Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Port Richey man had family, goals — and an addiction

PORT RICHEY — He was employed. He had a home. He had a supportive family. He had goals.

Cory Keeler was loved.

He was also an addict.

On Saturday night, Keeler, 25, met a man near the wooded, partially paved intersection of Ginny Drive and Rohrman Road, off U.S. 19 about a mile south of State Road 52, to buy drugs.

He brought money. Deputies say the other man, Kevin Dylan Whittaker, was supposed to bring the drugs but didn't. Instead, he took Keeler's money, authorities said. Keeler tried to grab it back. The two men struggled.

During the fight, a Pasco County Sheriff's Office report says, Whittaker, 26, flicked open a knife and stabbed Keeler.

At 9 p.m., someone brought Keeler to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, where he later died. Whittaker was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder and remains at the Land O'Lakes jail.

At 2:30 a.m. Sunday, deputies went to the Bayonet Point home of Keeler's mother, Barbara Cooper, to deliver the news.

They told her to sit down, but she wouldn't.

She knew they were there because of her son. The pain was so much, she couldn't breathe.

"When (the deputy) told me my son was murdered," she said, "that pain was magnified a thousand times."

Authorities said Keeler had no known address. That's not true, the family said. Keeler lived with his grandparents, aunts and uncles at 7740 Talisman Drive, a home in Jasmine Lakes. He played soccer for his church and had been a star baseball player at Gulf High School. He worked for a fishing tour charter company and had a 7-year-old son, Xander, whom he adored.

Cooper said she first noticed her son's drug use when he was 15. He started on pot. Then came pills.

"It was when the Oxycodone wave started coming through," Cooper said, "that I noticed my son become a different person."

He used to call her almost every day, but the calls became less frequent. He lost weight and withdrew. He wasn't his happy, goofy self.

Keeler checked himself into rehab three times between 2009 and last year. He would stay sober for three to five months before slipping back into addiction.

Cooper remembers complimenting her son after he'd been sober a few months.

"That's just today, mom," he told her.

Overcoming addition is a struggle that never lets up, said Ryan Estevez, a University of South Florida psychiatrist who specializes in addiction.

Two-week stints in rehabilitation centers only detox patients. Only long-term medical treatment actually works, he said, adding that rehabilitation centers with "good" reputations only have about 15- to 20-percent success rates.

"If you do not have a definitive plan or somebody there to help or to monitor you, the chances of relapsing are tremendous. The general rule is that it's going to take multiple times."

Keeler tried to stay sober by keeping busy, his mother said.

He would take his younger sister, Autumn, on walks where they would talk about boys she liked and about life. He once spent a whole night landscaping his grandparents' back yard. With shared custody, he tried to stay clean so he could see his son more often. His mother says it was his main goal — not to be an addict.

"People think (addicts) are lazy or don't have a strong mind," Estevez said. "We all have the ability or propensity to be addicted. Everyone has the potential for that."

Cooper said her son had been off drugs for three months before the night he was killed.

Now, she's planning his memorial service and coming to terms with the reality of his absence.

"I don't have his laughter," said Cooper. "I don't have his jokes. I don't have his hugs. I don't have his I-love-you-moms."

She hung her head and cried for the boy who didn't seem like an addict. Who wasn't homeless. Who was loved.

Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Ryan Estevez's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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