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A Rock Hill woman puts a human face – her bother's – on fentanyl overdose

Kenny Gregory was in recovery for a lifelong substance addiction when he took something laced with fentanyl. His death in 2022 was so sudden, he had not finished the meal sitting in front of him.
Shannon Gregory
Kenny Gregory was in recovery for a lifelong substance addiction when he took something laced with fentanyl. His death in 2022 was so sudden, he had not finished the meal sitting in front of him.

Kenneth Gregory was a guy most people didn’t get to know – an often-reclusive loner who chose, for a while, to live by himself in the woods.

“He had a good heart,” says his sister, Shannon Gregory. “He loved his daughter, would probably do anything for her. He was a good son. He was a good brother for the most part, when we wasn't, you know, bickering just out of being siblings.”

Shannon thinks of him as her hero, actually; her protector growing up; a big brother who always dared to try new things.

But she also remembers him, Kenny, as “a very isolated person. And I think that that was part of him being institutionalized. He was never in a place where he could easily communicate and be transparent with anybody. He was very shut off, and he was like that for as long as I can remember.”

The institution she’s referring to is jail. From an early age, Kenny fell in with a rough crowd. In the absence of a father figure in his life, she says, he sought to fit in with other young guys not always up to the right thing. He got into drinking and drugs and found himself incarcerated more than once. Shannon blames his time away for hindering his ability to thrive in real-world social situations without “help.”

“He loved to make people laugh,” she says. “He loved to be around people. But I don't think that he could do that without substance, just because he was so isolated.”

Kenny wove his way through addiction and recovery more than once as well. And Shannon says he had been doing extremely well after getting out of jail in York County in December of 2021. He’d found work and a place to live in Greenwood County, and all was going fine, until a week after the July 4th weekend in 2022.

“We had [a] death in our family and I was trying to contact him to let him know and he didn't answer the phone the first day,” she says. He didn’t answer for the next two days, either.

“This was Wednesday,” she says. “I told myself that if I didn't hear from him before the weekend on that Friday, I was just going to go down there and see what was going on. Well, I got the call Thursday morning from the corner of Greenwood who said that they had found him overdose from fentanyl. They said that they had found roxies, the blue pills, with fentanyl in it. He was sitting on a couch with his legs crossed, Indian style, with a plate of food fixing to eat. And he just died.”

Roxies is a nickname for Roxicondone, an opioid pain pill. Real ones are less likely to kill you that roxies you might buy from a guy in the street because real ones, dangerous enough in large doses, are at least not laced with random amounts of the far more dangerous fentanyl.

Kenny, 49, hadn’t taken real roxies. And Shannon hadn’t known he’d started using again. When local officials found him, he’d been gone for two or three days. The Greenwood County Coroner’s Office doesn’t have an exact date of death.

Addiction is not ‘a moral issue’

Shannon doesn’t want you to think of Kenny as a bad person. Rather, she says, he was a good person who made bad choices in the absence of an adult male who could have shown him the way.

And she doesn’t want you to see his death by fentanyl overdose as a moral failure.

“Addiction is just a symptom of something much deeper,” she says. “I think that initially it begins as a choice to try to fit in or to find some kind of relief or release. I think that we have become a society that has less and less communication with each other. It's such a breakdown with the ability to communicate with people that you are willing to take something to make you feel better, to knock the edge off, and not knowing that that could kill you. And if it doesn't, then it's highly addictive.”

Her perspective comes from experience. Shannon is in recovery from substance addiction that led her to prison too. She served four years about a decade ago, an experience she says changed her life for the better. She devotes her non-work time to Anchor Ministry in Rock Hill, helping steer women towards a clean life.

“I think that good can come from even bad things,” she says. “[Kenny’s death] has made me want to be more of a voice and raise awareness. I think that with fentanyl, it's not if a person overdoses, it’s when. And I think that it's very important for children, especially, to understand the impact that it makes not only on their own life but on everybody around you that loves you's life too. I miss my brother and I think about him every day.”

Since her brother died last year, Shannon Gregory has been to seven funerals of people she’s known through her work at Anchor House. It’s what compels her to avoid having to go to more, as black market, haphazardly measured street drugs laced with fentanyl get increasingly risky.

“Ten years ago, drugs were bad, and they caused a lot of problems, but today, the drugs are deadly,” she says. “And it's like playing Russian Roulette. And there is a bullet in the chamber.”

Shannon Gregory is one of the speakers at the Chester County Opioid Summit, Thursday, Sept. 28, in Richburg. The event is free and open to the public.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.