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Don't buy that pill, Son: How the Mayos are fighting the fentanyl crisis

The Mayo family prior to Thomas' death
The Mayo family prior to Thomas' death (Courtesy photo)

OXFORD | The desperate plea, genuine in nature and fueled by unfathomable sadness as a grieving mechanism, spun into motion.

Cal Mayo, on the self-described worst day of his life, stood at the center of the backyard at the Sigma Chi fraternity house on the Ole Miss campus and addressed a crowd of a couple hundred college students, parents and community members dressed in dark-colored suits and dresses.

"Please, don't do this to your parents. No parent should have to feel what we are feeling," he said.

Clad in a white button-down, black pants and dress shoes, Cal stood tall, with a remarkably collected demeanor. A practicing attorney for over 30 years, Cal's words were direct and piercing as he hardly missed a syllable.

An hour earlier, Cal and the people he was addressing were in attendance for his youngest son's funeral. A graveside service loomed fewer than 24 hours later. Four days prior, on April 14th, 2022, Thomas Mayo died of an accidental fentanyl overdose at 21 years old. He was found unresponsive in his bed.

A silent crowd stood fixated on Cal's words. He didn't spare a detail as he described what he saw on that fateful Thursday and everything the Mayo family had endured since that time.

"What I saw was not my blonde-haired, blue-eyed son."

Note: Each subhead quote is from Cal Mayo's impromptu talk to the Sigma Chi fraternity on the day of his son's funeral.

At 12:42 p.m. on April 14, Cal was sitting in a booth at Proud Larry's on the Square, across the table from his longtime friend, David Krouse, when his phone buzzed. It was his wife, Caroline. She'd just received a panicked phone call from one of Thomas' roommates saying that Thomas was unresponsive in his bed and his face was blue. Cal shot up from the table and sprinted out of the door and down the street to his car.

Thomas' house was only half a mile away on Pierce Avenue. Four minutes after receiving that initial phone call, Cal arrived at the residence to find a slew of law enforcement officers and first responders on the scene. He had to show his I.D. twice to get into the house, to ultimately learn his son had just become a statistic.

"Who are you?" Cal was asked again upon entering the house.

"I am his father," he replied.

"Let's step outside for a second," a police officer said.

The officer broke the news to Cal that Thomas had been declared dead on the scene and that a coroner was on the way to collect his body. Cal let out a yell that morphed into a sob. After about 30 seconds, he collected himself and began to make the toughest series of phone calls of his life.

Cal and Caroline have four children: Virginia, 29, is the oldest and lives with her husband, Fletcher, in Atlanta. The Mayos also have 27-year-old twins, William and Callie. William also lives in Atlanta. Callie now lives in Chicago but lived in Nashville at the time. Thomas was the youngest of the four.

Cal first called Krouse and then his second call was to his oldest son, William. Caroline was in Atlanta at Virginia's house visiting her first-born grandchild. Virginia and Fletcher gave birth to a son six days earlier. Cal wanted William to get to his wife and oldest daughter as soon as he could.

William, who works as an attorney, left his office immediately. When William hung up the phone with Cal, Caroline did not yet know Thomas had been pronounced dead, so he drove over wondering if he was going to have to deliver the message to his mother.

"There's no real way to prepare yourself for that. I knew it would destroy her," William said.

Cal ultimately called Caroline and delivered the news before William arrived at Virginia's house. He never intended for William to shoulder that burden. He just needed a second to brace himself before making the hardest phone call of his life, to do the impossible -- to tell his wife of 32 years that her youngest child was gone.

Krouse arrived at the house from Proud Larry's shortly after Cal.

"How do I do this?" he asked Krouse. The question was as impossible as the task. He didn't expect an answer. It was a statement reflecting his dread and utter disbelief. He then picked up his phone and dialed.

Throughout these harrowing handful of minutes that felt like hours, Caroline was in Virginia's living room restless and pacing, worried about her youngest son. She knew something was seriously wrong but the uncertainty was agonizing.

Virginia remembers walking with her mom out to the back porch for some calming air as they continued to wait. The phone rang and Caroline answered. Virginia remembers Fletcher walking by and peering through the window out to the porch. She looked back at him and shook her head. Nothing else really needed to be said.

"I remember Virginia encouraging me to sit down and drink some water, but I couldn't, I was just pacing and frantic," Caroline recalled. "Cal called me and said, 'It's not good. It's not good.

