CHARLES TOWN – Gary Kerns still hasn’t given up hope for his missing youngest son, 39-year-old Jimmy.
“I don’t know whether this time something happened that couldn’t bring him back. I don’t know,” the father said. “Everybody is thinking he might just pop through the door. All the details I’m hearing, it doesn’t sound good, but we don’t know anything for sure yet.”
Those details are part of a missing person case for James “Jimmy” Kerns of Ranson, a father of three children whose struggled on and off for two decades with drug addiction.
It was a drug addiction that put Jimmy in dangerous situations surrounded by dubious people.
“He made some wrong choices, and I guess he made a career out of it, is what happened,” Gary said. “It’s a shame. It’s a damn shame.”
Police initially charged an acquaintance of Jimmy in connection with his disappearance over the past eight weeks. Then on Monday, police charged another acquaintance with his alleged killing. Charles Wilbert Cook Jr., 40, of Kearneysville, faces a second-degree murder charge. Amanda Lynn Frey, 41, most recently from Gerrardstown, and previously from Hagerstown, Maryland, faces a felony charge of concealing a human body that police believe to be Jimmy’s.
Jimmy’s body hasn’t been found. But a motel mattress stained with human blood and bodily fluids led police to file criminal charges in the case.
The Police Investigation
On May 30, Jimmy’s brother reported him missing and police issued a public call for information on June 27. That same police notice also asked for information to help find Frey.
According to police, Frey was staying with Cook in Room 120 at a Motel 6 off U.S. 340 at the time of Jimmy’s disappearance. Jimmy was known to visit the motel to acquire the illegal street drugs that numbed his mind and crushed nearly every ambition he had except chasing the next high.
Initially, Frey allegedly told a person who police won’t yet name that Jimmy died of an overdose, according to a criminal complaint filed in Jefferson County Magistrate Court. She allegedly told the person she tried to revive Jimmy with a shot of Naloxone but that the medication used to stop opioid overdoses didn’t work. She then maintained that she and Cook buried Jimmy’s body in woods next to the motel, police reported.
A group of area police officers searched the woods and discovered a backpack containing Jimmy’s personal belongings. But his body wasn’t found.
Meanwhile, the blood detected on the stained mattress and in the bathroom sink and bathtub in Room 120 didn’t fit Frey’s version of events.
Then on Monday, while waiting a preliminary hearing in Jefferson County Magistrate Court on the charge of concealing a human body, Frey changed her story, according to court documents.
Interviewed at the Eastern Regional Jail where she was held, she maintained that Jimmy died after Cook stabbed Jimmy in the chest with a pocketknife during an argument in the hotel room on the evening of May 24. After Jimmy died, Frey maintained that Cook and another man put Jimmy’s body in a dumpster behind the motel.
Interviewed by police several times, Cook, the person who rented Room 120, that he last saw Jimmy on May 24. That day, Jimmy had fallen asleep in the motel room, and Cook and Frey woke him up and made him leave, according to statements Cook gave police.
Cook told police that Frey and Jimmy “didn’t like each other” and that he and Jimmy “had a few minor arguments, but they never got physical,” according to a criminal charging document.
Held at the Eastern Regional Jail in lieu of $500,000 bond, he is awaiting court hearings on the murder charge, for which a conviction carries a possible sentence of up to 40 years in prison.
Meanwhile, a conviction for concealing a human body carries a penalty of one to five years in jail or prison — and a fine not less than $1,000 nor more than $5,000.
Frey is serving a 90-day jail sentence at the Eastern Regional Jail for illegal drug possession. Police found drugs in her purse when they arrested her in a Gerrardstown apartment on July 6 on the charge involving Jimmy Kerns’ disappearance.
In a conversation last week, Gary Kerns said he has kept his distance from the police investigation, but he’s aware of some details. “The hotel room and the way they found it doesn’t sound good,” he acknowledged. “They got the girl that was in the room with him.”
He said he never knew or heard about Frey before.
While Gary said he appreciates the thoughts and prayers people have offered for Jimmy, he’s not accepting condolences for any notion of his son’s passing. Speculation about Jimmy’s disappearance has spread on social media, and Gary is keen to correct inaccurate talk that Jimmy’s body was found.
“They don’t know what’s happened yet,” he said then. “It’s still under investigation as far as I know.”
