More than an addict, never a killer. An opioid victim’s friends and family speak out.

More than an addict, never a killer, says opioid victim’s friends

Gavin Remaley spent half his life addicted to opioids, finding little success at kicking addiction. In 2017, he gave his roommate drugs that led to a fatal overdose and was charged with murder. Overcome by anxiety, he overdosed on Nov. 2.
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Gavin Remaley spent half his life addicted to opioids, finding little success at kicking addiction. In 2017, he gave his roommate drugs that led to a fatal overdose and was charged with murder. Overcome by anxiety, he overdosed on Nov. 2.

To hear friends tell it, Gavin Remaley had the craziest laugh in the room, cooked the tastiest chicken they’d ever eaten and spent so much time lifting weights that some people never saw him wearing sleeves.

He was also a drug addict, a burden he picked up while a student at Leesville Road High School and carried for half his life. On his Facebook page, he described a daily struggle to stay clean while friends around him overdosed — a process complicated by anxiety and panic attacks.

That anxiety intensified, friends say, after Remaley’s roommate, Matthew Dillingham, died from an opioid overdose in Asheville in 2017, using drugs police say Remaley supplied.

Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams pursued second-degree murder charges against the Raleigh native, an increasingly common tactic among prosecutors. He told ABC 13 WLOS during his re-election campaign, “We have to get the message out to those who are supplying our community with these deadly substances.”

But Remaley had his own message to spread.

“Addicts aren’t bad people,” he wrote. “I wish I could just wake up and say, ‘I don’t wanna do drugs so I’m not going to,’ and that would be that. But I can’t. It’s not a reality. I tried and failed for years to quit on my own, and the only way I’ve found to do so is by enriching my life by helping a fellow addict, sharing what I’ve been through and working on my inner problems with other like-minded people.”

On Nov. 2, while awaiting trial at a family home in Hillsborough, Remaley died of his own overdose at 30. He left his parents, longtime girlfriend Nikki Rogers and a small dog, Charlie, who rarely strayed from his lap.

Gavin Remaley with girlfriend, Nikki Rogers, and dog, Charlie Courtesy of Nikki Rogers

At his memorial service in Durham, friends spoke of his salmon cakes rather than his 2012 arrest for heroin possession, his gym routine more than his demons. He was, they said, the sort of friend who picked up your call on the first ring.

The murder charge hung over the service, unspoken but near the front of many minds. To family and friends, Remaley and addicts like him need intensified treatment rather than harsher punishment. Remaley, they said, did not stockpile drugs or cash, and he did not operate for profit.

“This is retribution, not a solution,” said Drew Remaley, Gavin’s father, in a November email to the N&O. “Going after low-hanging fruit to make yourself feel better solves nothing.”

Gavin Remaley after his arrest for second-degree murder Asheville Police

Williams, the district attorney in Asheville, did not return a call to his office.

But a soaring opioid crisis serves as a backdrop behind the decision to charge Remaley with murder.

Between 2000 and 2016, deaths due to heroin statewide rose from 47 to 573 — an increase of more than 1,000 percent, according to the state medical examiner’s office.

Deaths caused by fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is both cheaper and more potent, shot from 118 to 390 in that time period, and the total is higher when factoring in drugs that are chemically similar.

In Wake County, Register of Deeds Charles Gilliam has compiled a spreadsheet of all drug overdoses between July 4, 2013 and June of this year. He is careful to note that much of the 2018 data are incomplete, but the vast majority involve one or more opioids.

Also, roughly 80 percent of those deaths involve white victims, fueling the common criticism that opioid overdoses get attention from both prosecutors and the media nationwide because they afflict non-minority populations.

On his campaign website, Williams posted a questionnaire from the League of Women Voters, in which he advocated a “holistic” approach to the crisis, making treatment and rehabilitation a priority but charging opioid dealers with second-degree murder in cases of overdose “to deter and punish.”

Gavin Remaley and his dog, Charlie Courtesy of Nikki Rogers

The murder charge in Remaley’s case was announced in August of 2017, and within hours, a heated debate broke out on the Asheville Police Department’s Facebook page.

The mother of the victim in Remaley’s case, Sandra Dillingham, joined it through multiple posts, describing her son’s roommate as a dealer and declaring herself “thrilled” at the murder charge.

Her son Matthew had two children and worked for the postal service, according to his obituary, and in the Facebook exchange, his mother said he was never an addict and got on opioids through a doctor. When he started having migraines, she wrote, “This man gave him something illegal.”

One of Remaley’s friends countered that she had witnessed Dillingham shooting heroin in front of her.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” wrote Hannah Selverne, addressing Dillingham’s mother. “I can’t imagine the pain you must be in. But your statement simply isn’t true. Blaming Gavin and ruining his life and the lives of those who love him is not justice.”

Gavin Remaley with girlfriend, Nikki Rogers, and dog, Charlie Courtesy of Nikki Rogers

Ten days before he died, Remaley posted, “My anxiety has been so bad that I haven’t really gotten good sleep in awhile. I don’t think I could make it without Charlie, she’s the one thing that keeps me going.”

After his death, Remaley’s dog attended his service at the Old Murphey School in Durham, waiting on a leash as speakers took the microphone to give tributes.

The first of them, Robert Roskind, noted that he grew up in the 1960s and had no experience with overdose funerals. But his 31-year-old daughter has buried five friends.

“Gavin’s struggle didn’t define him,” said his father, Drew. “It was part of his life. It is not who he was.”

Laboring to speak, he urged people to remember his child as a sunny day — bright, warm and brief.

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.