Over the past decade, my life has occasionally intersected with another 29-year-old Madison man who shared my name, albeit with an extra "e." I never met Jaeson Shepard, but we did speak once, when I called him over problems that arose when First Federal couldn't tell us apart. He seemed like a nice guy.
Over the years, I got phone calls from people who confused us. The most notable mix-up came in 2000, when I was a police reporter at The Capital Times. Thuggish-looking drug cops in street clothes appeared at my door after dark and tried to intimidate their way into my apartment. Through their blunders, they even had my neighbor and sources in the Madison Police Department thinking I was a drug dealer.
Last month, when my doppelganger was killed in a bizarre drug-related home-invasion shootout, I felt a strange kinship. After reports on the TV news, my mother got a call from a friend worried it was me. Her son remains alive; Donna Fox's does not.
"I've lost my mother, my father, my sister and friends," says Donna, who lives in Antigo, about 200 miles north of Madison. "But there's nothing like losing your child."
In the days after Jaeson's funeral, his mother and brother spoke with me about the train wreck that was Jaeson's final years. He was a seemingly decent soul who found drugs early in life and just couldn't let go.
On the popular Web site myspace.com, Jaeson's friends recalled his "surfer style" manner and his generosity. His older brother Scott, 34, agrees.
"Jaeson had the best smile and the biggest heart," he says. "He just wanted a little respect, and if you gave him that, he'd do anything in the world for you."
The roots of Jaeson's despair developed early. He was exposed to the drug culture as a child in California, moving from place to place in a family that was always struggling to make ends meet. He grew up not knowing his father. When Jaeson was 9, he was drawn to a man Donna was dating who promised to bring new stability to the family. But after the wedding and with a child on the way, the man left without warning. After that, Jaeson wasn't the same, his mother says.
"Jaeson's whole life was rough," says Fox, who spoke with her son by phone nearly every day. "He was a very lonely, sad boy."
In 1989, Fox and her extended family moved to Antigo. Jaeson was already rebellious. He was arrested after he and a girlfriend stole money from her grandparents, and spent several years in and out of group homes.
"He got into trouble real young," says Scott, "and he kind of took that to mean his options in life were limited."
After graduating from high school in 1995, Jaeson came to Madison, where he fell into the local rave scene and worked a few odd jobs, in addition to selling drugs. His brother remembers that one of those jobs, ironically, was making phone calls to raise money for a police association. He took classes related to filmmaking and computers. He also tried bartending school.
Madison police reports over the years show that Jaeson's drugs of choice grew progressively more dangerous: pot, then mushrooms, acid, Ecstasy and cocaine.
Jaeson liked expensive things, which his drug proceeds allowed him to buy. When his mother visited, he put her up at a hotel and took her to fancy restaurants. The money, says Scott, let Jaeson get used to an "easy lifestyle."
By the time he was 25, Jaeson was addicted to heroin. He got a girlfriend pregnant and later told his brother of the anguish of her having an abortion because both were heroin addicts.
"He knew he was wasting his life, and every day he was trying to clean himself up," Scott says. "But he was surrounded by people who were selling drugs, too." So Jaeson continued his downward spiral: "He just got slower and dumber."
Scott last saw his brother in September, when Jaeson and Donna drove to Michigan to see Scott's newborn son. Scott noticed immediately that Jaeson was experiencing withdrawal. After the second day, Jaeson vomited in the kitchen sink. Once he found a fix, he was better.
Donna was also horrified by Jaeson's degeneration. Once he was clean-cut, clean-shaven and well-dressed. Now he looked like a heroin addict.
This past winter, Jaeson was apparently still selling drugs. In November and December, the Dane County Narcotics and Gang Task Force had an informant make heroin buys from Jaeson at his far-west-side apartment. In January, Jaeson was charged in Dane County Circuit Court with two counts of delivery of heroin, with a penalty enhancer because of a previous conviction for cocaine possession. He faced 33 years in prison.
Around this time, Jaeson made a final attempt to quit heroin, says his mother. He moved into his younger brother Matt's place in Beloit and went daily to a methadone clinic. He pawned jewelry, furniture and electronics for money for methadone, but still ran out. So, according to Jaeson's family, when Eddie Harris, 24, said he knew how the two could score some marijuana plants, Jaeson was in.
In the early morning of March 16, Eddie, Jaeson and Jaeson's girlfriend drove to a house in Blanchardville, about 50 miles southwest of Madison in Lafayette County. The three had already cased the house and planned to make off with enough pot plants to provide them with a significant source of income.
The plan went terribly awry. During the intrusion, homeowner Bradley Fandrich, 34, discharged dozens of rounds, killing Jaeson and Eddie. After police arrived, Fandrich apparently killed himself with a single gunshot.
Police found several hundred marijuana plants, with an estimated street value of between $450,000 and $500,000, and a cache of weapons, including loaded guns stashed throughout the house.
Donna Fox is especially devastated that authorities told reporters Jaeson was shot after he placed Fandrich's wife in a chokehold. In a posting on the myspace.com Web site, Fox wrote that, according to Jaeson's girlfriend, who was present at the time, Jaeson dropped his gun after confronted by Fandrich and said he didn't want any trouble.
"Then the man said, ‘Fuck you, you're all going to die tonight,'" Fox wrote. After Jaeson and the girlfriend "begged for their lives," Fandrich allegedly started shooting. The girlfriend managed to escape, while Jaeson and Eddie did not.
For Scott, the news of Jaeson's death was devastating, but not entirely surprising, given the path he was on.
"I even tried to get him arrested a few times because I didn't want my brother to end up dead," Scott says. "One of the hardest things is that I can't believe I knew this was going to happen, and now it's happened."