Buzzing from a concoction of prescription meds and too many Coors Lights, Doug McKown rumbled down Interstate 85 toward Atlanta.
"Why do I have to lose everything?" he wondered that night in mid-2006.
A psychiatrist had prescribed the pills for McKown when he couldn't sleep or eat after he had been arrested on drug charges that May.
He planned to confront his former girlfriend, Erin Jenkins, who made the drug deal that led to felony charges against McKown. He had driven Jenkins to the scene of the sale and police had found cocaine in his house. She claimed in court that McKown helped her make the deal.
As an elected official, York County's coroner for nearly a dozen years, McKown's job was in peril, and he could face up to 25 years in prison.
Nevertheless, by his own admission, he was hammered and on the road.
McKown never made it to Atlanta that night. Somewhere around Greenville, he threw up on himself and pulled onto an exit. He called his buddies, who came to bring him home.
"Chicken," one said, using McKown's childhood nickname. "You can let this kill you. Or you can stop feeling sorry for yourself and pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start living again."
"I was fine after that," McKown recalls now, two years later and, he says, a long way from the despondent man mired in self pity and his own vomit that night.
McKown, 39, has different problems these days. He was acquitted of the cocaine charges during a May trial but was convicted of unlawfully possessing a half-pill of Viagra. The judge sentenced him to a year of probation.
The misdemeanor conviction couldn't keep McKown out of public office -- it takes a felony conviction to disqualify an elected official -- and in June he told York County he was coming back to the coroner's job, from which Gov. Mark Sanford had suspended him two years earlier.
His return was short-lived. On July 17, McKown was arrested again, this time in North Carolina, on charges of drinking while driving and an open container violation. The next day, he was arrested in York County, accused of violating his probation.
McKown resigned and his last day as coroner was Aug. 13.
A tough sell
Since last month, McKown has been staying in his parents' lakefront home, serving 30 days of house arrest with a monitoring bracelet bound to his ankle, punishment for violating probation.
He was allowed to go to North Carolina for a court appearance about his charges there. He asked the judge to postpone his hearing until after his probation ends, claiming he could be arrested in South Carolina if he pleads guilty to any charges. The judge said no.
He's spent his time at home, talking to lawyers, in between building his MySpace page and watching cooking shows or CNN on TV.
He set up a cookout for his friends -- guys he's known since high school, with nicknames like "Billy-Billy," "Nealio" and "Short Bus."
They call McKown "Chicken" because, as a kid, someone saw him with barbecue sauce all over himself.
But McKown's friends are ticked at him. Some testified at his trial in May, putting their jobs and reputations on the line for a guy who police said was dealing cocaine from his house. McKown said he wasn't guilty, and they believed him. They rejoiced with him after he was acquitted.
Then came his latest run-in with the law in July. He says he drove his county vehicle to North Carolina to pick up a friend who'd had too much to drink and needed a ride home. He said he didn't know his friend was drinking beer inside the SUV until an officer pulled him over.
For his buddies, that's a tough sell.
"I don't believe none of that," said Billy Bolin, who met McKown as a student at York Comprehensive High School. "I just told him right up front. I said, 'Doug, you can make all the excuses in the world. And tell anybody anything. ... You're gonna have to prove yourself.'"
But McKown's friends did go to his cookout, talking to him about his future. At nearly 40 years old, they say, Doug needs to grow up.
"You're gonna to have to do something that you have never done in your entire life, and that's build a resume and go out and look for a job," Bolin told him. "Sooner or later, you're gonna get off of this house arrest and you're gonna have to get your life back in order."
'He was a good kid'
McKown never thought he would end up like this.
The youngest of four sons, he was born in Rhode Island, several years before his father retired from the Navy and returned to York County. His dad used the G.I. Bill to study electrical engineering and worked at the Catawba Nuclear Station for more than two decades.
In high school, McKown was popular, the kind of guy who talked to everyone.
"He would have no problem speaking with the president or speaking with a man out on the street," said his brother, Ken McKown, who lives in York. "The same person would be in each situation. (He) wouldn't be overly impressed by the president, or overly put out by the person on the street."
