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It’s never a good idea to poke a mother bear with a stick

On April 27, 2010, I got the worst phone call of my life. I was told that my 18 year old son, Henry had been rushed to the Emergency Room of a local hospital in very bad shape. And that was an understatement.

When I arrived at the ER that day, along with Henry’s father and the rest of our family, the doctors immediately told us that Henry had been badly beaten in the head and chest, and that he was also suffering from serious aspiration pneumonia, as well as hypoxic brain injury due to a prolonged lack of oxygen.

The pneumonia and hypoxia had followed a drug overdose, after which Henry did not receive medical care for a significant period of time. As for the physical trauma, we weren’t entirely sure WHAT had happened on that first day. The doctors told us right there in the ER that any ONE of these things could kill Henry.

And they were right. He died. After five weeks in the hospital, during which I left his side as little as possible, my sweet firstborn son died. My child died, nestled in a hospital bed between his Daddy and me.

In the five weeks Henry lived in the hospital, he awoke, made some progress, and regained speech for several weeks before slipping back into a coma before his death. During those weeks, he bravely managed to provide some preliminary information to me, and to other family members regarding what had happened to him. What he told us was horrific. Terrifying. During those first weeks, some of his friends also provided us with the beginnings of other leads into how this might have happened.

Our family was well aware that Henry had been struggling with a serious drug problem, so the risk of an overdose was something that all of us who loved him had worried about every minute of every day. But how had he ended up beaten all to hell when he was brought into the ER? What had led to what had obviously been a significant delay in calling for help when he’d apparently never been alone in the 17 hours before his ER admission? And who were these two adults – unknown to anyone in our family or to any of Henry’s friends –  in whose remote residence he’d been found by paramedics, two adults whose stories about how they knew Henry, and why he was in their home in the first place made absolutely no sense? What did these odd text messages on his cell phone mean? When had he taken the drugs that had led to the overdose, and who sold or gave them to him? Were these people still out there dealing? Could they possibly hurt someone else’s at-risk teenager?

I, along with the rest of Henry’s family, had every expectation that local law enforcement would find the answers to these questions. In fact, a criminal case was opened by our county’s Sheriff’s Department within the first hour Henry was in the ER. But in the five weeks Henry lived, no one from law enforcement ever interviewed him, or us. In fact, to this day, no one from the local Sheriff’s Department has ever met with or interviewed any member of our family, despite repeated requests.

When Henry died after five weeks of hospitalization, during which we simply could not get anyone from law enforcement to come speak with him or with us, I started asking some questions of those whom I had previously assumed would be the ones asking the questions of Henry, of us, and of those who might know how this had happened.  And the whole “pesky mom-blogger asking annoying questions” thing  didn’t go over so well with the public officials who had jurisdiction to investigate and – if appropriate – bring charges against  any wrongdoers who might still be out there peddling to other teenagers like Henry, young people in our community made vulnerable by drug addiction, mental illness or other risk factors.

But I kept asking questions anyway – politely at first, but insistently. And from the beginning, the answers I was getting from law enforcement and the DA’s office didn’t make sense.  They were vague and in some cases, kind of absurd, such as when the Sheriff’s Deputy assigned to Henry’s case told his father by phone that the couple in whose residence Henry had been found couldn’t possibly be involved in drug dealing because their home and vehicle weren’t very nice. (???)  Additionally, even when I could get any information out of these agencies, the attitude of their employees was bizarrely, inappropriately hostile toward me. I began to realize that something wasn’t right.

Henry died on May 31. By August 20, those public servants from whom I was attempting to get answers – or in the case of the Sheriff’s Department, even a return phone call – were apparently already so fed up with me that an assistant DA sent my attorney at the time an email stating that he should “tell Ms. Katie to shut-up,” and further, that, “someone should tell her to focus on the remaining children she still has at home I imagine they are pretty weary of Henry’s issues at this point.”

