PORT RICHEY — Barbara Cooper sat in the living room chair Tuesday night next to a glowing lamp. She tucked her legs under her and burned through two cigarettes while she waited.
Just before 8 p.m., the phone rang.
"This is Jason Kingston, Kevin Whittaker's brother," said the voice on the other end. "I'm not sure what I can say to you and your family that can come close to comforting you. I'm shocked and disgusted, and I wanted to extend a hand of support to you."
"I appreciate that tremendously," Cooper said.
Cooper's son, Cory Keeler, was killed a month ago in a drug deal with Whittaker, authorities said. Keeler, 25, brought money. Whittaker, 26, was supposed to bring the drugs but didn't. He took Keeler's money, then in the struggle Whittaker popped open a knife and stabbed Keeler in the chest, deputies said.
Keeler died that night in the hospital. A day later, Whittaker was charged with first-degree murder.
"I didn't even know what had happened until Saturday and I heard from his public defender," said Kingston, 36. "I knew he had hit rock bottom. I can't believe — I just can't believe. I'm still in shock."
There are no rules for situations like this. Etiquette books don't advise on murder apologies. How do you tell someone you're sorry one of your family members took one of theirs? Kingston decided calling Cooper was the decent gesture to make. He could only offer empathy and support. Both parties agreed to let a Tampa Bay Times reporter listen to the conversation.
"It was senseless," Cooper, 46, said. "He took a son from a mother and a father from my 7-year-old grandson. And I'm sorry for you because now you've lost a brother."
She told Kingston she had several questions that may never be answered. She's still trying to sort out what happened. "I can't get my head around the fact that I lost my son over $75."
Strangers now connected by tragedy, the two families learned they had much in common. Both had dealt with a loved one's addiction until its dark, unexpected end: one through death, the other to, perhaps, a lifetime prison sentence.
Kingston, who lives in Ephrata, Pa., explained that he would get infrequent calls from his brother, Whittaker. When the calls dropped off, Kingston knew his brother was dropping deeper into addiction. He said he offered his home to Whittaker once, but his brother got bored and left. He didn't feel safe offering again, with Whittaker still doing drugs.
"I will always grapple with what I could have done instead," Kingston said.
"I don't want for you to feel guilty," Cooper said. "It wasn't your hands that did this."
Kingston began to apologize again. He wished there was something he could say to make her feel better. She cut him off. "There's nothing anyone can say."
"God bless you and your family," he said.
Cooper hung up the phone. Her mother handed her a box of tissues. She took two and pressed them to her eyes.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected]