Family Fought to Bring Daughter Back from the Abyss of Addiction
Mother, stepfather learned too late the warnings but worked steadfastly to save Alex Hopping.
This is the third installment of a series of stories on the overdose death of Wauwatosa's Alexandra Hopping, and the police work that led to the arrests of two men in connection with her death.
Christa Lewis’ two daughters were, she says, “night and day from birth.”
Monica has always been studious, focused, diligent almost to a fault. She is pretty but never put much stock in looks compared to books.
Alexandra was ever the free spirit, headstrong, an artist who lived in the moment — sometimes furiously and infuriatingly so. She was more than pretty. She was a stunning beauty, cat-graceful, cat-charming and cat-conniving. She was known for a wickedly delicious sense of humor.
“They split my personality,” Lewis said. “Monica got my sensible side and Alex got my whimsical side. I often wished for Monica to have a little more fun — and for Alex to have a little less fun.”
Monica’s life has so far borne out all her childhood traits; she graduated from Marquette University with a degree in education and certification to teach high school English. She is now busy earning a second certification in science, and she dates an engineer.
Alexandra is … a memory. She is a wealth of paintings and poems and brutally honest journal entries that her mother weeps over on nights when insomnia forces her to wrestle with loss and what she inevitably feels is failure.
Alexandra, in the end, was a junkie. Christa Lewis grits her teeth when she says it, but she says it anyway. She just wants the world to know that her daughter was so much more than that, that hers was a soul worth saving.
Alexandra — Alex — died of a heroin overdose on April 18, less than a week short of her 20th birthday. She was found by her stepfather in the living room of her mother’s home on North 70th Street in Wauwatosa, surrounded by a junkie’s tools — her “rig” of needle, spoon and a flame.
The two men who supplied the heroin that killed Alex were charged Tuesday with first-degree reckless homicide. That, and the dedicated work of the Wauwatosa Police Department to pursue them, is of some consolation to Lewis, if only in that Daniel Lee Birtic and Edwin Esteves won’t be selling heroin to anyone else for a very long time.
There are others she blames more, though, including herself and, frankly, Alex, and the former boyfriend who, she now knows, first introduced her to the needle — the person, she says, “most responsible for the murder of my daughter.”
“What is a parent’s first, most important duty?” she said. “To protect her children, to keep them from harm. In that measure, didn’t I fail?”
Lewis’ self-judgment flies in the face of the extraordinary efforts she made to pull her daughter back from the abyss.
Building a new family in Wisconsin
Monica and Alex were born in Northern California, where her mother had grown up in freewheeling Berkeley.
“I was known as fun-loving,” Lewis said, “but I also earned a reputation for knowing exactly when to leave the party. I would drag my girlfriends away under protest, and the next morning we’d hear about the trouble that started.”
Lewis never got so much as a ticket. She became a mother at 18 but settled responsibly into married life with Monica and Alex’s father. They later divorced, and she met Jalem Getz when Alex was 6.
When Alex was 8, Lewis and Getz moved to Wisconsin to start a new business, which would become BuyCostumes.com, the world’s largest online costume seller. They settled first in New Berlin, then moved to Waukesha, “right down the hill from Waukesha West,” Lewis said.
The move from California, in 1999, “was a hard adjustment for Alex,” Lewis said. “The only way that she agreed to come out here was that I promised to buy her a puppy.”
That was the way with Alex, Lewis said. “Everything with her was a negotiation.”
Alex got her puppy and named it Roscoe.
Getz became a father figure to the two girls, and he and Lewis would marry when Alex was 12. Getz loved Monica instantly. Alex, after a shaky start, he came to adore.
“Alex was a very outgoing, very charming young lady,” Getz said. “She learned early on that politics and charm could take her a long way in dictating what she wanted.”
Getz was a CEO and a stern disciplinarian, and although he found Alex “savvy,” he also saw through her guile, and, he said, “there was friction.” Nevertheless, the stepfather and daughter developed not only a powerful affection but also a mutual admiration.
