URBANA — Melissa "Missy" Mullins Lackey is being remembered as a person who helped others cope with the very demons that haunted parts of her life.
The 36-year-old Urbana woman died Monday evening after suffering a seizure earlier that day at the Champaign County Jail.
The cause of her death hasn't been pinpointed.
A mother of three children, Mrs. Lackey had been sentenced Jan. 27 to five years in prison for retail theft.
Mike Carey, the Champaign County probation officer assigned to drug court, said he's had clients in his office sobbing this week because Mrs. Lackey helped many of them by sharing the details of her drug usage.
Of the approximately 500 people sentenced to drug court since 1999, Mrs. Lackey was one of only a very few to get a second chance at the program, Carey said.
Carey said she walked away in 2006, left her husband and children, and went to California for several months. A year later, she walked back into a Monday drug court session.
"She said, 'I can't stand the life I'm living right now.' From that point on, she was probably one of the best drug court clients we've ever had," Carey said.
After graduating from drug court in June 2008, Mrs. Lackey inspired her husband to participate and was even hired as a case manager at Prairie Center to advocate for drug court clients.
"If they needed mental health or doctors' appointments or transportation to those, she would get them. She would take them to the township offices to apply for assistance. She absolutely shined at doing these things for other drug court clients and got paid for it. This is the part of the life where she was such a help to the community," Carey said.
In 2010, he invited her to speak to the Celebrate Recovery program he helps with at the Windsor Road Christian Church.
"She talked about how bad her life was in California, how she was missing her children," he said, adding she had become homeless there.
"She told me ... if she was ever going to get her life together, she had to face up to her past," said Carey, whose wife also became close to Mrs. Lackey through the church program. "Her first marriage was abusive. A lot of the women related to that. She became acquainted with many of the attendees and helped them during their recovery."
Leslie Mullins said she had long recognized the giving side of her daughter's nature.
"She really did want to help people and was a good person," said the 66-year-old Urbana woman. "She helped people who were arguing with their parents, some family members. She was the cool mom."
Longtime friend Karla Anderson-Shelby of Urbana, agreed. The two of them met in grade school and were "inseparable" through high school. They were "Tigerettes" together and always part of the "fun crowd."
"Everybody wanted to be with us, whether we were at each other's houses, in the mall. We always had a good time. In all the years I've known her, I can't say there was a time we were ever mad at each other," Anderson-Shelby said.
She and two other friends are accepting donations to pay for their friend's funeral and help her children at her family's business, Bundles of Joy Learning Center, 1508 N. Ridgeway Ave., C.
Anderson-Shelby said she and Mrs. Lackey went in different directions after graduating high school in 1993, but kept in touch.
"I respect the fact she had two different sets of people she ran with. I wasn't there to judge her," Anderson-Shelby said.
Mullins said her daughter's plans to become a lawyer were put on hold when, at 17, Mrs. Lackey gave birth to her daughter. Before her first marriage ended, she also had a son, who is now 16. Her older daughter is 18. She also had another daughter, now 10, by her second husband.
Mullins said her daughter held many jobs over the years: at a fast-food restaurant, as a motel maid, a gas-station clerk, a sales representative at a printing business, and working for her brother's food delivery business before the opportunity arose at Prairie Center. She was let go from the drug treatment center about six months ago.
Carey said he spoke to Mrs. Lackey in December, and she told him of her relapse into drugs in mid-2011.
"She dropped out of sight for two or three months. When I did have a chance to talk to her, she said she was holed up in her home, too embarrassed to see me, her boss, the judge. This is against the tools of recovery. She couldn't reach out to the people who were holding her accountable because of embarrassment. She lost her entire support group, which sent her further down into her addiction," he said.
As for her latest conviction, Mrs. Lackey pleaded guilty to retail theft in exchange for the dismissal of more serious charges that would have meant a longer prison term. Carey said she was hoping for probation and yet another chance at drug treatment.
Leslie Mullins said her last contact with her daughter was Friday before her sentencing.
"She texted me and said she was sorry she had disappointed me and loved me. I said, 'You're not a disappointment. You'll always be my baby girl,'" Mullins said.
That same day, Mrs. Lackey gave her wedding ring to her younger daughter. After her sentence, she spoke with her children on the phone from the jail but cut the conversation short saying she didn't feel well, according to her mother.
Carey said while many people are struggling with Mrs. Lackey's death, "her story is one that needs to be told in its entirety."
"You've got to be careful. I hate the statement: 'Relapse is part of recovery.' Relapse can occur if you let it," Carey said. "The one downside to drug court is that you work hard and people get this mentality that 'I've succeeded.' Anybody who's succeeded for a long time in recovery knows you stay in recovery. You may not have to go to daily meetings, but you have to remind yourself where you came from."
"You cannot be cured of an addiction. It will be there the rest of your life. It's how you choose to handle it that's the difference between success and failure."