On the night of Dec. 8 — as hundreds of residents gathered for a drug overdose and prevention vigil — Nicole Louise Fitzwater was taking her final breaths.
An investigation by the Frederick Police Department, listed Fitzwater’s time of death as 9:48 p.m. Sgt. Andrew Alcorn, a supervisor with the department’s Criminal Investigation Division, confirmed that she had been unconscious for several hours before emergency medical responders arrived on the scene to attempt advanced life-saving efforts.
The cause of death, as reported to State’s Attorney Charlie Smith, was a fatal overdose on heroin.
According to Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who spoke during the vigil, more than 40 people had died of fatal overdoses in Frederick County as of Dec. 8.
Smith, whose office organized the vigil and is informed of all suspicious deaths, was notified of two more fatal overdoses on Friday, the second-to-last day of the year.
“This is all around us and can happen at any time,” Smith said. “We see these overdose deaths morning, noon and night.”
For Fitzwater, who grew up in Frederick and died when she was 33, addiction started early. According to her wife, Catherine Gutmann, Fitzwater started experimenting with drugs at age 15, when she took Oxycodone and Percocet with one of her friends.
“And then it was just — well, heroin was cheaper,” Gutmann said. “So, that’s what she went towards. Heroin was her main drug of choice, but recently, she had started smoking crack cocaine.”
Gutmann and Fitzwater met at the Frederick County Adult Detention Center in 2013. Gutmann was serving a sentence for marijuana possession with intent to distribute and Fitzwater was being held in contempt for failure to make child support payments. Despite the circumstances, Gutmann described their meeting as a kind of fairy tale. Fitzwater, she said, was the love of her life.
“When I first met her, I felt like time stopped,” Gutmann said. “She just had that personality. She was always the life of the party. Like I said, she did struggle with a lot of addiction issues, but she was an amazing person.”
The two were married on April 7, 2014, at the Frederick County Courthouse. Gutmann said the couple fought and broke up frequently over Fitzwater’s addiction problems, but always reconciled and got back together.
“We were the love of each other’s lives,” Gutmann said. “That girl pretty much ran me. She had me wrapped around her finger.”
One of the most noticeable things about Fitzwater, according to Gutmann and others who knew her, was her love for her children.
Gutmann said Fitzwater had five total: two daughters, ages 18 and 7, and three sons, ages 16, 15 and 14.
Long before the couple met and got married, Fitzwater dated a man named Marcus Robey. At the time, Fitzwater had just one child, her oldest daughter.
Fitzwater’s devotion to her daughter is what first caught the attention of Robey, 39.
“She used to have her daughter all the time, and it’s kind of what drew me to her,” Robey said. “Because she was actually a mother at that point in time.”
Robey said he and Fitzwater met when he moved from Montgomery County to Frederick County in 1999, shortly after his release from prison. At first, Fitzwater only struggled with alcohol addiction, and would occasionally use cocaine at parties. But steadily, Robey said, her use of drugs grew worse and worse.
“I mean, she did everything from alcohol to cocaine to crystal meth to heroin to weed,” Robey said. “You name it, and she put it in her body.”
Fitzwater became pregnant a few months after meeting Robey, and again roughly a year later.
Shortly after the birth of their second son together, the couple split up. Robey and his father primarily cared for the children.
In 2004, over Father’s Day weekend, Robey said, Fitzwater contacted him and asked if their younger son could stay with her for a couple of days.
“And I said, ‘Sure, you can have him, but it’s mommy and son time, not going out time,’” Robey said. “‘When I drop him off, you spend time with him, and I’ll be back Sunday’ — which was Father’s Day — ‘to pick him up.’”
By Sunday evening, after countless phone calls, Robey had heard nothing from Fitzwater. On Monday, he contacted the police and found out that she had left two of her children — including their youngest son together — tied up alone at the residence where she was staying at the time.
“I wanted to kill her. That’s all there was,” Robey said. “I jumped through all the hurdles, went through all the tunnels and did what I had to do to get custody. The disease — or, I call it choices — had took over. She went from being a mother to tying up her kids and leaving them in the house.”
Fitzwater was found guilty on two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and two misdemeanor counts of confining an unattended child. She was on probation for two years. According to Gutmann, all of her children ended up permanently living with their fathers or other relatives.
“I try not to judge her,” Gutmann said. “I took her for who she was.”
Despite the charges, Gutmann, 31, said Fitzwater was still a loving mother in her own way. She posted photos with her children on Facebook and was a good aunt to her sister’s kids. Losing custody of her own children was one of the lowest points in her life.
“She loved her kids a lot. She was just struggling with her addiction issues,” Gutmann continued. “In my eyes, I think she did the right thing. She gave the kids to their fathers because she couldn’t take care of them. All she ever talked to me about, whenever she was really upset, was how much she missed her kids and how much she loved them. That was the hardest thing she had to deal with.”
Nicole Fitzwater and her siblings — Corey, 27, and Michelle, 32 — were primarily raised by their father, Larry Gene Fitzwater. Because of this, Corey said, the family was very close.