“She was one of those kids,” Getz said. “She didn’t fit the main groove. But that conviction that she was always right, even when she wasn’t — that self-confidence is often a hallmark of successful people.
“In a way I was seeing myself. I grew up in Northern California in a very liberal setting. I dropped out of college, came out to Wisconsin and started two successful businesses.”
Awakening to the truth
The family would later learn through counseling sessions with Alex that she had started experimenting with drugs about three years before her death, as a student at Waukesha West High School. They were not aware at the time, though, how serious those experiments had been.
Getz was, he said, “ignorant.” He and Lewis divorced when Alex was 16. Getz bought her a car the day she got her driver’s license — even though the divorce proceedings were already under way.
As much as he loved the girls, he said, the “less than amicable” divorce kept him out of their lives for the next year. He was drawn back in when Alex was to graduate from high school in 2009.
“I thought it would be good for her to take a year off before deciding on college,” Getz said. “She loved to travel, and it was my idea that she should pick a place she really wanted to go, and I would pay her way. It was my graduation gift.
“She chose Australia. In retrospect, had I any idea what she was already doing, I would never have let her go off so far on her own, and neither would Christa have permitted it.”
Whatever she may have done in Australia — Lewis believes now she was unable to score the drugs she wanted — she cut short the trip and concluded her tour with a stay in California. There, it is now known, she discovered the open secrets of the streets of San Francisco, where she was arrested for shoplifting.
When she returned to Wisconsin, Lewis already knew something was wrong, but she had no idea how bad it was. It soon got worse, and she knew she had to act.
“The intervention came almost exactly one year before she died, in April 2010,” Lewis said. “Her acne got terrible, and she was so skinny. She was 5-foot-9 and she’d gone down to a size 0.”
More than that, Lewis said, Alex had grown distant and disinterested. She didn’t care about birthdays or Christmas, she didn’t care about her family or their feelings. She was downright mean to her sister.
“I didn’t really realize what it was or why it was,” Monica said. “I had just gone off to college, and I thought it was that — sort of the natural distance from me being away.
“Once we found out, a lot of things started clicking. The meanness, the never wanting anything but money. I had felt that she had betrayed me. Knowing that there was a reason — it was better, but still not right. It stretched us thin. It pushed us apart.”
The day of reckoning
Lewis went to a drug store and bought a home drug-testing kit.
“I sat her down and I put the test kit on the table, and I said, ‘This has gone too far. There is something very wrong. We’re going to do this and you’re going to take it.’
“She looked at me and she said, ‘Mom, don’t waste your money. I’m addicted to heroin.’ And she showed me the tracks on her arms.
“It was the worst day of my life.”
Lewis steeled herself for a struggle. She knew it would be difficult for her alone to set Alex straight. She called Getz, the disciplinarian, and made a case unusual among “less than amicable” ex-spouses.
She and Getz agreed to an unofficial shared custody arrangement for Alex — who was, after all, an adult in her own right. The two agreed to impose a strict set of rules. Alex would be drug-tested weekly if not more often. She was locked out of their computers. If she left the house, they had to know who she was with and approve of where she was going.
Lewis also brought Alex’s father, Mark Hopping, into the loop, working daily with her two ex-husbands on Alex’s behalf. Together they researched treatment centers and settled on Camp Recovery in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.
Getz, in his business travels, often found himself flying to the Bay Area, and he would meet up with Alex and have heart-to-heart talks.
“She was in a treatment center, and she was in her own stage of denial,” he said. “I would say, ‘Alex, you’re stealing from people, you know that’s wrong.’ And she said, ‘I’m not stealing from people, I’m stealing from companies.’
“She was very into that street life, stealing things and giving them to dangerous people for drugs. It was an adventure, and she claimed she saw nothing wrong with it.”
Rehab, relapse and regaining trust
When Alex got out of rehab, she must have scored as fast as she could before her return to Wisconsin.