On Tuesday, upon hearing about the murder charge filed against Cook in his son’s death, Gary indicated he was bracing for such eventual news.
“I’ve been expecting a phone call,” he said.
A Father’s Perspective
Gary describes his youngest son as an outgoing, likable good person. “He was always a lot of fun to be around — a lot of jokes,” he said.
But Gary also admits to the many years of heartache, worry and bewildering frustration that Jimmy’s addiction brought. In some ways, the father started losing his son years ago.
Drugs came into Jimmy’s life when he was about 18 or 19 years old. Keeping track of Jimmy was difficult. He became elusive. He would slip away for days and weeks when his family didn’t know where he was. In time, they came to understand what he was doing when he was gone.
Emergency injections of Naloxone saved Jimmy from fatal overdoses at least twice before that his family knows about.
“You sort of lose touch and then you sort of just stay away,” Gary said of his son’s life of heroin. “I did a lot for him, as much as I could for him. It hardens your heart, buddy. It does.”
Jimmy was a good worker and he had some good jobs and employment opportunities, Gary said. Jimmy worked as a waiter and bartender at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown. His last job, before the pandemic, was a union position at a sheet metal shop in the Washington metro area. But few of those jobs lasted because of the drug addiction, Gary said.
The best and longest period of Jimmy’s adult life off drugs was when he lived with one of his brothers for about a year and a half, Gary said. His brother tried to keep an eye on Jimmy, but Jimmy didn’t like someone looking over his shoulder much.
Still, Jimmy had gathered up money in the bank and he was paying his bills. “Then, he went right back to the same thing.”
Confronting the Addiction
In cycles of hope and then failure, Jimmy repeatedly tried to quit drugs. Family sacrifices and interventions didn’t last either. A half dozen times or more, his family pooled their savings to send him to rehabilitation treatment centers costing thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, he drifted back into drugs afterward every time.
Then there was the seemingly ever-spinning turnstile of court hearings and meetings with defense lawyers and drug counselors that resolved nothing. Gary attended so many of them. Jimmy always promised to stop doing drugs after he in trouble with the law, but that was always a temporary excuse to avoid momentary consequences, his father said.
“It’s been like this the past 20 years,” he explained. “He goes away and gets help and then they check the box and then they let him go. Then he gets out and goes back with the same friends.”
Gary said he has grown cynical about the industry of profit that has surrounded drug addiction. Those earning salaries and making careers from the drug epidemic didn’t seem intent on solving Jimmy’s problem, he said. “Several had his interest at heart because that was their job,” he said. “I don’t think they followed up with it.
“The whole thing makes you bitter at the agencies and the system.”
Time and again, Gary told court officials and counselors to be tougher on his son. His son needed to be tested every day for drugs, he said. “I used to wake up with it on my mind. I would go to bed with it,” he said of his son’s addiction. “There comes a point where you say you got to be callous towards it. Tough love, whatever you want to call it.”
Even now, as a father, Gary admits he can’t fathom the pull and power of Jimmy’s drug addiction. His son loved his three children, but the consuming priority to pursue the next high left those precious relationships behind.
Why Jimmy turned out so differently than his other sons, Gary can’t say. He coached all three sons through years of baseball leagues. “My other two older sons are good fathers,” he explained. “They’re involved with their kids.”
“It’s not the same Jimmy that I raised,” he added of his youngest son who fell away into a life of drugs.
Gary recalled growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, when the most rebellious things teens would do was sneak a few beers or smoke a little bit of marijuana. Then, those teens became responsible adults.
“Marijuana is nothing compared with what they’re doing now,” he said of too many youth and adults today. “They’re always chasing that high from what I understand. And then what they do — the heroin is not enough. They’ve got to go put fentanyl into it or whatever.
“Then what’s next? You know what I’m saying?”
Gary said he’s read in the newspapers over the years the names of men he coached as kids who became involved in drugs. Some died of overdoses. Some went to jail or prison.
“When I coached, I always said, ‘Guys, nothing’s more important than your family and doing the right thing. I don’t want to see your name in the paper for getting some kind of crime or something like that,’” he recalled.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that nearly 70,000 people died from opioid overdoses last year.
Gary pointed out that the statistic reflects only a glimpse of the health crisis. Many more sons and daughters are still struggling with addiction. Behind them are torn families too.
“Me and my wife talk all the time about these young people dying,” Gary Kerns said. “It’s sad.”