A mother says she spent '63 days of hell' desperately searching for her missing son. They ended with a shocking discovery of his death and addiction to 'laughing gas.'
- Julia Charleston's son, a veteran, went missing for 63 days after he developed a nitrous oxide addiction.
- Following her son's death, Charleston said she wants to warn others about the addictive nature of nitrous oxide.
Before Julia Charleston walked into her missing son's house, she could tell something was wrong.
Her son, 34-year-old Robert Howland, had vanished days prior, along with his truck and his 9mm Glock. Howland had abandoned his dog without food or water, and days-old snow in the driveway showed he hadn't been home for some time.
When she and her family entered through the front door, they found "a horrific scene."
"We found his home littered with hundreds of empty nitrous oxide tanks," Charleston told Insider.
Two months later, Charleston would be notified by police that her son's body was found. His death was ruled a suicide.
Howland, a veteran who served two tours in Iraq, lived alone in Michigan while his mother lived in Alabama. He was going back to school and finally had a flourishing relationship with his family. Charleston believed he was healthy after struggling with substance abuse in the past, but she had no idea about his addiction to nitrous oxide.
While nitrous oxide gas, also known as laughing gas, has practical medical uses in dentistry and childbirth, it has a long history of being used by partygoers who huff it from a dispenser or inhale it from a balloon. Charleston, who has advocated for stricter regulations of nitrous oxide, blames the easy access to nitrous oxide for her son's death.
"I believe in my whole heart that Rob, that my son did not kill himself. That the nitrous drove him there, that he didn't have any choice," she said.
'I can quit anytime I want to'
Charleston said she had no reason to believe her son would harm himself.
"I never thought he would take his life because he promised me that he wouldn't, and I believed him. So I just thought he ran away from the nitrous — he got help," she told Insider.
In the months before Howland was reported missing, he had become paranoid and "just kept pulling further and further away from me," said Charleston, who works at a Christian addiction recovery facility.
Howland occasionally talked about running away from his life and starting over, and Charleston tried to convince him to enroll in a recovery program close to her in Alabama.
"He just insisted that he was going to be okay, and he even told me, 'I can quit anytime I want to.' Now, again, I didn't know about the nitrous. I thought we were talking about Adderall or something else, maybe marijuana," Charleston said.
Her last contact with her son was in March during an agitated phone call. He wasn't making sense, so she told him to get some sleep, and they would talk more in the morning, Charleston said. They didn't.
Later, she saw an email from Howland in which he said he was going out of his mind but that he loved her and the rest of his family. In the following days, Charleston tried to contact Howland several times but received no response, so she called a friend of Howland's to do a wellness check.
It was then that Howland's friend discovered his abandoned home with dozens of nitrous oxide tanks strewn about. Charleston called Howland's father, who resides in Michigan, to check the house as well, and he sent photos of the scene to her. They filed a missing person report, and Charleston drove up with her daughter to help in the search.
"I walked in the house, and the pictures didn't do it justice," Charleston said. "Just those nitrous tanks all over the place."
A missing persons case report from the St. Clair County Sheriff's Office described Howland's home as "in a state of disarray" with his front door ajar and a "multitude of nitrous oxide canisters on the living room floor consistent with a person addicted to huffing nitrous oxide."
Authorities couldn't locate Howland's phone because it was turned off, according to the case report. They put out a statewide lookout order for Howland and his truck. But after more than a month of searching, they told Charleston they had to scale back their efforts.
'Empty canisters on neighborhood streets'
The "tanks" found in Howland's home were nitrogen dioxide chargers typically used for whipped cream. They come in a variety of sizes from 8g canisters to 580g tanks. The chargers found in Howland's home were from a company called Goo Sticks, which sells the cream dispensers on Amazon. According to the product description, they're "filled with 8 grams 100% pure culinary-grade nitrous oxide" to "create fresh and delectable whipped cream on top of favorite recipes."
But while the product, which is listed in a variety of flavors, boasts of enabling buyers to make whipped cream "much easier at home," customers' comments and reviews show how the chargers are likely being used beyond their advertised purpose.
"This is good nitrous but I got the mango flavored one and I would never know it if they didn't put a pic of it on the can. Tastes like air to me," one customer shared before adding, "after about 5 balloons it started tasting like delicious mangos."
Goo Sticks did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
Nitrous oxide chargers, or whipped cream chargers, were recently restricted to shoppers ages 21 and up in New York state in an attempt to keep teenagers from getting high from them, Insider previously reported. The state lawmaker who sponsored the legislation said it came after "complaints about empty canisters on neighborhood streets," which he said were "indicative of a significant nitrous oxide abuse problem."
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, "because intoxication lasts only a few minutes, users try to prolong the high by continuing to inhale repeatedly over the course of several hours, which is a very dangerous practice" that can lead to loss of consciousness or death.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that about 100-200 people die per year in the US due to inhalant abuse. Doctors from the UK have issued warnings about the rising prevalence of spinal cord and nerve damage associated with nitrous oxide use as almost 9% of young adults in England and Wales reported taking nitrous oxide in 2019-2020.
'I want nitrous off the market'On May 11, two months after her last phone call with her son, Charleston was informed that authorities found Howland's body in his truck in a parking lot in New Baltimore, about 45 minutes from his house in Clyde Township. Police determined he died by suicide on the night of his disappearance in March.
Charleston said her son's addiction to nitrous oxide became so severe that it drove him to suicide.
"Rob had ordered a lot of the stuff off of Amazon, and off of the manufacturer website, you can order as much as you want and have it shipped right to your house. There's no age limit. Anybody can get their hands on it," she told Insider.
Charleston, who started a Facebook group called Moms Against Nitrous Oxide, said she has made calls to state and national lawmakers petitioning for stricter nitrous oxide regulations.
"I want nitrous off the market, and if it can't be off the market, then I want regulations. And if it can't be regulated, then I want a warning label that this stuff could cause death," Charleston said. "I'm just so desperate to get the stuff off the market and to protect families from having to go through 63 days of hell only to find out their loved one died the night that they went missing."
When he was going back to school, Howland wanted to study psychiatry and help other veterans struggling with addiction and mental illness. Charleston said it is now her job to "make a change" in the regulations of nitrous oxide and carry his mission onward that way.
"I believe that this is my next steps in what I'm supposed to do, and I'm supposed to pursue this in order to honor Rob," Charleston said. "I have to honor him, and otherwise his death will just be in vain, and I can't let that happen."
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