"What's not good?"

"Caroline, he is gone."

William arrived at the house a few moments later. It was apparent his mom and sister already knew. All three of them embraced in the hallway adjacent to the living room and sobbed as they took the first steps into a sea of grief.

Cal called Callie, too, who was working from home in Nashville that day. Recently engaged, Callie was actually talking to her mom about wedding planning when Caroline received the initial phone call from Thomas' roommate. She scrambled to pack a bag and get on the road to Oxford with her fiancé, Quinn.

Four members of this now family of five embarked on the longest car rides of their lives, and it had little to do with the number of miles ahead of them. William drove Caroline. Virginia and Fletcher packed up the supplies needed to care for a six-day old child.

Cal Mayo speaks to those gathered at the Sigma Chi fraternity house.
Cal Mayo speaks to those gathered at the Sigma Chi fraternity house.

"Thomas made a deal with the devil that night."

Thomas died because he took one-third of a Percocet pill that -- unbeknownst to him, the dealer, or the two friends he split the pill with -- contained a lethal dosage of fentanyl. The plot of his death mirrors thousands of others that occur in the United States every year as the fentanyl crisis continues to cripple the nation.

A member of Sigma Chi, Thomas attended a social function at the fraternity house on April 13. He took his girlfriend, Georgia Hippe, as his date. She recalls Thomas complaining that he did not feel well. He was even noncommittal on attending the function in the first place. It was hardly a cause for alarm.

Thomas had gone out on the Square the night before with friends and was perhaps feeling the lingering effects of a late night out in college. The group made their way from the off-campus house to Tango's, where they met more friends before attending the party.

At the off-campus house, it is believed that Thomas took part of a Percocet to kickstart the night, splitting it with a couple of friends. Shortly after arriving at the fraternity house, sometime around 9:30 p.m., Thomas contacted the dealer for another pill. He met the dealer outside the house, exchanged money for the pill and again split it with two friends. Thomas unknowingly signed his death warrant.

He continued to feel poorly. He and Georgia left the party early and returned to Thomas' house. Thomas lived in a collection of townhouses on Pierce Avenue. A group of his friends and Georgia's friends lived in the surrounding units. It was a common place for all of them to hang out.

As the party wound down, more people trickled back to the houses. Thomas was still not feeling well. He complained of being hot. Still, there wasn't any reason for serious concern. He ordered a pizza and played the FIFA Soccer video game on the Xbox with a friend. Thomas went to bed around 2 a.m. He never woke up.

Ten hours later, Thomas' best friend, Avery Kimbrell, arrived at the house to pick up one of Thomas' roommates to work out together. Seeing that Thomas was still seemingly asleep, Avery decided to go razz his buddy a bit and holler at him to wake up. Georgia woke up laughing at Avery's unannounced grand entrance.

Thomas' bedroom had no windows, so it was still dark inside. Avery wandered to another part of the house to find the roommate. A few seconds later, he heard Georgia screaming his name to come back in the room. She'd rolled over and touched Thomas to find his body was cold and he wasn't waking up.

Once a light was flipped on, it became obvious the situation was dire. Thomas didn't have a pulse. A roommate dialed 911 as well as that initial phone call to Caroline.

Thomas had a history with drug use. He started taking Xanax recreationally at some point during his first two years of college. It eventually snowballed into a dependency, and was only exacerbated by a global pandemic cancelling classes and leaving the entire world with nothing to do except sit at home.

Around a year prior to this fateful day, a string of slip ups led to him confessing to his parents that he had a Xanax issue and wanted help to cure the problem. Cal and Caroline had their suspicions prior to Thomas admitting it. Something seemed different about their fun-loving youngest child who'd never met a stranger. When they did see him, eye contact was less frequent.

Xanax induces a zombie-like effect on recreational users and is intensified when mixed with alcohol. Addiction also ran in their family. Caroline and Cal still debate where Thomas fell on the spectrum ranging from full-blown addict and recreational use that became a crutch to mask social anxiety, among other underlying issues.

They sent him to an addiction treatment center in Nashville called Cumberland Heights that May. At the time, William lived in Nashville after recently finishing law school at Vanderbilt. Callie lived there too. Family was nearby if they were ever needed.

Thomas spent 30 days in the program, and then moved to a supervised living facility. After weeks there, Thomas told his family that the living environment in the supervised living facility was deteriorating as other inhabitants were using drugs inside the house. He came home and lived with Caroline and Cal in Oxford for the rest of that summer.

