The mobile home that Lacey Kertz shared with her father Charles Politte and 22-month-old son, Carson, was tucked between oak-covered hills in Jefferson County, miles away from the nearest town. The trio lived in disarray, without working toilets. Cigarette butts littered their floor.
On October 27, 2013, Kertz made a trip to Walgreens, where she picked up photo prints of her boys and purchased materials for a potty chart. She spent the afternoon with Carson and his father, Neil Swyres. Together, they shared a twin-size bed in the trailer, eating McDonalds and watching SpongeBob SquarePants: Halloween. Swyres left after sunset; as a registered sex offender, he wasn't supposed to be around children.
That night, Carson had trouble sleeping. "Up and down, up and down, up and down," Kertz would later recall to detectives. Kertz fed her son Children's Tylenol for whatever discomfort he may have been feeling and two capsules of Nature's Bounty Super Strength melatonin to help him sleep. At one point she let Carson put "her nipple in his mouth," as she describes it to the RFT, for comfort. Police and newspapers called it breastfeeding. Kertz maintains that her son did not nurse.
Some time that night, Carson found an open pill bottle. It was labeled Xanax, but actually contained the sedative Trazodone. When Kertz caught her son rummaging through her pills, she panicked. She stuck a finger down his throat in an attempt to induce vomiting.
Carson didn't vomit, but drops of blood did appear on Kertz's finger. Convinced no pills were missing from the bottle, she decided against calling poison control.
Carson stayed up past midnight, wheezing, as he lay by his mother in her bedroom. Kertz feared the paranormal. So when her little boy pointed towards "Santa! Santa!" and all Kertz saw was wallpaper, the two retreated to the master bedroom where the boy's grandfather was sleeping. Mother, grandfather and son shared the bed for a moment before Politte asked them to leave. As Kertz carried Carson away, the boy called out, "I love you, paw paw."
Kertz blew up an air mattress in the living room, where spirits didn't seem to haunt as heavy. She called a friend and told him about the pill bottle Carson had found. Her friend assured her everything would be all right.
After hanging up the phone, Kertz told Carson, "I love ya buddy." He responded, "I love you too." They drifted to sleep.
When Kertz woke the next day, her son lay next to her, unresponsive. Brown "throw-up stuff" crusted around his lips. Kertz screamed. Running out of his room, Politte implored his daughter to call 911. She did so at 11:02 a.m.
Eight minutes later, paramedics rushed Carson to St. Anthony's Medical Center in south county. He was pronounced dead at noon. Doctors would later give the cause of death as morphine intoxication. A medical examiner would also detect traces of amphetamine, meth and opiates in Carson's system; Kertz's urine tested positive for morphine.
In May 2014, seven months later, Lacey Kertz would be charged in the death of her son — and headlines would insinuate that the fatal dose of morphine had been transferred through breast milk.
Born to a second-generation addict and registered sex offender, raised around drugs and dysfunction, and failed by state agents who were supposed to protect him, Carson's chances stood low from the beginning.
But as the cycle of neglect running through his lineage terminated abruptly with a three-foot casket and seventeen-year prison sentence, experts who've taken a closer look at Carson Swyres' short life have concluded: It didn't have to end this way.
Lacey Lynn Kertz was born on September 13, 1987 to parents who were both drug addicts. Together, Charles Politte and Jerri Anderson used pot, pills, crack, meth, and booze, Kertz says. Politte was absent, and Anderson was often high, so Anderson's mother raised Lacey until she died of cancer in 1996, when Lacey was nine. From that point, Kertz says, "I had to be a parent for myself."
Three years later, social workers removed thirteen-year-old Lacey from her mother's custody, citing medical neglect. Investigators determined that Anderson had been helping herself to her daughter's pain medication, which had been prescribed after a car accident two years before.
While child protection agencies in most cases aim to reunify children with their birth parents, neither parent ever took the necessary steps to bring Lacey back into their custody. Even though both parents were alive, Kertz would remain a ward of Missouri until she aged out of the system, an experience faced by 26,000 American children a year, according to the child advocacy organization Jim Casey Youth Opportunities. A landmark study found that children who enter adulthood straight out of temporary foster care encounter significantly higher rates of homelessness, unemployment and involvement in the criminal justice system.