“When she got off the plane, I could tell she was high,” her mother said. “I found out she had been kept off an earlier flight — the captain said she was too high to travel.”
That rapid relapse came in October 2010. When Lewis took away her phone this time, she attacked her mother so viciously she had her arrested for disorderly conduct. A few days later she was again arrested for shoplifting.
Lewis and Getz spent $10,000 on a 30-day rehab program at the Dewey Center in Wauwatosa, then another $10,000 on the Beacon House in Fond du Lac. Alex left Beacon House early and against her mother’s wishes, so she spent last Christmas in jail. When she came out in February, it was back to the regimen of drug-testing and round-the-clock scrutiny. This time, she was not given back her phone. She would get it back, she was told, when she got a job.
Alex stayed clean for six months, her mother and stepfather believe. If she was somehow gaming them, she was passing her drug tests. More important, she had gained weight, gotten back her complexion and her beauty, was fit and was fitting in.
And, she got a job — for her, a dream job. Alex, a strict vegetarian since birth, who thought eating meat was an act of animal cruelty, was hired by Outpost Natural Foods, just down the street from home.
“She was so excited about it,” Lewis said. “She said, ‘Mom, I can bring home all the fruits and vegetables I want!’”
Alex completed training at Outpost and was scheduled to start work the morning of April 18.
As promised, Alex was given back her phone. Her mother had travel plans that weekend, so Getz suggested Alex stay with him.
“Her reasoning for not staying with me Sunday was that she had to be at work early in the morning,” Getz said.
Lewis says she truly believed that Alex was going to be all right. Good health, love of family and starting her new job seemed such bright prospects. She gave Alex $40 and reminded her of the house rules. She was to call her or Getz if she felt the least sign of weakness.
As is now known from the text messages extracted from her phone, Alex hardly waited until her mother was out the door before she began to call connections.
Monday morning, April 18, Getz got a call from Outpost at about 9 a.m. Alex was late for her first day on the job. Getz called Lewis, and she tried calling Alex, with no response. She called Getz back and asked to go check on her daughter. She called her landlord to send someone to let him in.
Getz found her in the living room. He touched her shoulder lightly, more out of love than any hope she could be alive. Her body was cold and livid. Over her, protective and worried, stood Roscoe, the puppy that had lured her to Wisconsin, now 12 years old and going blind.
“He was there all night,” Lewis said. “We believe he was a sentry and stood guard all night.”
Living with the loss
Christa Lewis moved out of the house on 70th Street as soon as possible. She couldn’t stay there, she said. She doesn’t want it known, yet, where she lives now. She doesn’t want a 15-minute media circus or a 15-second spot on the nightly news to be her or her daughter’s legacy.
She and Getz did want Alex’s story told, though, and Lewis is pondering something more lasting — perhaps a foundation or program in her daughter’s name, to make people aware of the signs of addiction and of the epidemic she sees growing in places like Waukesha.
Getz urges parents to “Stay close to your children, know what they are doing, know what’s going on in the school system. It isn’t the things that we are aware of, it is the things we think we know but don’t.
“We were not aware of this problem, of children taking heroin. I thought I knew about kids and drugs. I did not.”
Lewis still fights anger and sadness, but she can grasp one bright ray from her daughter’s death.
Alex’s best friend in high school never did drugs. But her little sister did. She, too, became a heroin addict. She quit cold the day Alex died, and she has been clean since.
“That is what I want,” Lewis said. “For people to know, for people to care.
“I want people to learn from this family so desperately trying to save Alex from herself.”
Editor's note: As Wauwatosa police were wrapping up a six-month investigation into the death of Alexandra Hopping, officials offered to provide Wauwatosa Patch with an inside look at how the case was developed. The department provided access to investigative records and allowed Patch to conduct in-depth interviews with the detectives who played key roles in the investigation. The narrative above is based on those records and interviews. See first part of series. See Part 2.