Kemah Tolston

July 30, 1972 – September 21, 2018

By Colleen Cronin

A photo of Kemah Tolston.
Kemah Tolston. Courtesy of Lateashia James.

It was Kemah Tolston’s personality that drew Lateashia James to him when they first met in 2000.

He was very kind-hearted, a social butterfly, someone who’d stop and make conversation with anyone, old, young, friend or stranger.

He was very smart, she said, even though he never graduated from high school.

Kemah had the makings of a great husband, Lateashia thought. He cleaned and was handy around the house and was a great cook. Lateashia loved his fried chicken.

When they first started dating, the couple was nearly inseparable. A lifelong Rhode Islander, Kemah, who was born and raised in Woonsocket, would take her to Newport to go fishing.

“I hate fishing but love fresh fish,” Lateashia says, so Kemah would catch her something, clean it and then cook it up.

After a year of dating, they were married by a justice of the peace. Soon after, they welcomed their first child, a son they named Khali, now 17.

Life seemed to be off to a great start, a better start than Kemah himself had gotten, according to Lateashia.

Kemah had been raised alongside many of his siblings by his grandmother. There was a history of addiction on both the maternal and paternal sides of his family. Kemah, she said, “grew up on the streets,” and sometimes sold drugs in addition to using them. Along the way, he accumulated a criminal record.

From the beginning of their relationship, Kemah was open about his childhood and substance use issues, though it wasn’t always easy for him to talk about it. Lateashia was sympathetic. She worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA).

While they were together, Kemah cycled in and out of rehab for alcoholism and sometimes used drugs, including cocaine.

But he never went back to prison after the birth of his daughter, Laylah, who is now 11. However, he continued to drink throughout his life, so Lateashia isn’t sure she could ever say he was “sober.”

Still, he was a good father. Though he was open with them about his addiction, Lateashia said Kemah never used drugs or drank heavily in front of his kids.

Every year, the family, who lived in East Providence, would take a short summer vacation to Atlantic City. They loved going to the boardwalk. Kemah would take Laylah onto all the rides while Lateashia and Khali watched.

And even when they weren’t on a trip, Kemah always wanted to take family photos, even though Lateashia teased him that it made them look like tourists.

Fishing became a family activity. Kemah taught his children how to catch, gut and clean the fish, which they would fry for dinner. Fishing was an escape for Kemah and relieved his stress, Lateashia said.

Kemah had always been good with his hands and often worked as a laborer. He loved repairing boilers and a job he held at a pallet company. But in his 40s, he began to experience injuries that made work more difficult.

In 2017, he injured his rotator cuff which required surgery. Then he had to have more surgeries for a problem with a disc in his back and for an intestinal mass. He was in excruciating pain from all of these health issues and doctors prescribed opioids to help manage his pain.

Kemah could tell that he was being prescribed too much, especially since he already had a history of addiction. He’d been given Percocet but asked his doctors to decrease his dosage.

Then on Sept. 21, 2018, Lateashia found Kemah unconscious in her car parked in a lot off Broad Street in Providence. She’d gone out looking for him that morning with her aunt after he’d borrowed her car the night before and hadn't returned.

She’d had a gut feeling that he was dead, even before she found him unconscious and not breathing in the front seat, she said.

Lateashia said he probably didn’t know that the cocaine he was buying was laced with fentanyl. He likely just wanted to get high, she thinks, to lessen the physical pain and emotional stress his health issues were causing.

Before his death, Lateashia said he’d spoken with her, incredulous that drugs were being cut with fentanyl with increasing frequency. Some of his friends, he thought, had overdosed because they hadn’t known that the lethal drug was hidden in what they were buying.

Two years after his death, Lateashia is willing to talk about her husband's addiction, to warn her own children about the dangers of drugs, but also to bring awareness to anyone else who might not realize that substance use can lead to death.

“Rich people, poor people,” she said. “There are addicts in every class.”