In addition to being cruel, unethical and biased, the assistant DA’s written words in that August 20, 2010 email really only served to accomplish the opposite of what she likely intended. Because, you see, here’s the thing. You really don’t want to tell a mama who has recently held her child in her arms as he died, and who legitimately believes that there are serious, important unanswered questions about the circumstances that led to her son’s death to “shut up.” That’s just not a good idea.

In fact, it’s kind of like if that same assistant DA had been – instead of sitting in her office that day sending emails – out hiking in the Smoky Mountains near our shared hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, and while hiking, she had happened upon a mother bear with her cubs – an ANNOYING  mother bear, who was blocking the trail – and so the assistant DA-slash-hiker decided to get the mother bear out of her way by finding a sharp stick and poking at the annoying mammal in her path.

Ummm. Yeah. Not really a good idea.

Once it became clear to me that the story that I, along with the public in our community, was being given by local authorities regarding what had happened to my son simply did not add up – not even a little bit – I began what over the next year ended up becoming the most challenging, exhausting, painful thing I’ve ever done. In fact, if I’d known how tough this would be in the beginning, I don’t know if I would have been able to keep plodding ahead, day after day.

I have spent the last 15 months working harder than I’ve ever worked at anything in my life at what has amounted to another full time job. I have spent countless overnights doing legal research. I have sat outside pill mills and methadone clinics at 5 am in the morning with my camera. I have knocked on door after door in “bad” neighborhoods of our small southern city, asking questions. I have become an unlikely expert on how kids in our community are acquiring and using the pills that are killing them. I have pored through court and property records. I have filed countless open records requests. I have interviewed dozens of local 18-23 year olds who knew things no one had bothered to ask them. I have lobbied every public official and law enforcement professional who would listen, trying to get someone to at least look at the information I’d pulled together.  And eventually, someone in law enforcement DID listen to me, and look objectively at the documentation I’d collected.

Last week, on September 20, 2011, three adults in our community were indicted by a grand jury and charged with multiple felony drug dealing charges – very, very serious charges.  All three of these individuals had previously been interviewed by the office of our local DA and Sheriff in their own investigation into the circumstances of my son’s death and into drug activity taking place in our community, and not one of these folks had been charged with anything when those two agencies very publicly closed their own case with no arrests two months ago.

One of the accused drug dealers arrested last week was the mother of my son’s teenage girlfriend at the time he died.  It was through his girlfriend’s family that my son met the other two of those indicted and charged last week, the middle-aged couple in whose residence my teenager spent the last 17 hours of his life before paramedics transported him to the hospital to die.

There are many, many things I am prevented from saying yet about last week’s arrests, and about how the investigation and indictments came to pass. And very appropriately, there are many things I won’t ever know about the case development, because once the law enforcement heroes who finally made this happen began to do their work, they did it discreetly and with total integrity. And let me be clear that I hope and expect that the suspects arrested last week will be offered all of the fairness and objectivity that our justice system requires as their cases move forward.

But while there are some things I don’t know, and many things I can’t yet discuss, I do know for certain what role my own pesky persistence played. And some day, I will be able to share that story. I look forward to being able to do that when the time comes – not because I want any high fives (and trust me, most of the comments on this blog post will NOT be congratulatory) – but because I want other women out there who are told to sit down and be quiet  - whether that’s literally, like I was, or more figuratively – to know that they don’t have to do that. So yes, I will have more to say about all of this when it’s appropriate.

For now, though, I can and want to say this: it’s pretty much not ever a good idea for someone in taxpayer-funded authority to tell a grieving mother to “shut up” when she starts asking annoying questions about criminal activity that she believes led to the death of her child, and which is almost certainly still taking place. In fact, saying that to a mother is really a very, very bad idea.

Thanks more than I have words to express to every single one of you who never stopped believing that what I was doing mattered, and who supported me along the way in all the many different ways I was supported.

Love,

Henry Granju’s super-annoying, pesky, irritating, pain-in-the-ass, won’t shut up OR sit down, blogging mama

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