“We were always together,” he said. “If we weren’t together, we made sure we were always in contact with each other.”
Of the three children, Nicole was especially close to her father. Larry said she was more affectionate with him as a child than her siblings were, and stayed with him off and on during her adult life.
“She might have been the oldest, but she was always my baby,” he said. “She always showed me more love.”
The family also faced similar struggles with addiction. Larry said he he grappled with a drinking problem in the years after his divorce from the children’s mother, Linda Harkins Wood.
Corey said he and Michelle have both abused drugs in the past. Nicole acted as mother to both of her siblings, helping them find places to stay and checking in with them regularly, but Corey said it was more difficult for him to find ways to help his sister.
“You couldn’t tell what she was up to,” he said. “Like, she was always depressed. I don’t know what her demons were. If I knew what they were, then, hopefully, I could have fixed her.”
Gutmann, too, said Fitzwater rarely up opened to her during their time together.
Two weeks into their relationship, she found out Fitzwater struggled with depression and cut herself regularly when she got drunk. During those episodes, Gutmann held her and played Fitzwater’s favorite songs: “All of Me” by John Legend and “Dancing in the Sky” by Dani and Lizzy. But she rarely could find out how her wife was feeling.
“She kept everything inside.” Gutmann said. “That’s always why I would fight with her. Because I’d have to yell and scream at her and break her down to get her to tell me how she felt.”
“She didn’t talk to anyone about anything,” Robey, the father of two of her sons, added, speaking of his time with Fitzwater. “She was a straight mystery book.”
Fitzwater’s father said he was not aware of her struggle with heroin addiction, but knew she drank and overdosed on medication from several operations, including a recent gallbladder surgery. Gutmann said Fitzwater struggled with pain from other operations, including a Caesarean section.
Despite her sporadic efforts to quit, including taking Suboxone, heroin proved hard for Fitzwater to shake. Like the family members of many other addicts, Gutmann said she struggled to figure out the best ways to help her.
“I feel like I killed her,” Gutmann said. “Honestly, I do. But I didn’t know what to do. I was between a rock and a hard place. Do I not give it to her and have her put herself in unsafe situations? Or do I give it to her?”
While Gutmann said she never bought drugs for Fitzwater, she described the first year-and-a-half of their marriage as a cycle of enabling. Fitzwater would ask for $20 to buy cigarettes and Gutmann would give it to her, knowing it likely would be used on drugs. She stole from local hardware stores, in part, she said, to support Fitzwater and her habit.
Gutmann was forced to call 911 at least three or four times after Fitzwater overdosed while they were together. Despite the terror of those experiences — of finding Fitzwater with blue lips, slumped over the sink — Gutmann described her withdrawals as even worse.
“She would go into the bathroom and she would curl up into a ball and she would run cold water and she would just sit there and shiver,” Gutmman said. “It was so bad. And she would throw up and have the shakes. You can’t sit there and watch someone go through that and not want to scream, scratch, kill somebody to make them feel better.”
Gutmann was sent to jail again in January 2015 for theft. While incarcerated, she and Fitzwater fell out of contact. Even though they were still married, the last time she saw Fitzwater was Dec. 3, five days before Fitzwater’s death.
“I actually begged her, like, got on my hands and knees and begged her to get herself clean,” Gutmann said. “But we had a fight because I saw she had posted a picture of her and a guy she had started dating while we weren’t together. So, I kind of feel guilty because I feel like she thought I gave up on her. I don’t know if she gave up on herself.”
Because the investigation of Fitzwater’s death is still open, Alcorn could not confirm the location where she was found. Her brother, Corey, said he received a phone call around 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 8 from a man who knew her, notifying him that his sister needed help.
Alcorn could not confirm the identity of the male caller.
When Corey reached the scene, he said, it appeared that Fitzwater was already dead. He called their sister, Michelle, and asked the other man to call the police. Emergency medical responders could not revive Fitzwater after they arrived, Alcorn said.
“I kind of had a thought in the back of my head that this was going to happen because she had — in the history of our life — dealt with this addiction,” Corey said. “But I felt about how I feel now. Depressed. Upset. Scared.”
“It tore me up,” Larry added. “I just get to thinking about it and it bothers me all the time.”
As of Friday afternoon, Fitzwater’s body remained with the Maryland State Anatomy Board. Her family is unable to pay for a funeral, but Gutmann is trying to raise money for her burial through a GoFundMe page. Any additional donations, she said, would go to Fitzwater’s children.
“A lot of times, she couldn’t get over the shadow of people talking about her,” Gutmann said. “When she was sober, she was an amazing person, but she just couldn’t shake the habit. It’s the same thing that always happens to me — people think you’re defined by what you did.”
In the weeks since Fitzwater’s death, one of Gutmann’s brothers returned from prison, and the entire family is living with her mother in a row house in west Frederick. Gutmann has spent the last few weeks attempting to raise the funeral money and spending time with her young niece, who she described as her “heart.”
“So, while everything else is falling apart, our family is finally coming back to each other,” Gutmann said. “I feel like it’s really Niki’s way of telling me to get my life together.”