Kertz never settled into a permanent home. She bounced between families, living with an aunt, some church friends, a Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor and a middle school librarian. Of her many guardians, the only constant through the years was Betty Helms, with whom she was placed by state workers and lived with from 2001 to 2003.
Helms was present for every milestone in Kertz's life: a hospital stay, a birth, a sentencing. She was willing to take in just about any child who needed a home as long as they followed Christ and her chore chart. Many of those children, now grown, still refer to Betty as "Mom" and her husband James as "Dad." (James Helms died in 2014.)
Despite her unsteady home life, Kertz wore a smile at school. She made good grades and plenty of friends, who called her "Lace." She studied ballet, played tennis and practiced the oboe. But she found her place cheerleading for the Dragons of De Soto High School. "I was good at it, and I could just be myself." After classes, she worked part-time at a casual seafood joint called Off the Hook.
On a summer day between her junior and senior year of high school, Kertz finished a dance rehearsal in Farmington, grabbed lunch at Taco Bell and drove herself home to De Soto. A sedan suddenly swerved over the median and collided into her then-foster dad's Ranger head-on. The other driver, a man named Bryan Conway, died in the accident. Kertz woke up at St. Louis University Hospital with a broken femur, torn colon, orbital fractures and a missing front tooth. "I missed my recital," she said upon regaining consciousness.
Doctors reconstructed parts of her face and put screws and a rod in her leg to treat the fracture. Helms thought they did a marvelous job, but Kertz felt "so much uglier," she tells the RFT. The physical effects of her accident would also linger for years to come. "Sometimes my face still feels like somebody is taking a needle and stabbing me," she would explain in a deposition two years later.
While she was still at the hospital, a physician prescribed her Percocet and Vicodin. Pills helped ease the pain. She also enjoyed certain side effects. "I remember taking a Vicodin and thinking, 'This makes me want to hug everyone,'" she says.
At eighteen, Kertz won a $100,000 settlement from Conway's insurance company. That's more than four times Jefferson County's annual per capita income. She moved out of foster care and into a townhouse. She bought a Jeep Liberty and a $400 homecoming dress. (Her senior class crowned her queen.)
Kertz's newfound wealth took her popularity to new heights. As Helms tells the RFT, "Suddenly, everybody wanted to be Lacey's friend." Those friends enjoyed free dinners at the Macaroni Grill. Servers scored $20 tips.
The financial settlement also reopened lines of communication with her biological family. "I had never been the most important person to anybody," Kertz says. "I figured I could buy their affection." She took her half-brother shopping for clothes and bailed her uncle out of jail. Kertz's mother, Anderson, moved into her townhouse, and Kertz gave her $20 to $40 a day to spend "on gas." When Kertz's father found out about Anderson's allowance, he asked his daughter, "Are you stupid? That's how much a crack rock costs." The money was gone in a year.
Around the same time, Kertz started taking pain pills for more than pain. Opioids activate the reward processing system, the same part of the brain that responds to food and sex. Over time, overuse of drugs like Vicodin and Oxycodone fundamentally alters the brain, causing dependence. Younger patients, whose brains are still developing, are particularly susceptible to opioid addiction. Research shows that about ten percent of chronic pain patients will at some point abuse their medication.
Kertz, too, got hooked. When her prescription ran out, she bought Vicodin from friends. Some of these friends, she understood, obtained prescriptions for the sole purpose of turning a profit. Forty-nine American states have implemented drug databases to prevent this practice. Missouri is not one of them.
Other times, pills would fall into Kertz's lap. "There were people in my life that had the drugs, and the 'right time, right place' kind of thing happened," she explains.
Kertz's foray into prescription drug abuse preceded a national epidemic. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that deaths from prescription pain relievers increased about 340 percent from 2001 to 2014. Missouri, particularly the greater St. Louis region, was one of the hardest-hit areas. For every 100,000 people in Missouri, sixteen will die of a prescription drug overdose, three more than the national average.
When Kertz was twenty, she met a man named Travis DeNoyer at a gas station. That night, they went on a date and then slept together. By both accounts, it was a one-night stand.
Weeks later, Kertz drove from a White Castle to a QuikTrip across the street and acted in manner that compelled someone to call 911. The details are fuzzy; Kertz doesn't remember them. Police took her to Mercy Hospital Jefferson, where a psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. She also found out she was pregnant.
Homeless, Kertz stayed at Jefferson Mercy for three months, while Helms worked with social workers to find her a place to stay.