Thomas Mayo and his mother, Caroline
Thomas Mayo and his mother, Caroline

"His face was blue. His skin was a whitish-gray color."

When Cal arrived at Thomas' home, a group of friends and neighbors formed in the driveway. The tears in their eyes and looks of shock on their faces told him what he needed to know.

The first time he walked into Thomas' room, he wasn't allowed to touch or move Thomas' body as police were still conducting the scene investigation. All he saw was Thomas' back, one armed cradling a pillow and the other stretched across the bed.

Cal, after the police finished up, had an opportunity to get one final glimpse at his son.

"Are you sure you want to see this?" an officer asked.

Thomas' body had been rolled over and his face was visible. It was blue. His skin was pale and clammy. Thomas had been dead for a few hours at that point. Cal stood there in shock.

"You are asking yourself why. Why did this happen?" Cal recalled. "This has to be a mistake. Not my son. Surely they can bring him back."

Fewer than 40 minutes after answering a phone call while eating lunch at Proud Larry's, Cal walked out of the house behind a coroner carrying his son's body away in a zipped plastic bag. They passed the group of friends gathered in the driveway. Everyone on the property was in a state of shock as different phases of grief set in.

"A string of white foam was coming from his mouth."

The foaming at the mouth was a telltale sign of what caused this tragedy. It's a common byproduct of overdose deaths, particularly fentanyl. Though it wasn't officially confirmed yet, by the time law enforcement officials and first responders examined the body, it was a virtual certainty as to what took place.

Fentanyl kills by tricking the body. The human brain has receptors that send signals to the rest of your body, such as telling the lungs to take in more oxygen to breathe when running a marathon.

The opioids in fentanyl bind to these receptors, blocking them from sending these signals, which in turn slows breathing, ultimately to the point of breathing stopping completely. This is called respiratory suppression. It causes a person to pass out, eventually leading to death.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It differs from other drugs in that it is not derived from a plant. For example, morphine and opium are derived from the poppy plant. Cocaine comes from the coca leaf. Pharmaceutical fentanyl was originally developed for the purpose of pain management for cancer patients.

Epidurals used in childbirth often contain fentanyl. In a controlled setting, when developed and prescribed by pharmacists and doctors, it's a perfectly useful and effective medication.

Fentanyl is 50-100 times stronger than morphine. It is eight times more potent than heroin -- in other words, a lethal dose of fentanyl is one-eighth the size of a lethal dose of heroin. Because of its potency and addictiveness, it is often diverted toward abuse.

Fentanyl abuse is a rapidly growing crisis in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there were 107,622 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2021, up 15 percent from the year prior. Of those, 71,238 were caused by synthetic opioids (fentanyl). By comparison, in 2015, there were 9,580 synthetic opioid overdose deaths.

On December 2, 1993, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar -- the richest, most infamous and most violent narcoterrorist in the world -- was killed in a hail of bullets on a Medellin rooftop, one day after his 44th birthday. He was gunned down by a small army of law enforcement officials primarily comprised of DEA and Search Bloc agents. Search Bloc is the most highly-trained special forces unit of the Colombian national police.

Both Escobar and his No. 2 in command, Carlos Lehder, made separate offers to pay off Colombia's $9 billion national debt if the government agreed to wipe their record clean and scrap Columbia's extradition treaty with the United States. The proposals were declined.

Lehder was the first kingpin in history convicted in the United States. During the trial, U.S. District Attorney Robert Merkle argued that Lehder's role in the drug transportation industry was equivalent to Henry Ford's in the growth of the automobile industry.

"When talking about these organizations, I describe them as operating like Ford Motor Company, Apple or Amazon," said Steve Maxwell, Director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. "These trafficking organizations operate in the same way as major corporations. They are structured the same way. Their goal is the same goal as mafia organizations had -- to become as legitimate of an organization as possible."

Escobar’s death was thought to be the end of the uncontrollable flow of drugs into the United States. However, it did very little to thwart that. More cocaine is produced today than at any time Escobar was alive.

The tentacles of the infrastructure the Medellin Cartel invented have evolved into becoming the full-fledged cartels we know of today. For example, El Chapo, the (now incarcerated) head of the Sinaloa Cartel -- a group that is responsible for the vast majority of fentanyl flooding into the country -- got his start in the industry as an air traffic controller for drug flights coming from Colombia to Mexico.

