For months after Henry was admitted to the hospital on April 27th of this year, I continued to somewhat naively trust that a thorough and honest investigation into what happened to him (both the assault and the overdose) was taking place or would take place. I had never in my life had any reason to doubt the integrity or professionalism of our local criminal justice system. Plus, a police officer came to the hospital that first day and PROMISED me, as we both looked at Henry’s black eyes, bruised chest, blood running from his ears and the life support to which he was hooked up – that I could count on him and his colleagues to find out who had done this to my child, and to pursue justice.
However, there were warning signs right away – while Henry was hospitalized – that this sort of vigorous investigation wasn’t actually happening. The assault piece was being treated as nothing more than a uninteresting disagreement among worthless druggies, with Henry unfortunately coming up on the losing end. As for the drug overdose piece (the cause of the hypoxic brain injury), we couldn’t seem to get ANYONE in authority interested in that element of how Henry had come to be injured so badly. They seemed unable to understand our position that Henry’s hypoxic brain INJURY constituted the same kind of injury caused when someone strangles the victim nearly to death, and that it should be investigated that way. Instead, we were basically told that the position of local law enforcement and prosecutors is that the only person ultimately responsible for a drug overdose is the person who has suffered the overdose. The involvement of others seemed to be irrelevant as a matter of criminal inquiry.
We also had trouble getting anyone on the phone. When I did manage to sometimes get the investigator on the phone, he was dismissive and short. He seemed continually irritated with me, like I was bugging him by trying to call him with new information that I thought he needed. I found myself starting every one of the 5-10 actual phone conversations I managed to have with him with an apology: “I am so sorry for bothering you; I know you have a really busy schedule and such a stressful job, but could I get five minutes to share some new information with you? Thank you SO much for your hard work on my son’s case. Our whole family appreciates it SO much, Detective.” And so on. (Subtext: “Please, Mr. Detective, please like me enough and take enough pity on me to do everything you are capable of doing to find the people who hurt my boy, and to see that they are prosecuted. Pretty please?”)
But the whole time Henry was hospitalized – 38 days total – no one in law enforcement ever interviewed me, Henry’s father or anyone else in our family to determine whether we knew anything that could prove helpful. No one interviewed Henry, to the degree he was able to speak (which grew worse and worse as the month wore on). In fact, no one from law enforcement ever laid eyes on my son, except for the day he was admitted to the ER, when that nice officer comforted me, and the day of his autopsy, when I am told that a representative of KCSO observed the Medical Examiner in her work. But they never SAW him.
Slowly, during Henry’s 38 day hospitalization, during those weeks when we all thought that we were simply dealing with an assault case and maybe a drug dealing bust (directed at the dealers who provided the drugs to Henry on which he’d overdosed), I began to speak up a little bit here on my blog, expressing frustration in relatively mild ways about some specific issues with the way this was being handled. I had no idea that things would go from bad to worse when the issues of assault and drug dealing became a potential homicide investigation following Henry’s death on May 31.
On the day after Henry died, the officer investigating the case told Henry’s father in the final phone conversation we ever had with him (we’ve never met him in person) that he had finished a very thorough investigation, and that unfortunately, no prosecutable crimes had been committed against our dead son. He told us that the people in whose home Henry lay dying when paramedics arrived were “good samaritans” trying to help our son. We were stunned, but in such grief and shock that we were in no position to push back on this. Then, on the day before Henry’s funeral, the Knox County Sheriff said the same thing plus more directly to the local newspaper. In this rather unprecedented interview in which the Sheriff himself discussed specific details of what was supposed to be an ongoing investigation into a death that had taken place only a few days previously, he essentially wrote the case off as over and done with.
At that point, in the few days before the memorial service, I “spoke up” here on my blog a little more loudly, asking that others in the community who shared my concern contact the Sheriff’s Office and respectfully request that Henry’s case be pursued vigorously and professionally, rather than dismissed only a few days following his death. What had ostensibly been an assault and drugs investigation now needed to become a homicide investigation, and I could not understand how the Sheriff could declare that they essentially already knew everything that needed to be known about how Henry ended up with a fatal hypoxic brain injury only a few days after he died.
I have no idea if even that minor act of speaking up encouraged the authorities to keep Henry’s case open (which seemed pretty unlikely after the Sheriff specifically told the media the week of Henry’s death that no crime had been committed), but I think maybe it did. Or maybe KCSO and the DA’s office were truly doing the right thing without any regard for anything I said or didn’t say. I have no idea. Whatever the reason, however, I was grateful that even after the Sheriff’s explicit comments to the newspaper declaring the investigation pretty much wrapped up, we were told by the DA’s office that the case was still being actively investigated. I believed this, and I sat back and waited.