As a teen, Doug McKown was big for his age, and when football coach Bill Pate moved to York in 1983, he thought the hefty freshman had the potential to be a good offensive lineman.
"He was a good kid," Pate said. "He needed to be a little more aggressive as a player, but he did all right."
In McKown's senior year, the football team won the state championship. And 30 days after his graduation in 1987, he was in basic training for the U.S. Navy.
"I told my parents I'd probably end up wasting their money if I went to college," McKown said. "Certainly, I never failed a grade or flunked out. But I wasn't a Rhodes scholar either."
One thing that interested him was death investigations. Ken McKown remembers being home from college one winter and studying at the library. Doug tagged along. As Ken was reading, Doug brought over a book about forensics to show him.
"I'm like, what in the world?" Ken said. "But, I mean, it's something he's got an interest in."
Doug McKown was in the Navy for four years, including service during the first Gulf War. A day after his discharge, he started working at a funeral home in York.
Getting started in politics
McKown struggles to explain why he always has worked around death. He's found explaining the tragic to be a natural instinct. Tell people you're sorry. Don't say you know how they feel because you don't know. Just be there.
"It's like somebody being called to the ministry, almost," he said. "It just clicked."
He went to Gupton-Jones College of Mortuary Science near Atlanta and earned an associate's degree. In 1994, he became a licensed funeral director. Also that year, when former York County coroner Jim Chapman resigned amid a dispute with the County Council over his budget and office hours, McKown decided he wanted the job.
He called a friend, then-clerk of court Rod Benfield, a well-connected Republican, and told him he was interested. Several people wanted the position, but Benfield thought McKown was the most qualified.
With his funeral background and military service, McKown seemed like a man who could help build grassroots Republican leadership in York County. Benfield asked then-Gov. Carroll Campbell to tap the young funeral director for the post.
The irony was that McKown knew nothing about politics. As he pursued the office, he asked his father to explain the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
Campbell appointed McKown to the position in December 1994. At 26, he became the youngest coroner in the state.
"Once upon a time, when we first supported him and elected him, he was a fine young man," said John Hunter, a longtime York County Republican. "Like you and me and all of us, sometimes we get in with the wrong crowd and begin to do little things. And the first thing we know, then big things. That's kind of the way the devil gets into people."
Modernizing the office
McKown's first staff consisted of himself and a secretary. The job paid $32,000 a year. He lobbied the county for more help and built an office of several investigators.
He worked high-profile cases. He remembers when Jimmy Robertson brutally murdered his parents at their home on Westminster Drive in Rock Hill. Robertson stabbed his mother, a former teacher, to death, and he used a bat and claw hammer to kill his father, a Springs Industries executive.
And he was stunned when he got the page about the bodies of Jose "Denis" Meza, his wife, Marbely, and their three children being discovered inside the family's burned Lakewood Acres home. The children had been drugged and their throats were slit; the 14-year-old daughter had been sexually assaulted. He recalls it as the most horrific case he ever worked.
Outside the county, McKown distinguished himself as a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams. He helped identify the dead after disasters such as Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He modernized the coroner's office, becoming the first coroner in the state to earn a national certification for death investigations.
But he struggled with the political side of the job and sometimes butted heads with local law enforcement.
Former Solicitor Tommy Pope recalls disputes between McKown and police about who controlled a death scene. His cozy relationship with the media caused concern, too.
"There was a perception among law enforcement that Doug was telling way too much way too soon," Pope said.
McKown maintains that he never said anything that hindered an investigation. He thinks some police got mad because he beat them to the microphone.
"I said things that police wished they could have released," he said. "Like it or not, that's a constant battle in policing."
Some local Republican Party members disapproved of McKown's lifestyle. McKown says he enjoyed the bar scene, swilling beers and chasing women, and stories of his partying made their way to officials' ears.
Pope recalls several conversations with McKown about his misadventures. He tried to offer some friendly advice.
"Man, you need to watch out; you need to be smart," Pope said he told McKown. "We're held to a higher standard."
Despite what Pope says he and others told McKown, he wouldn't change.
