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Prescription for Death
  • February 16, 2014 : 07:02
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John Hatcher is a big guy, six-foot-three and more than 200 pounds. When I met him back in 2011, he was sitting in the fall sunshine on his father’s porch in a little town in West Virginia, wearing a blue polo shirt and sporting a neat goatee. All in all, he looked pretty good for a hardcore junkie.

John, then 36, had been hooked for years on prescription pills—mostly painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin, opiate-based drugs as potent as their chemical cousin heroin. “I hate being an addict, but I can’t shake it,” he told me. John hadn’t worked in years. He’d stolen from his family to get drug money. He’d once gashed his arm on a nail from wrist to elbow and not even noticed because he was so high.

Another time, his father found him overdosed and unconscious on the couch and called for a paramedic, who stabbed John in the chest with a shot of Narcan, right in front of his terrified eight-year-old son.

“He probably wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t come home,” John’s father, Tom, told me then. Tom Hatcher, a silver-haired, ruddy-face gent, was the long-serving mayor of the town of War, named after a settler-Indian battle. We were talking in his cramped office in War’s grandly titled City Hall—a three-room former railway station that also houses the town’s two-man police department.

War is an impoverished backwater in a narrow valley in deepest Appalachia, a one-time coal-mining hub abandoned by most of the people who once lived there. I was in town to write an article for this magazine about the nationwide epidemic of deaths caused by prescription-pill overdoses.

In the past 20 years, recreational use of pharmaceuticals has skyrocketed across the country, and so have overdose deaths. Prescription pills—especially painkillers—now kill more Americans every year than heroin, cocaine and all other illegal drugs combined. The number of fatal pain-killer overdoses has quadrupled since 1999, topping 16,000 in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available. And in McDowell County, where War sits, victims are dying faster than just about anywhere else. The overdose death rate there is 16 times the national average.

The article I wrote centers on Tom Hatcher’s desperate efforts to help both his son and his town. Tom had taken John, along with John’s wife, Becky, and their son Jonathen into his home. John promptly stole practically everything of value Tom owned. Tom put John through several rehab programs; none worked. John almost died from overdoses four times. Tom was out of ideas and out of hope. The article ends with him saying, “I think the reality is John will kill himself eventually.”

The article sparked a minor ruckus in McDowell County. Lots of folks were upset that Tom had publicly aired the town’s dirty laundry—and in Playboy, of all places. The local papers and TV stations all ran stories about my article, ensuring that just about everyone in the county heard about it.

A few months later I received a slew of e-mails, Facebook messages and calls from strangers in McDowell County. All of them said basically the same thing: I read your article. You should know what really happened with Tom and John Hatcher.

Here’s what happened: John didn’t die; Mayor Tom Hatcher did. And two days later, his daughter-in-law, Becky, was charged with his murder.

1. Tom Hatcher, mayor of War, West Virginia, in 2011. 2. Tom’s daughter-in-law, Becky, with her brother Earl in court. 3. A memorial poster for Tom Hatcher in a Main Street store window. 4. Tom’s son, John Hatcher.

War can be a pretty place. The mountains are thick with trees, and in the fall they erupt with splashes of yellow, red and orange. Most of the land is wild and barely populated. But you feel confined nonetheless, always hemmed in by mountains. It’s a chore to get to McDowell County and no less of one to leave it.

The McDowell County that Tom Hatcher grew up in in the 1940s and 1950s was very different from today’s. The coal industry was booming then. War had movie theaters, restaurants, stores and a sweet shop. “You couldn’t drive into town when the Big Creek High football team was playing,” recalls lifelong resident Patty Hawkins.

“Back then, War was a nice little town,” said Tom’s sister, Jerry Lynn Roncella, a no-nonsense high school teacher. She was wearing a lavender hoodie and purple glasses and chain-smoking as we talked at the kitchen table in Tom’s house, just outside the center of town, shortly after his death. She was still clearing out the place; it was cluttered with cleaning supplies and Hefty bags half filled with Tom’s possessions. “When we were growing up, anybody who drank was looked down on,” said Roncella. “And there certainly were no drugs.”

Tom went to West Virginia University to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees and later added a Ph.D. in education. Along the way he got married. The couple adopted three babies through the local Catholic diocese—two girls and John, the youngest. They soon divorced, though. The girls wound up with their mother, and John with Tom.

Tom took a job with a nonprofit organization that brings students and professionals from around the world to the U.S. for cultural exchanges. The job eventually landed Tom and John in Washington, D.C. As John moved into a troubled adolescence, Tom decided the big city wasn’t the place for them. In 1991 he moved back to War with his 16-year-old son.

By then McDowell County was skidding downhill. The coal mines had either closed or been mechanized, and most of the miners and their families had moved on. In 1950, when Tom was a boy, nearly 100,000 people lived in the county. He came back to find two thirds of them gone.

Things have gotten worse. War has shrunk to around 1,000 people, one quarter of its peak. The few blocks of low brick buildings that compose War’s downtown are a glum procession of empty storefronts, broken windows and caved-in roofs, interspersed with a handful of surviving businesses—including no fewer than three pharmacies. On a window of the War Hotel, the town flophouse, the owners have taped a handwritten sign: NO ALCOHOL OR DRUGS ALLOWED IN THE BUILDING OF ANY KIND. ALL WHO GET COUGHT [sic] WILL GO TO JAIL.

Today, McDowell County is at the bottom of the heap by just about every measure of misery and dysfunction. One third of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. Barely six percent have college degrees. Life expectancy is among the lowest in the nation. The county also has the state’s highest rates of teen pregnancy and child abuse.

Tom did everything he could to bolster the place and its people. “When our dad was in the state senate, people would come to our house at all hours, asking for help,” recalls Tom’s brother, James Hatcher. “Tom had that same commitment. When he came back to War and saw how bad things were, he wanted to help.” Tom was active with just about every civic organization within miles, from the Catholic church to the Kiwanis Club and the county historical society. He was elected mayor in 1997 and campaigned to get War a wastewater-treatment plant, a playground and a drug-treatment facility. He also taught at Big Creek High and gave extra tutoring to his students. “I was just a little holler girl everyone figured was going to be a housewife,” says Tonya Hagerman, a sharp-faced, cheery young woman. “But Tom saw something else. I’d go to his house every evening and he’d teach me English.” Thanks to him, she says, she went on to college and a lucrative career. It wasn’t his fault she wound up back in War, where she slipped into a years-long addiction to pills.

Tom was candid about his town’s troubles when we met, but he also wanted to make sure I heard about its charms. “I love it here. There’s beautiful scenery and great people,” he told me. “In spite of it all, I’m very optimistic about this community.”

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read more: News, magazine, issue march 2014


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