They settled on Haven of Grace, a homeless shelter in St. Louis for pregnant women. During her months there, Kertz felt "lonely and scared." It was the longest she'd ever stayed in the city. The noise, traffic and bus system felt a world away from the rural calm of Jefferson County. As the only white person in a shelter of black women, she felt out of place. "It was almost a different culture," she says.
On February 12, 2009, Kertz gave birth to her older son, Clayton (not his real name). Betty Helms hosted a welcoming party at her church. Clayton was a "very, very good" baby, she recalls. He rarely ever cried.
Kertz, who was raising the boy at Haven of Grace, felt that she understood unconditional love for the first time: "There's nothing in the world more beautiful than your child."
At first, Helms picked Kertz up from the homeless shelter every other weekend, and Kertz and Clayton would hang out in her former foster home. Encouraged by Helms, she eventually landed a job at a telemarketing company in Festus. She disliked sitting all day, but made enough to move into an apartment with her son.
One day between calls she offered Skittles to a coworker named Neil Swyres. After a few dates at the pool hall, the movies and the Cheesecake Factory, they became exclusive.
Swyres was "nice," "not bad looking," and appeared to "have his life together," Kertz recalls. His middle-class upbringing signaled a chance to live "a different lifestyle than what I led," she says.
Reluctant to shatter this fantasy, Kertz ignored certain red flags: Swyres was hesitant to talk about his past. He lived with his parents, but never introduced them to his girlfriend. He sneaked around to meet her. Despite a master's degree in teaching, Swyres made a living selling "overpriced newspapers" over the phone, as Kertz describes it. She knew her beau had been married, but was not entirely clear on how it ended. "He is a good liar," she says now.
A couple months into their relationship, Swyres invited Kertz over to a mutual friend's house. "I have something to tell you," he said.
His story was troubling. In 2009, while Swyres was a gym teacher at Bayless High School, he struck up an online chat with someone who claimed to be a fourteen-year-old girl. He masturbated for her through his webcam. He also arranged to meet up. There, he learned that the "girl" was a 56-year-old detective. (Neil Swyres declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Swyres pled guilty to two counts of attempted sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of use of a child in a sexual performance. Facing a maximum 24 years in prison, he instead received five years probation and 120 days of shock time at the St. Charles County Jail.
"You have lost your career. You have lost your wife. You've lost your dignity," a judge told Swyres at his sentencing, according to the Suburban Journals. The state also banned the former schoolteacher from the Internet and unsupervised contact with children.
Then 23, Kertz was startled by her boyfriend's secrets, but resolved to stick by his side. "I didn't understand the seriousness of it," she explains.
Swyres' parents strongly advised him against dating Kertz, she says. For one, Kertz had a child, and any contact with Clayton could send him to prison. But that wasn't the only reason.
"I guess you could say I'm from a different class from them," she says. "He always had to lie about me, and it really upset me because I loved him."
In 2010, Swyres proposed, using his ex-wife's ring. The couple talked about having children, rationalizing that a kid would force Swyres' parents to accept their relationship. "But it's not like we didn't want it. He loved kids, and I loved kids," Kertz says. "We just didn't think it through."
They never did marry, though they continued their relationship. And two years later, when Kertz went to urgent care with colon problems, the doctor informed her she was again pregnant. Carson Swyres was born on December 20, 2010.
Betty and James Helms were there, just as they had been for Clayton's birth. Once again, James was the first person to hold the baby, a cherubic newborn weighing seven pounds, six ounces.
But while Swyres was there with his mother, he was forbidden from holding his son.
Once again, after Carson's birth, Kertz bounced around. She first moved back in with Helms, working sales at a lawn care company and as an assistant at a nursing home, where she'd sometimes bring her children to play with the senior residents. She moved through apartments and a condo with her two sons. She started taking a class for supervisors of sex offenders so Swyres could be around her son, but never got around to finishing.
Throughout the first few months of Carson's life, Kertz claims that she did not abuse pills, only using her prescribed medication. But Helms tells a different story. A pediatrician allegedly told Kertz she would not provide her with pain medication. "Then she started throwing a fit because they wouldn't let her nurse Carson," Helms says. The doctor said Kertz needed 72 hours without drug use before breastfeeding.