Fentanyl is essentially a Swiss army knife additive for cartels to increase profit margin. Mexican Cartels buy ingredients used to produce illicit fentanyl at dirt cheap prices, primarily from Asia. They press fentanyl into pills and ship them into the country to be sold and consumed. Cartel henchmen aren't pharmacists. They don't know, nor do they care, how much fentanyl is in a single pill or what amount makes for a lethal dose.

Fentanyl is not just limited to pills. It's being infused into every street drug you can think of, including the very same ones unsuspecting college students take.

"A lot of these kids think, 'Oh it is just Xanax.' No, it's not just Xanax anymore. It could be fentanyl," Maxwell said. "Oh, it is just marijuana, or Vyvanse or Adderall. No, it's not. It could be fentanyl pressed, cut, colored scored and sold to you as any of these things. Nothing is the same now."

Business continues to boom despite more people dying.

"Thomas made a terrible decision that cost him his life."

The Mayos are haunted by an unanswerable question: Why did Thomas take that pill that night? When he returned to Oxford after the summer at Cumberland Heights, the program had seemingly worked. The incredibly social, free-spirited boy who never met a stranger, the son they knew so well, was maturing into a man.

Though they'd known each other previously, Thomas and Georgia did not begin to seriously date until the fall of 2021, in part due to Thomas' boyhood immaturity and struggles, which were now starting to fade away. Georgia was a positive influence, and also a good barometer for Cal and Caroline as to how Thomas was doing.

"His smile, his laugh, his infectious personality and his ability to make an impact on anyone made me fall harder for him," Georgia wrote in a speech that she too gave at the Sigma Chi house. "Thomas had a friend in every corner of the world.”

Thomas was a smart kid, with a vibrant personality that other people naturally gravitated toward. He made a lasting imprint. One day not long ago, Caroline was checking out at Walgreens. As she approached, the woman behind the counter recognized her.

"The woman said, 'You don't know me, but Thomas and I were classmates. He was one of the nicest people I have ever known and he always made me feel great after talking to him," Caroline recalled. "Stuff like that, it really brings you to your knees."

Thomas was beginning to find his purpose in life. Some of that was due to the rehabilitation program, but also a part of it may have simply been the natural maturation that comes in your final years of college, when you leave your teenage years behind for your 20s and your parents turn from authority figures into friends.

In the final two days' of Thomas' life, he and Cal worked together on crafting Thomas' resumé. He planned to go to Washington DC for the summer and hopefully find a job or an internship.

The day before the Sigma Chi function, on April 12, Cal returned to his home in Oxford from Atlanta, where he met his first grandson, to find Thomas eating a bowl of cereal in their house, a quick pit stop after a nearby delivery for his job at Oxford Floral. They talked about his resumé and hugged. That was the last time he ever saw his son.

On Wednesday afternoon, Caroline sent a photo of baby Hayes to Thomas in a text that said, "Hope you are having a good day."

Thomas replied: "It's an even day better now."

Hayes was Thomas' middle name. That message, sent around the same time it is believed Thomas consumed the first Percocet, was the last time Caroline heard from her son.

Why did he buy that pill? Was it him falling back into old habits? Was Xanax slipping back into the picture? Or was it a 21-year-old junior, who was about to embark on another college night, thinking he was partaking in some harmless fun?

In the months leading up to his death, there has been no evidence to suggest Thomas began using Xanax again, or descending into heavy drug use at all. Every single person interviewed for this story corroborated that.

Perhaps it was one poor decision, coupled with some bad luck that equated to a needless tragedy. The other two pieces of the pill didn't have lethal doses of fentanyl in them. Only the portion Thomas took. In the midst of this fentanyl epidemic, taking street drugs is playing a game of roulette with your life. Most of the time, it will work out fine. When it doesn’t, there’s no warning.

"I want to see all of you graduate. Thomas won't get to do that."

One of the many layers of cruelty in all of this is when this tragedy took place, not that there is ever an ideal time. Five days before Thomas' death, William married his wife, also named Caroline, in Seaside, Florida. Thomas stood by William's side as a groomsman, as did Cal.

"Thomas was in his element," Cal recalled. "He looked great. He acted great. It was an incredible weekend as a family... I just wish it wasn't the last one."

Less than 48 hours before the wedding, Virginia gave birth to Hayes in Atlanta. As hectic as the timing of it all was, it was an incredibly happy time in all of their lives. Cal and Caroline became grandparents and watched their oldest son get married in a span of two days.

