EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Margaret Rutter pointed to a picture in a large photo album open on her kitchen table.
In it was a boy, about 16 years old, wearing a short-sleeved gray T-shirt and holding a piece of plywood in front of a cinder-block wall in the ground.
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“He helped build this house,” Margaret said of her son, Charles Ross Wolverton IV, or Charlie. “He loved to build things, and he was good at it.”
Margaret sat with her daughter Jackie, 25, and niece Miranda Piehs, 28, looking at old pictures and bringing up memories of Charlie, who died at age 30 in April 2016 from a drug overdose during an addiction to heroin.
People who never met Charlie while he was alive may know his name because of his addiction, but Rutter and his family said there was so much more to the kind man who became a father of two boys before he died.
Their home, on a street off the Black Horse Pike, was built for Charlie, his parents and two sisters — but more often than not, every seat at the table was filled with relatives from just a couple streets down, or one of the many friends Charlie invited to live with his family while growing up.
“Some kids bring home animals. Charlie brought home kids,” Margaret said. “Since he was 12 years old, he started bringing them home. We had a full house all the time. Charlie had a big heart. He’d do anything for anyone.”
Some of those friends still keep in touch with the family, asking from time to time how they have been doing since Charlie died. Because of his giving nature, Margaret said, there had to be nearly 300 people at her son’s funeral.
The 2004 graduate of Egg Harbor Township High School was a big guy, standing tall among family and friends. Jackie and cousin Miranda remember how Charlie liked carpentry, landscaping and doing anything outdoors, like quad riding, camping and spending time at parks.
He had a knack for cooking and was often in the kitchen, his family said, whether to eat the food he made or dive into what others left behind.
“He made up this ‘fair game rule.’ If you had food in the fridge for more than 24 hours, it was fair game,” Miranda said, laughing.
“No matter whose house it was, he was opening the fridge,” Jackie said.
The fact that he wasn’t cooking as much toward the end of his life was a sign, looking back, that something was wrong, Margaret said.
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What his mother didn’t know until much later was that one day, about six years before his death, Charlie, a friend and Jackie’s boyfriend shot up heroin together while the group was hanging out in the basement of the house.
Jackie said back then, information about heroin and its impact passed through high-school-aged kids along with everything else out in the world that was risky and unsafe. She didn’t know just how dangerous it was, or would become for her brother.
“Once I started realizing more (about heroin addiction), I wanted him to stop,” Jackie said. “It’s so hard to love someone who is addicted. Every day was a living hell. They lied to me and I didn’t know then, because I trusted my brother. He was who I looked up to.”
Margaret discovered her son’s addiction when he ended up in the hospital with a blood infection in 2015. Doctors told her that it was likely from sharing needles. One look at the track marks on his arms was enough to change her world, she said.
Doctors weren’t sure if Charlie would make it, Margaret said, as his infection was advanced, but he pulled through. When he was released, Margaret took him to a detox and rehabilitation center in North Jersey.
“We had an appointment there and everything, but they told him he wasn’t sick enough (to be admitted),” she said. “After he passed, they called again and asked if he was sick enough. I told them he was dead.”
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During all the years he struggled with his addiction, Margaret said, he never lost focus on being the best father he could to his son, Charlie, 7. They were close and spent a lot of time doing things outdoors, relatives said.
Charlie became a father again in 2015 when his girlfriend gave birth to their second son, William. The family was back and forth between New Jersey and Ohio, where they sometimes lived. They broke up weeks before Charlie’s death, and Jackie drove out to Ohio to bring home her brother and oldest nephew.
Miranda said she was struggling with a situation, and Charlie offered to come stay for a while at her Egg Harbor Township home to help. At the time, his family thought Charlie had been clean for a while, as he was adamant that he had not used.
When Charlie left his mother’s house with his son on an April afternoon, it was the last time Margaret saw him alive.
Miranda had left her own and a friend’s children, who were living with her then, with Charlie at her house, while she dropped off her oldest daughter at school. She wasn’t gone for more than 20 minutes, but when she returned, one of the children told her Charlie was in the bathroom.
“He had collapsed and there was nothing in the vicinity that indicated he had started using again. I called 911 and those minutes until they came felt like forever. They went in to check and care for him, and then an EMT came out, got down in front of me on one knee where I was sitting ...” she said, crying.
Margaret brought a manila envelope to the kitchen table and pulled out a stack of papers stapled together. It took six months to get the autopsy report back from the medical examiner, but it told her Charlie died of a fentanyl overdose.
Police found needles among the belongings that Charlie had brought with him to Miranda’s house. There were track marks on his thighs, which was how he was able to hide the relapse of his active addiction from family more easily.
His son, Charlie, was there when his father died, and Margaret said they found him hiding in the closet that day. Described as a happy-go-lucky kid, Jackie said, even he has moments where Charlie’s death hits particularly hard.
“Sometimes he’ll come off the bus crying or sad, and I ask him, ‘What’s wrong, did something happen at school?’ He says, ‘I just miss my dad,’” Jackie said.
“I told him his dad had a sickness. He prays for his dad every night,” Margaret said. “He still thinks you can get a magic pill and dig him up.”
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The family created Project C.H.A.R.L.I.E. to raise money and help people into recovery, inspired by similar organizations created by families who have lost loved ones. They are currently seeking help with sponsors and getting their 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status.
Jackie wants the organization to be something for Charlie to hold onto as he grows older and remembers his dad. Margaret said raising her grandson is what keeps her going and Miranda continues to tell Charlie stories about his father.
"No one will feel the emotional pain until it happens to them. He was more than that (addiction)," Jackie said.
(The Press of Atlantic City is asking readers to share their stories of loved ones who've succumbed to addiction. Readers can send in photographs of loved ones and include short stories about their lives, their deaths and the impact they had on their families. The stories and photos will be published at PressofAC.com. Include the loved one’s full name, age, hometown and a short story about their life, death and impact on their family. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.)