One time, Helms says, Kertz crawled through her bedroom window and took a bottle of painkillers. "She didn't think she was addicted," Helms says. "Most of them don't."
For about a year in 2013, Kertz lived with Clayton's great-grandmother, Judith Stadler, who with her husband owns an expansive plot of land in St. Francois County — three houses, a lake, and about a dozen dogs and cats. Their property is nestled in a wooded, unincorporated community called French Village. Roughly Road, a gravel path nicknamed "Druggly" by locals, winds through the trees.
Kertz and her boys lived with Stadler and her husband in a trailer atop a hill. She moved in to get back on her feet after another car accident left her without a vehicle. "We brought Lacey in because she was the mother of my grandchild, and we knew she was a mess," recalls Stadler's grown daughter, Sheryl Sullivan, who lived in a two-story home at the bottom of the hill. "She couldn't stay in a place for more than two months."
Carson spent most of his life on the Stadler property. He won the nickname "Chubbies," for his adorable cheeks, and developed an affinity for SpongeBob, who he dubbed Bob Bob. His first birthday had a SpongeBob theme. Around that time, Carson walked his first steps and grew out his blonde hair, which furled off the back of his head like a little mullet.
While living on the Stadlers' estate, Kertz became embroiled in a tense custody battle with the couple's son over Clayton. Travis DeNoyer and his wife Amanda had been hosting Clayton every other weekend, but one day, they failed to return him to Kertz. In the months to come, the legal battle for Clayton would consume Kertz.
Sullivan says that DeNoyer might have decided to fight for custody because Kertz's drug use seemed to be worsening. A number of doctors stopped seeing Kertz after discovering her drug use, Sullivan alleges. She also recalls Kertz staying up all night and sleeping through the day.
Another family member, who prefers not to be named, says that Kertz once nearly overdosed on Trazodone. The family called an ambulance, but Kertz waved it away.
"She loved her kids, but not more than her high," Sullivan says. "The girl did anything for drugs."
Kertz tells a different story. She claims that Stadler and Sullivan became her primary drug providers, selling her pain pills in exchange for money and sometimes food stamps. She claims she tried morphine for the first time after Sullivan ran out of Percocets. (Sullivan strongly denies providing Kertz drugs. Stadler could not be reached for comment.) Kertz also claims that her pill use during this time was "minimal." As for the Trazodone incident? "I was just tired."
"I don't blame anyone for what happened, because that was my baby. But that family caused me to go into deep depression," Kertz says. "They made my life a living hell."
Lori Ross co-chairs the Missouri Task Force on Children's Justice, established in 1991 to improve the investigation of child abuse and neglect in Missouri. She has served twice as co-chair, a two-year appointment.
Similar groups exist in most states and are funded through a provision of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, signed by George H.W. Bush. In 2013, the year Carson died, Missouri recorded 68 cases of fatal child abuse or neglect.
The multi-disciplinary task force comprises judges, police officers, child advocates and mental health professionals. Ross, a foster mother to more than 400 children and president of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, serves as a parent group representative. The body meets four times a year to review two or three "critical event reports," cases in which a child dies or nearly dies.
During Carson's 22 months of life, investigators from Children's Division visited Kertz four times to follow up on accusations of abuse or neglect. The task force did not see Kertz's file (typically they'll only delve deeply into a small number of cases each year). The RFT obtained a copy from the Department of Health and Senior Services and provided it to Ross for an independent review.
The Children's Division abuse hotline fielded its first call raising concerns about Kertz in May 2012, sixteen months before Carson's death, when she lived in a Festus apartment with both children. The caller described a cluttered living environment, punctuated by the stench of rabbit and cat droppings. The caller alleged Kertz totaled her car, used pills and "will sleep all day and be up all night."
Investigator Leslie Heusted arrived the next day. Kertz denied drug use and drinking, only admitting to smoking marijuana "prior to her children." The worker's notes describe a house in disorder. Heusted told Kertz she would return the next day to reassess her living conditions.
Hours later, Kertz's house was spotless. She was "very excited to show me how clean it was now," Heusted reported. All other claims of abuse or neglect were labeled unsubstantiated, and Children's Division did not open a case.
Reviewing Heusted's notes, Ross notes that Kertz's messy home could imply an "internal level of dysfunction," and should have drawn more attention. "I would have felt more comfortable if they held the case open and did some random drop-ins," she explains. "Is mom actually keeping the house clean? Has she done anything to address these issues? Because what we sometimes find in these types of cases is a pattern of chronic neglect."