They bolted for Atlanta the day after the wedding to meet their grandson. A month prior to that, Callie and Quinn got engaged and are set to get married in Oxford in three weeks.

Beyond the impossibly difficult task of reconciling so much grief in an otherwise joyful time in their lives, the Mayos are living through seminal mile markers in their children's lives -- while simultaneously realizing they'll never get to experience those same mile markers with Thomas.

Thomas loved Ole Miss sports more than anything. It's how William bridged the age gap with his brother in conversation. It was something they bonded over. William and Cal traveled to Omaha to watch the Rebels win their first national championship. When Brandon Johnson looped in one final breaking ball to fan Sebastian Ordurno for the final out, they cried in the stands.

"I just remember thinking, Thomas would have loved to have seen this," William recalled.

"I know you may not think it will happen to you, but it can happen to you."

As he stood in front of a couple hundred young men and women in that Sigma Chi courtyard and the speech wound down to completion, the composure he maintained, the deliberately impactful words he rattled off, in gruesome detail, commanded a deafening silence among the crowd.

The strength Cal displayed in the worst moment of his life, less than an hour after his son's funeral, was mesmerizing, according to those in attendance.

"I remember thinking, I have no idea how he just did that, how are you that strong to be able to do that right now?" Caroline said

None of it was planned, either. Cal had no notes. He never once thought about what he was going to say. He didn't even know he'd be addressing that many people. It just kind of happened when he showed up.

When he got into his car to go home to return to his grieving family, Cal remembers thinking "I really have no idea how I did that, what I just said or why I said it."

Though he didn't know it at the time, Cal found a purpose amidst this tragedy.

The Mayos have thought a lot about how they can make a difference in fighting the crisis that claimed their son's life. Cal can't go fight on the frontlines on the war on drugs. The Mayos made two crucial decisions regarding Thomas' death.

The first was that they weren't going to hide it. They were going to be open about what happened to Thomas, in hopes it may prevent it from happening to someone else's child. Cal was an open book from the moment he first began to talk about it that day.

"We didn't want to hide anything. We wanted to share Thomas' story and hope it makes an impact on someone else's child and prevent this," Cal said, as he sat for an interview one evening in early November at Proud Larry's -- sitting in the same booth, and the same seat he sat in when he received that phone call that altered the trajectory of his life.

The second decision they made is choosing their focus on personal choice, educating young people on the horrors of drugs, and arming them with the knowledge to make better decisions, rather than shaming them or scaring them.

Several days after Thomas died, Cal and Caroline were vacationing in North Carolina to grieve and reset. One day during the trip, Cal received a phone call from David Magee, who founded the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing after losing a son to a drug overdose.

Founded in 2019, the Magee Institute's purpose is to fight alcohol and other drug misuse through intervention, support and research. It has received more than $4.2 million in private donations. Cal called David for advice when Thomas confessed his Xanax issue in 2021.

This time, David called Cal because so much money had been donated in Thomas' name in the handful of days since his death, Magee felt compelled to do something specific with it and honor Thomas’ memory.

In September of this year, The Thomas Mayo Lab was established as a part of the Magee Institute. The goal of the Mayo Lab is to provide assistance to people battling substance misuse and mental health issues through research, education and support. The endowment set a fundraising goal of $500,000 and has already received $385,000 of that goal.

Cal has spoken to various fraternities and groups in the months since Thomas' death, delivering a different version of that very same speech he pulled together at Sigma Chi that day. It's become a coping mechanism of sorts.

"This makes me happy. This is the best day I have had in a while," Cal texted a friend after one of his speeches.

Just as Thomas was finding his purpose, fentanyl ended his life. Through unfathomable grief created by the void Thomas left behind, the Mayos have found a renewed purpose.

"I can't tell Thomas 'Whatever you do, don't buy that pill, son. Don't buy drugs off the street. It's bad stuff.' I don't get to have that conversation with him, but I can deliver that message to others," Cal said. "You only get one shot at this life. Thomas taught me to stop and smell the roses and to enjoy more of it. I just wish so badly that he got to enjoy more of it."

To make a gift to the Thomas Hayes Mayo Lab Fund, send a check with the fund’s name written in the memo line to the University of Mississippi Foundation, 406 University Ave., Oxford, MS 38655; or online at https://nowandever.olemiss.edu.