Next to a rundown trailer, under a canopy of live oaks, Joel Miltner finds another addict. Her name is Ashley. Her feet are filthy. Her long black hair is pinned in a messy ponytail. On her hip, she balances a toddler in a dirty onesie, open at the bottom. "I've been doing this for two years," she tells him, "and I don't have anything no more. I'm over it."
Joel nods. They are strangers. She heard through a friend that he was someone who could fix things, so she sought him out.
"When was the last time you picked up?" he asks.
"Yesterday morning," she says.
"What kind of drugs?"
"Roxies." She doesn't tell him how many Roxicodones. Ten to 15 a day usually.
Joel knows her body hurts from withdrawal. She's dizzy. She can't sit still.
He asks if she has anyone who can help her through the pain. She points to her friend, a woman in a baggy Florida State University T-shirt. Her baby's father leans against a pickup. She has a mother who lives nearby, but no father.
"Well, guess what?" he tells her. "You got a dad now."
Ashley Berra, 23, moves in for a hug, tears in her eyes.
"We aren't going to let you die," Joel says. "We are going to beat this. Do you hear me? Do you believe me?"
Ashley slowly nods.
He gets ready to leave, but before he can drive away, the woman in the FSU shirt runs up with a wooden box. Her husband's ashes. He died of an overdose last April.
She hands them to Joel, asks him to watch over them.
• • •
He didn't ask for this. It just sort of happened. The father of one addict, Joel became a sort of life raft to a whole social network of 20-somethings addicted to prescription drugs. In an epidemic that killed seven people a day in Florida and shredded families of every social class, Joel found himself engaged in a kind of hand-to-hand combat.
It started with his own son. Andy Miltner, 30, has struggled with an oxycodone addiction so severe his arms looked liked they had been scratched by barbed wire from all the injections.
For more than 10 years, Joel lived in fear of the phone ringing and watched his family fracture. He spent about $70,000 on rehab, never feeling sure it was doing any good.
Then, earlier this year, Andy checked into rehab in Georgia. He talked about putting the Lord first. He gained 70 pounds. He got a job negotiating car trades for auto dealers. He posted on his Facebook: I just want the world to know how beautiful life in south Ga is.
Joel couldn't believe it. Andy had quit and gone back more times than he could count. But this time he sensed something different.
Andy's friends in Florida noticed too. Of all of them, Andy seemed the least likely to find his way out of the thicket of prescription drug addiction. Andy's tolerance had been so high, he took 40 to 60 pills a day.
One of Andy's friends — a guy he had known since Little League — approached him and asked him how he did it.
Andy said, Go see my dad.
"I've always been able to come to my dad with anything," he said recently. "This is who I go to when I need help."
Soon, Joel was calling detox facilities and rehabs, looking for a spot for Andy's friend. Joel found himself at a family intervention. He took another woman, a mother of two, to nightly Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
More of Andy's friends called. Then friends of friends. It was often frustrating. He would spend time trying to get one of them help and then his phone calls to them would reach voice mail again and again.
• • •
Joel is 59, 6-foot and thin. He wears Wranglers and talks with a drawl.
He has just left Ashley and now he walks into his country cozy kitchen and drops the keys on the counter.
In the living room he points out pictures of his wife, kids, grandkids. There's his son, a concierge on a cruise ship. There's his daughter, high school softball champ, married and a mother of three. There's Andy, handsome in a suit in his high school picture.
"There's no alcoholism in the family, no drug abuse," Joel says. "All of a sudden. It is what it is."
He moves over to the TV. "I have a video I want to show you," he says.
He sits down on the dark leather couch.
The video is from July, a few months after Andy said he would go to rehab. It's Joel speaking to the congregation of their church.
He's up on a stage with a microphone, in his Sunday best.
He tells them how he was raised in Riverview. How he met his wife, Cindy, at East Bay High School, where he was a football player and pole vaulting champ and she was the homecoming queen. How they had been married 37 years. How he had started a wood refinishing shop and an auctioneering business.