"Doug's hard-headed," Pope said. "The problem was, you would tell him and he would be so appreciative. Then, he'd go right back out and do the same thing. ... He wouldn't listen."
McKown saw such efforts as an attempt to make him something he wasn't.
"I'm proudest of not succumbing to the push by people to be so political," he said. "I just couldn't do that and I refused to do it. That probably hurt me a little bit down the line."
Pope thinks one reason for McKown's downfall is that he let his sense of self-worth outweigh his sense of duty.
"At some point, Doug started believing what the media was saying about him," he said. "He started thinking maybe he was the messiah of coroners. And he started buying into that. And he just spun out of control."
After McKown was arrested in May 2006, his friends were stunned, irritated.
"Not in my entire life have I ever seen Doug do an illegal drug in front of me," Bolin said. "Because he don't do that around us. He knows that we're critical of those types of things."
'He's got to grow up'
Although they were friends in high school, Bolin didn't hang out with McKown much after graduation. That changed after Bolin's divorce in 2005. Many of the guys in McKown's group were at the same point in their lives: divorced, with free time for cookouts, charity fundraisers and trips to bike rallies.
They took elaborate vacations, including a 2006 trip to Costa Rica, where the Viagra was purchased that was later found in McKown's home.
After McKown's arrest, his friends railed on him. They said things like, "Chicken, we'll come visit you in jail." And when a waitress would ask McKown if he wanted a straw at a restaurant, someone would chime in: "Don't give him a straw. That boy's got a cocaine habit."
McKown said the joking helped him get through the two years before his trial. He also depended on his family.
His parents, married nearly 50 years, are well known in the community. Both are deacons at the First Baptist Church in York. His father is in the Lions Club. They've always supported their youngest son, despite the allegations. They helped him pay for his massive legal bills, and his mother gave him clippings of Christian newspaper stories because she thought they applied to his life.
"I've never said that he's perfect," brother Ken McKown said. "He's not a drug dealer. He's not someone trying to do anything that would hurt anyone else. And I believe that. Now, are there some things that he does that I'm like, 'What in the world were you doing?' ... Yeah."
Other friends also wonder about Doug McKown.
"He's got to grow up," said Pate, his former football coach, who attended every day of McKown's May trial. "That's what I told him last time. ... And he had that last trial. And he's lucky to get out of that like he did."
But his family and friends keep hoping that he'll come around.
"I believe that he'll come out on the other side of it," Ken McKown said. "Could he be a whole lot better off if none of this had happened? Certainly he could. But I believe he'll be all right. ... He will be better for it."
'Still a big kid'
Doug McKown gets his ankle bracelet, which monitors his actions while he's on house arrest, removed on Monday.
"Right now, I'm like an 18-year-old graduating from high school," he said. "Got a lifetime of experience, but I'm starting broke and starting with the clothes in my closet."
He talks about opening a pet cremation business. This week, he has a job interview in Charlotte, one he hopes will go better than other efforts. Work hasn't come easily since he resigned. He's talked to some employers, but they're not interested in a guy with so much baggage.
"The perception for a large majority of the people is gonna be, I'm the coroner who got in trouble," he said. "You can't go back and undo all the things that were said. You can't make right what was done wrong. An acquittal just doesn't do it anymore. ... A lotta people out there think O.J. Simpson's guilty."
McKown realizes he must mature. But will he?
"I know I've got to make some wholesale changes in my life," he said. "I need to be more responsible. But, you know, I mean, I'm still a big kid."
Age: 39; born Dec. 21, 1968, in Rhode Island
Family: Divorced and single; has two older brothers
Education: Graduated from York Comprehensive High School and Gupton-Jones College of Mortuary Science
Political experience: Served nearly 14 years as York County coroner before leaving office in August
Scandal: He was accused of dealing cocaine and was suspended from office by Gov. Mark Sanford after he was indicted in July 2006. He was acquitted of the felony charges in May, although he was convicted of having a half-pill of Viagra in his home without a prescription. He has appealed the conviction. The verdict wasn't enough to keep him out of office, and he returned to the coroner's post. He resigned after he was arrested in North Carolina on charges of driving while drinking and having an open container of beer in his vehicle. That case has been postponed until next month.