used in anesthesia. The drug can be fatal even in small doses, and when administered incorrectly, it will slow the body’s functions down so much the heart and lungs stop working.
Nikki was found dead Nov. 7, 2017, one of 16 people who died that year of an accidental drug overdose.
“Nikki is not just another statistic,” Norma said. “There are so many other ‘Nikkis’ out there that deserve a second chance for a better future.”
More than a number“Nikki, she was one of a kind. She was very smart as a child, and very curious,” Norma said. “She’d know how something worked, but she always wanted to know why.”
Throughout school, Nikki was in gifted and talented classes, and she graduated from high school a year early with scholarships for college. Norma said her daughter was a caring, loving girl, who dreamt of having a white picket fence in her future. Like many teens, she got in some trouble with friends who experimented with alcohol and marijuana, but for the most part, her school years went smoothly.
After high school, Nikki married and had two children, Blaise and Sophie. Norma said Blaise was born on her birthday, and Nikki joked that no one could ever top that birthday present.
There were people in Nikki’s life, Norma said, who enabled her to further use alcohol and marijuana to deal with stressors. Eventually, this escalated to taking pills recreationally. Norma tried to intervene, going with her daughter to rehab and supporting her in efforts to quit.
“I did everything I could think of,” Norma said. “She came to me one day and said ‘Mama, I know I’m going to have to make a change. I’m really embarrassed that I’ve been through rehab and it didn’t automatically fix this.’ I told her when you’ve reached that point, you’re ready to make a change.”
Norma encouraged her daughter as she went to the Faith Home in Greenwood, and went through their eight-week program.
“She was a beautiful girl, beautiful,” said Aline Barnes, co-founder of the Faith Home. “When she died, it was such a shock for us, because she was doing so well. But it doesn’t take but that one time.”
When Nikki finished the program, she continued working with the Faith Home. She worked in their Abbeville women’s facility, doing clerical work and helping the women who were coming for help keep tabs of doctors appointments. Norma said Nikki took incredible pride in her work — she called the women she worked with “my girls.”
“Nikki really had a great personality, and she really enjoyed working with the ladies over there,” said James Gowan, Faith Home general manager. “When you’ve got 23 ladies, there’s always a need.”
Norma saw a weight lifted from her daughter’s shoulders, and from her own. Her daughter’s recovery had been taxing, and Norma knew she couldn’t fix Nikki’s problems for her, but she was there every step of the way supporting her daughter.
In 2017, Norma was recovering from shoulder surgery at home, and Nikki came down to visit for her birthday.
“People always say these things happen to other people. I never thought it would happen in my family,” Norma said. “That would have been the last time anybody in our family saw her.”
Norma, who lives in Florence, got the phone call from Greenwood County Coroner Sonny Cox’s office.
Nikki was dead.
“That moment changed my life,” Norma said. “I told him no, it’s not Nikki. You must have made a mistake. It’s not Nikki. I couldn’t grasp it. I couldn’t believe that what he was telling me was real.”
The details get hazy for Norma after that. In the following days, she felt like she was in a nightmare, watching herself go through the motions of arranging her daughter’s funeral. She experienced panic attacks and chest pains — the doctors said it was broken heart syndrome, a condition that can be brought on by periods of high stress and emotion.
Norma went through counseling, connected with other people who were experiencing traumatic grief and worked to regain her footing. Her new mission was to seek some modicum of justice for her daughter.
Pressed pillsWhen Nikki’s toxicology report came back, the pill she had taken was overwhelmingly fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid used in medical settings for pain relief, and is often associated with treating pains from advanced stages of cancer. When used inappropriately, fentanyl can be incredibly deadly even in small doses.
Greenwood Police Capt. Jamie Lovett has worked most of his career in narcotics investigations. When he first saw fentanyl in the community, he saw it as transdermal patches that people would chew to ingest the drug.
“At the time, it really wasn’t causing as much overdoses as it is now,” he said.
Eventually, it started coming in as a raw, powdered form, and soon after drug traffickers began using pill presses to shape fentanyl and heroin into the mold of prescription drugs.
“They were trying to beat the system by having it, if you got caught, look like a medicine you could get prescribed,” he said. “A lot of people taking it in the beginning legitimately thought they were taking 30-milligram oxycodone.”
More of these pills were being tested and found to be a mix of fentanyl and heroin, and overdose deaths skyrocketed, he said. The drug was doing its job, but in elevated doses, this anesthetic was slowing down people’s breathing and heart rates so much their bodies would shut down. Some people would pair these pills with methamphetamine, to counteract the heart-slowing effect, but this also caused overdoses.
Norma stayed in touch with law enforcement as they investigated Nikki’s death and the distribution and trafficking of the drug that killed her. She was informed when the person who reportedly sold Nikki the pill that killed her was arrested and watched as Greenwood’s investigation into local dealers grew into a multi-agency federal investigation that ended up indicting more than a dozen people in a drug ring that was bringing fentanyl into the state.
Still, even as Norma was glad to see those responsible face some justice, no one was facing charges in connection with Nikki’s death. It didn’t feel like justice to her.
She sent more than 60 letters to state, local and even federal government officials telling them Nikki’s story, and included photos of Nikki so they could see the life snuffed out by this drug.
“Nikki’s picture is still in my office in Columbia today,” said state Rep. Ashley Trantham, R-Greenville. “Day in and day out, I’ve seen people struggle with addiction and relapse.”
She said Norma’s letter broke her heart, Nikki’s death inspired her to fight for legislation to punish those who sell drugs that cause overdoses. She advocates for legislation that would make it possible to charge dealers with voluntary manslaughter if they knowingly sell drugs containing lethal amounts of fentanyl. She also said doctors should cut back on prescribing opioid pain killers when able.
Trantham’s own mother battled prescription drug addiction, she said.
“That could have been me, that could have been my mom,” she said. “It’s so strong, it grabs you and it doesn’t care about where you’re from or how much money you make.”
The lives of those lost to overdoses cannot be reduced to mere numbers, and Nikki was one of 16 people who died in Greenwood County of accidental overdoses in 2017, according to a report from the Greenwood County Coroner’s Office. Drugs were the leading cause of accidental deaths that year.
As of Dec. 2, the coroner’s office had reported 23 confirmed overdose deaths in 2020, with seven cases still pending investigation from the State Law Enforcement Division.
Despite federal investigators arresting more than a dozen people in connection with trafficking fentanyl into the area, Lovett said the drug is making a comeback.
“Just like anything else, if there’s a bad batch we see it immediately because we have a wave of overdose deaths,” he said. “We try everything, we get information on it any way we can.”
While officials work to fight for better treatment for people affected by addiction and against the trafficking of potentially lethal drugs, Norma continues to fight every day to keep her daughter’s story alive. She’s chronicled much of her daughter’s life in the memorabilia she can find and shares with her grandchildren what she can of their mother’s love-filled life.
“I cannot being to describe the pain and loss we are having to endure as a family,” she said. “This is Nikki’s story, told by the people who have always supported her.”