The second call, made by Amanda DeNoyer, came amid the tense custody battle between Kertz and DeNoyer's husband Travis in September 2012. Amanda told a hotline worker that Kertz abused drugs, attempted suicide, drove under the influence and left drugs out in the open, accessible to her children.
When investigator Kathryn Hamel got in touch with Kertz the next day, she denied DeNoyer's claims, noting that she and the DeNoyers were involved in a "big family feud." At the time, Clayton lived with his father, and Kertz wanted her son back.
There were other potential causes for conflict. The investigator repeated a story told by DeNoyer's uncle, who reported that both Amanda and Travis DeNoyer allegedly "made a trip to the grandmother's home and they baited Lacey out onto the porch and then Amanda physically attacked Lacey Kertz. Then they barged their way into the house and Amanda beat up Lacey Kertz. He states the children were present when this occurred."
Hamel's notes also show that Kertz texted her four times after the drop-in. Kertz's messages suggest that she appeared to regard the social worker as an ally in her custody battle, rather than someone investigating her for child neglect.
"Sorry to bother you ms.katherine but i really miss my little boy. Travis has a hostile temper. There are texts.and letters and reports to prove it..his wife used violence right in front of the kids. Punching me in the head...would this help? Maybe anger management...." In her last text, Kertz wrote: "Sorry this message is so late ...did you get ahold of my baby? Was he there? Is he okay?"
In an email to her supervisor, Hamel wrote: "The parents are going through a terrible custody issue at this time and the natural father has the child and is refusing to return him to the natural mother...I did not find any evidence of drug use by Lacey Kertz." Ten days later, Children's Division closed the case.
"That is the one that irritated me the most," Ross says. Kertz's flat denials of drug use and the suicide allegation should have been scrutinized, she says. Hamel could have asked for a drug test or spoken to neutral "collateral contacts," third-party sources with knowledge of a parent's history and character. The task force recommends investigators reach three collateral contacts, two non-relatives, if a parent has multiple abuse hotline calls in two years and the child is younger than six. Hamel's records list members of the Stadler family as collateral contacts.
The third call came in January 2013. This time, Clayton's father claimed that Kertz and Swyres had fondled the boy.
A forensic interviewer from the Missouri child assessment center spoke with Clayton, but determined the little boy had been coached. The report was labeled unsubstantiated and the case closed. Ross did not point to any red flags in this particular investigation. "I give a lot of credit to the expertise of the child assessment center," she says.
The fourth and final call came on July 12, 2013, three months before Carson's death.
By this time, Kertz had left the Stadlers' estate and was living with an older foster brother in Fredericktown. The caller repeated allegations that Kertz used drugs around her children and wrecked her car. "Lacey is always tired and sluggish. She is very skinny but eats," the caller reported. "Carson is up all night."
Investigator Tara McDonald showed up at the address two hours later. McDonald noted that Carson did not have any visible marks or bruises. "I observed a clean home with food, electric and operable plumbing," she wrote. McDonald later drove to DeNoyer's home. There, four-year-old Clayton told her he "feels safe at home and is not afraid of anyone."
McDonald called one collateral contact. Betty Helms told her "Lacey is not very mature but 'tries real hard,'" stating she did not believe her former foster child used drugs or alcohol. Using a point-based checklist called the Family Risk Assessment, McDonald marked a neglect score of "high." But Children's Division did not open a case.
Of the multiple investigations, Ross says, "It's sad. These poor kids. There were so many opportunities for someone to do something and nothing was done."
Ross chalks up the social workers' mistakes to inexperience. "We're talking about investigators who are often fresh out of college, in their first year or two of employment," Ross says. "They haven't had the time to develop good judgment skills." It's not an easy or financially rewarding job. Caseloads are high, hours are long and the work is emotionally draining. Entry-level investigators make less than $40,000 annually.
Owing in part to recommendations from the task force, Missouri's 2015 budget included funds for 23 additional service workers. The state also increased spending on training.
Kertz lost custody of Clayton on March 26, 2013, seven months before Carson's death. The loss sent her into a devastating spiral. "That's when I went off the fucking deep end," she says. Drug use increased. Her appearance changed; dark rings formed around her eyes and her jowl thinned out.