Then, trouble. The middle son. Phone calls in the middle of the night. Car accidents. Arrests. An overdose. Fourteen trips to detox and rehab. Hope dashed over and over.
Fourteen of Andy's friends died, including two of his best friends earlier this year. Joel went to some of the funerals. He had known some of them when they were just kids. Now he watched the survivors drift around in painkiller dazes.
Joel liked things perfect. If something was broken at one of his businesses, he fixed it. He liked to sand and refinish antique furniture in the shed behind his house. If his cars conked out, he worked on them.
"I was always the dad," he tells the congregation in the video. "I could fix anything."
But not his son.
Then, at an Al-Anon meeting, he realized he never would. This was Andy's problem.
So he walked away. And he prayed.
"I called the cops and told them I wanted him out. I promised myself and my family if he brought drugs in or did drugs, I was done with him."
When Andy lost two of his friends in a month's time earlier this year, he told his dad once again he was going to quit. This time, Joel didn't get involved. He wanted to hear Andy had done it, on his own. Andy called the police and turned over one of his syringes. Take me to jail, he said. Then he asked his dad to help him get into rehab.
The video ends. Tears run down Joel's face.
• • •
That evening, with Ashley safe for now, Joel pulls into the driveway of a modest brick home in Apollo Beach.
He's taking Jennifer Corak, the girlfriend of one of Andy's close friends, to a detox facility in Tampa. Jennifer is 28, a mother of two. She had lost custody of her kids, lived with her boyfriend's grandparents.
"I'm not so sure about this one," Joel says.
Dealing with Jennifer often felt like dealing with Andy all over again, before Andy got serious. Joel had taken her to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Gotten her a sponsor. Then she had disappeared for a few days, gotten high again.
He knocks on the door. Inside, she is smoking a cigarette in her nightgown. "Oh," she asks, casually, "it's time?"
She rushes to take a shower. Piles all sorts of bags at the door for him to take to his truck. A half-hour after he arrives, she piles in for the ride.
Her eyes are red-rimmed. Her face is pale and swollen. Her nose is running and crusted black. She smears foundation on her lips.
Joel says nothing.
"We all watched the video of you at the church online," she said. "We all cried. Then we left and went and got high, to tell you the truth."
Joel hands her a bag of quarters. She'll need them for the vending machines at detox. She begs him to stop somewhere for a blanket.
Joel is getting impatient. They are already a half-hour late. He worries they won't admit her. When was the last time you used? he asks.
A few days ago. He doesn't believe her.
They pull into a detox center in Tampa, ring the buzzer. He unloads her suitcase, plastic bags and pillow in the hallway. She clings to him, crying, as he says goodbye.
"I don't know what I'd do without you."
"It's up to you," he says.
Then he runs to a CVS, to buy a blanket.
• • •
Joel never heard from Ashley again. He learned that a few days after he visited her, someone turned her in for violation of probation on a theft charge and she went to jail. He heard that her mother took custody of her baby.
Joel's son, Andy, visited at Thanksgiving. Andy's demeanor was so different, Joel let himself believe that maybe he was going to be okay. Joel felt like his family was finally back together again.
Jennifer got into a fight in detox two days after arriving and got kicked out. She called Joel and asked him to take her to rehab.
Joel turned up the next morning and they drove to Bowling Green in Hardee County. Jennifer seemed calmer. She admitted that she had taken oxycodone and Dilaudid about a half-hour before Joel took her to detox.
At the rehab in Bowling Green, Joel told Jennifer to keep in touch.
"You be good," he said. "I'll help you a bunch by praying."
Jennifer grabbed him tight.
As he walked out, Joel noticed a broken fluorescent light strip in the waiting room. He stopped and turned to the intake counselor.
Did she want him to fix it?
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or 727-893-8640.