In about August, after a specific interaction with an individual in the DA’s office, it became clear to me that Henry’s case was at that point considered a non-starter. This conversation revealed very clearly to our family that the DA’s office felt that they had essentially been indulging in my delusional belief that prosecutable crimes had been committed, but they were really losing patience with my unrealistic and irritating expectations of them. I was told that I should feel grateful that so much effort had been expended on my son’s case, because generally, overdose deaths are never even investigated as potential crimes in Knox County. I found this astounding. Furthermore, Henry’s father and I were informed that it was HIGHLY unlikely that there would ever be arrests in the assault or overdose. Basically, I was told to let this go and move on, to accept the professionals’ pronouncement that this simply wasn’t the kind of case in which charges are pursued in Knox County, Tennessee.
BE QUIET, they said. SIT DOWN.
That’s when my mothering instinct kicked into high gear. I realized that nobody else was going to take care of my child but me, and that I needed to move beyond verbal and written advocacy CALLING for more investigation, and start doing more actual investigation myself. Then I figured I could present anything noteworthy that I might dig up back to the professionals in law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office so they could do their jobs properly.
EVERYONE told me this was a terrible idea. I was warned – directly and indirectly – that if I tried on my own to track down witnesses, information or other material related to what happened to my son between April 25 and April 27, that I would get nowhere and cause problems for myself. I was told quite clearly by at least one person in authority that my own efforts to investigate what no one else seemed to be investigating would constitute “harassment” of those I contacted, and would only result in encouraging potential witnesses to “lawyer up.”
However, this has not been my experience. And since no one else was even trying to talk to many of these people, I figured I would at least give it a go. After all, I had already been told that this was not a case that was going anywhere.
In the last three months, I’ve knocked on dozens of doors in “bad” neighborhoods at all hours, introducing myself and asking what people can tell me about the circumstances of my son’s beating and overdose. I’ve combed through phone records, matching numbers to people, and to physical addresses. I’ve followed rabbit trails on Facebook, linking person to person to person until I finally located the one individual I needed to talk with. I’ve become an amateur expert in case law related to homicide by controlled substance, and to negligent homicide. I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing a CAT Scan of an “uncomplicated” hypoxic brain injury from one that indicates the rare complication that Henry suffered, called Delayed Post Hypoxic Leukoencephalopathy. I can now tell you exactly what “Battle’s Sign” means in someone who has suffered an assault. I have spoken with several progressive prosecutors in other jurisdictions around the country who have begun proactively treating overdose deaths as potential crimes, and who now pursue homicide charges in cases where a fatal overdose can be linked to drugs provided by a specific person. These prosecutors tell me that they were so disturbed by the epidemic of “accidental” overdose deaths in their own communities that they decided to try a new approach and apply the laws already on the books to these deaths by drug dealing. I have also spoken to and been inspired by other parents in other states who have had to work very hard to finally see charges brought in their own children’s overdose deaths. I have driven to every location Henry is known to have been in the last 48 hours before he ended up in the ICU, and walked around, seeing for myself what might be there, and talking to the people who live nearby.
And what I’ve found is this: people are generally very willing to do what they can to support a full investigation with the potential to bring criminal prosecutions in my son’s death. They are willing to tell me what they know, point me to corroborating evidence that supports what they’ve told me, and suggest other folks with whom I should speak. They’ve shared phone records with me, and allowed me into their homes. They’ve hugged me. Even some people who are or were themselves involved in the same illegal, drug abusing activities as Henry was have opened up to me; the fact that they are drug addicts doesn’t necessarily mean that they are okay with the fact that a teenage boy was murdered, with no consequences for those responsible. Thus, even if they are frightened, I’ve found that other people involved in Knoxville’s community of addicts – and there is one – are often willing to share information that they think might help. Even when talking about what they know is scary, or could open them up to scrutiny from law enforcement themselves, many of these people have stepped up to do the right thing and talk to me. They tell me they don’t understand why no one from law enforcement has contacted them.
And then there are the honest, law abiding residents of our community who are Not Okay with being used as unwitting alibis for specific elements of an investigation that never really took place as described. These good people have also stepped up, because they are very troubled by how this has played out. They know that if one teenage boy’s death can be dismissed just because he was – as one person in authority and involved with the case repeatedly described Henry to his father and me in a recent meeting – “an unattractive victim,” – that the same thing could happen to someone they love. To their own teenager. And that’s not acceptable to most people in this community I’ve come to call home in the past two decades.
Specifically, today, I want to say thank you to the two incredibly kind people who allowed me into their home last night to speak with them about what they saw and heard in their neighborhood on April 25th, and in the weeks and months following. You both know who you are, and I just want to say thank you for opening your front door to this grieving mom, a total stranger to you, standing on your front porch after dark in the freezing cold, clutching a legal pad. I’m sure I looked kind of questionable, but you opened your door to me anway. Thank you for inviting me in. Thank you for listening, and thank you for being willing to speak up. Y’all are the Knoxville I know and love.