After she lost custody of Clayton, the Stadlers kicked Kertz out of their property. They allegedly caught her stealing pills from Stadler's husband. Kertz stopped contacting Helms and moved in with aunts and uncles for a couple of months, where she says she smoked meth when she couldn't get her hands on pills. She lived for a brief period with a former foster brother, but got kicked out after her drug use became a bad influence on his own teenage daughter.
In October 2013, she moved into the House Springs trailer with her biological dad and Carson.
Kertz and her dad, Politte, argued every day. "He had never been a dad to me, and now was not the time to start," she says. Neil Swyres, a frequent visitor, would drop off groceries; Kertz says he would drop off pills, too.
Within a month of moving into the trailer, Carson was dead.
When St. Louis City Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham examined Carson's body, he determined the cause of death to be morphine intoxication. He also detected traces of amphetamine, meth and opiates in Carson's urine, but could not explain how the drugs entered his system. Carson appeared to be "a well developed, well nourished Caucasian child whose appearance is consistent with the stated age," he wrote.
Kertz's urine tested positive for morphine, and she admitted to consuming the same drugs found in Carson's system. In the 72 hours before Carson's death, according to prosecutors, Kertz had swallowed ten morphine pills, three or four Vicodins and a Xanax. Within 36 hours, she had also smoked "crumbs" of meth while her baby slept in the bedroom next door.
While doctors agree morphine can be passed through nursing, only small traces are typically detected in breast milk. Morphine metabolizes rapidly, explains Dr. Evan Schwarz, a toxicologist at Washington University. He tells the RFT, "With some exceptions, it would be unlikely for a baby, especially one older than a few months of age, to have very high levels of morphine only from nursing. In those situations, I'd be worried about another source of exposure."
In the hours after Carson's death, Children's Division investigated Kertz one last time, marking a "preponderance of evidence" of child neglect.
Carson Swyres's funeral was held November 4, one week after his death. Kertz made the arrangements. She assembled a photo collage of better times and designed a card that read, "Your footprints here on Earth will forever imprint our hearts." On a chilly morning, funeral-goers released dozens of balloons into the air; Carson had loved balloons.
The undertaker buried Carson in his Bob Bob pajamas. Kertz placed a key in his casket — the key, she says, to her heart.
In the months that followed, Kertz moved from home to home. As is often the case when tragedy and addiction meet, she sunk toward rock bottom. Kertz says her pill consumption catapulted, and she started smoking a gram of meth a day.
On December 20, 2012, the day her baby would have turned two, Kertz posted two photos to Facebook. In one, Carson basks in a ray of sunshine pouring through the window behind him. In the other, the little boy cracks a smile, his nose balancing a pair of purple-tinted sunglasses, worn upside down. Her caption reads: "Mommy would give her last breath to wake up to your kisses, watch you terrorize your cake, pop all of your balloons with your teeth...Around this time last year, you were learning to walk. Now, you're flying."
As Kertz descended deeper into depression, detectives continued to interview witnesses and gather evidence for the Jefferson County prosecutor. Between February and May, sheriff's deputies questioned members of Kertz's biological family, including her father, half-brother and mother, as well as Swyres. Their attempts to reach Kertz — a phone call, a home visit — were less successful.
But the DeNoyers and the Stadlers grew impatient with what they viewed as a delayed justice. In a segment that aired on KMOV, Travis DeNoyer told a reporter, "I want to know what happened to my little boy's brother because that's something he's going to have to grow with and he'll never see him again."
In April, Sheryl Sullivan and Judith Stadler appeared in a Post-Dispatch article headlined, "Women Want Charges in House Spring Toddler's Death." Photos of the two women kneeling next to Carson's grave accompany the text. The article describes Stadler clutching a Precious Moments angel that Carson "loved to cuddle with," and saying, "It's all I have left of him."
Kertz was astounded that the women she says "sold me the drugs that killed my baby" would express indignation in the region's largest newspaper. "What are you? Holier-than-thou?" she felt.
The dislike went both ways. "There was a point I wanted her dead," Sullivan tells the RFT.
The next month, Jefferson County Prosecutor Forrest Wegge charged Kertz with three felonies, including second-degree murder, child neglect resulting in death and child endangerment. Sergeant James Kausler found Kertz later that day in the basement of a friend's home, hiding in a dryer. Sergeant Kausler let her smoke a cigarette before placing her in handcuffs and driving her back to the Jefferson County Jail.
Helms learned of the charges when she saw her former foster child's mug shot on television. "I couldn't believe it was her," Helms says. "She almost looked like the walking dead. I mean, she was so emaciated."
In a jail interview with Jefferson County Detective Hollie Lunsford, Kertz "remained adamant she was not sure how Carson died." She also told Lunsford that she "illegally buys drugs because she doesn't have insurance," naming Judith and Roger Stadler, as well as an aunt and uncle, as sellers. Lunsford asked Kertz whether they were the same people speaking about her in the media. Kertz nodded and said she felt a "hell of a lot better" for getting that information off her chest, according to the police report.
In November 2015, prosecutors agreed to downgrade her charges to involuntary manslaughter and two counts of child endangerment — one for the meth, the other for the morphine. Kertz took the deal. On the day she pled guilty, she faced a maximum of 30 years in prison. Judge Mark Stoll sentenced her to seventeen.
Judge Stoll asked Kertz if she had anything else to say.
"Can I tell my mom I love her?" Kertz asked. She looked back at Betty Helms, the only family member who'd shown up for her sentencing, and said, "I love you."
Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center sits on the eastern edge of Vandalia, across from a railroad track and down the street from a Mexican restaurant. The facility's red siding suggests an oversized barn, albeit one surrounded by a curved security fence and surveillance cameras.
The prison's visiting area is open, lit by fluorescents and enclosed by vending machines. Visitors can play Scrabble or watch Monsters Inc. with their loved ones. A side door opens to what must be the highest-security playground in Missouri.
Kertz arrives late to meet with a reporter owing to issues with the daily count. She says she's agreed to an interview with RFT for the same reason she cooperated with a non-profit called COPE24 (Change Our Parenting Experience) to produce a documentary about drug use and child neglect.
"My baby lost his life to my addiction, and it can happen to anybody in a quick second. I made terrible choices," she says. "If somebody could just learn from that or see things in a different light or perspective, I think it would be worth it. It's using a tragedy to help others."
Kertz spends her days tutoring other offenders. She attends Sunday services and crochets baby hats for "the little ones" as part of a restorative justice program. She is 22 months sober, exactly the length of Carson's life.
Clear-minded and incarcerated, Kertz has had plenty of time, and she'll have plenty more, to reflect on the death of her son. "I had every intention of not being a product of my environment, of breaking the cycle. And I fell right into it," she says. "I feel like a huge failure."
"What are you in for?" goes a prison icebreaker. Kertz doesn't hide from her crimes. If time is short, she'll simply say "three class-C felonies," common parlance behind these walls.
But if prodded, she'll relay what she thinks happened to Carson in October 2013. Kertz's theory to this day is that her son swallowed a stray morphine pill during a moment of inattention. Inmates have responded with stories of catching "their baby with something," perhaps just narrowly avoiding a similar fate.
Kertz's face lights up when she talks about her children. Choking back tears, she recalls a game called alligator, which involved Carson trying to bite her finger. He chased his mother around, saying "hold you, hold you!" Another favorite phrase: "Chubbie shake your body." They blasted "Jingle Bells" even in the summer and danced around their home. Kertz recited cheerleading chants to her boys: "H-O-T-T-O-G-O! Carson and Clay are hot to go!"
Although she has only served two months of her sentence, Kertz speaks animatedly about her plans upon release. "I still have a son. I'm going to do anything and everything I can to be a part of his life," she says. "And eventually, I want to open a foundation in [Carson's] name to help other mothers who may be in the middle of addiction and don't have sober help, so maybe a home or something they can go to and get an education."
To pass the time, Kertz reads V.C. Andrews, the Bible and books about the afterlife. She's saving up for a CD player, which costs about $30 at the commissary. When she has money for stamps, Kertz writes letters. In one of those letters, written to Betty Helms, she dotted her i's and exclamation points with hearts.
Her message, penned on yellow legal paper and stored in a chest next to Betty's rocking chair, reads: "Mom, if I do not mind prison — is that weird? I do NOT love it but I needed this opportunity to be able to get myself together. ... How are you? What is new? What are the doctors saying? Are you going to church? Well write me back."
On the day Carson would have turned four, Kertz wrote her deceased son a letter, placed it in her bedside locker and cried herself to sleep.