People are good, mostly. All kinds of people. It turns out that if offered the chance to share information that could help, very few people are willing to stand by and see a teenage boy die at the hands of others, without doing what they can to seek justice. All it takes is giving these people a CHANCE to tell what they know. It’s often as simple as asking. Often, they have never been asked.
This journey has shown me this very clearly – that most people are good. My hope is that all these good people, willing to speak up and tell the truth will lead to arrests of the NOT so good people who hurt Henry, and who will hurt someone else’s beloved child unless they are held accountable.
It’s now been six months since Henry’s death. It’s been seven months since the day my teenage son was found by paramedics at 11:30 am on a weekday, near death inside the residence of two much older adults with criminal records, neither of whom could reasonably explain how this boy they claimed to have only met the night before ended up unconscious, blue, and bleeding inside their home.
This blog post represents the most explicit discussion I’ve ever given publicly about the criminal investigation into my son’s death, and really, if you parse it out, I really haven’t given many specific details at all – just a general narrative of how it’s played out so far from my point of view. No real details about the facts of the case. But as my confidence that any arrests will be made wanes with every passing month, I am increasingly unwilling to remain as silent as I have just because I have been made to understand by some in authority that unless I “keep my mouth shut and focus on the kids I still have left” (a verbatim quote directed at me by one individual in authority involved with Henry’s case), I will anger those with the power to pursue justice for my son, making them less likely to keep the case alive at all.
Looking back over the past seven months, I remember vividly the day Henry’s father and I stood shellshocked in the waiting room at the UT Medical Center ER, hearing from the police officer who came to talk with us there that we could rest assured that the people who had beaten our son, and also those involved in the overdose would be brought to justice. That officer told me – I remember specifically – that I could focus on my son’s recovery because he and his colleagues would be focused on getting to the bottom of how a Knox County teenager had ended up black and blue and on life support at noontime on a weekday. The officer even gave me a hug, and told me he would be praying for Henry. I trusted him, and I still want to trust that what he told me was true – that the authorities will ultimately do the right thing in Henry’s case.
After a meeting a few weeks ago with a Knox County prosecutor in which Henry’s father, Uncle and I literally pleaded that the case be kept open at least until we had the chance to share all of the information and interviews I’ve gathered myself with his office, I am VERY grateful that the Knox County DA did indeed decide just two weeks or so ago to keep Henry’s case open for now. Thank you, Mr. Nichols. I truly appreciate this. And I have also seen some evidence in the past week that some new law enforcement activity may be taking place around Henry’s case. I am praying that I am correct in this. Both of these developments keep my hope alive, and prop up my lagging faith in a system that before April 27th, 2010, I would have told you that I believed worked pretty well for most people most of the time.
But the whole staying silent, and staying completely out of the way thing? I’m kind of finding myself done with that. The experience of keeping my mouth mostly shut (despite some public perception otherwise) has been for me a bit like that saying about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; I’ve been doing that for seven months.
Even for someone who is fairly confident and outgoing, and even though the person for whom I am advocating is my own child (which makes mothers feel almost superhumanly ready to take on anything or anyone), the decision to start speaking up more forcefully than I have so far, and referencing more actual facts rather than being vague as I have been when discussing the case is a tough call. One reason it’s tough to speak up is that I am a person who likes everyone to like me, and I know that the more I speak up, the more it makes some of those who are the subject of my explicit or implied criticism NOT like me. That’s hard. It’s hard to be a woman in this culture who is perceived to be pushy or loud or unwilling to go along to get along. Speaking up is scary, especially when the topic is as important as a child’s death at someone else’s hands. If you doubt me, just ask my hero, Joan Berry
But I think that continuing to remain silent to the degree I have been up until now is even harder than speaking up would be. Because I am tired of reading erronious facts in the newspaper (LET ME BE CLEAR: this factually inaccurate info was provided to the media by individuals working on Henry’s case, and it was published in good faith by the media; I am NOT blaming the media here, at all), and feeling that I cannot offer specific, factual rebuttals. I am tired of feeling like if I am not a good, quiet, well-behaved grieving mother, the people who hold all the power here will “punish” me by ignoring Henry’s case even more than they have. I am tired of reading about case after case after case after case in other jurisdictions all over the country in which drug dealers are charged with some version of homicide by controlled substance – a crime that is clearly and specifically ALREADY INCLUDED IN TENNESSEE’S SECOND DEGREE MURDER STATUTE – while the idea of such a prosecution is treated as crazytalk by a slightly deranged grieving mother when I have suggested it to authorities (and by the way, although these controlled substance homicide cases are indeed tough for investigators and prosecutors to bring and win, the specific facts of Henry’s case actually make it an exceptionally strong case of this type, if only some passionate local prosecutor were willing to go for it).
Never has anything tested my stamina and mettle like this experience of trying to get justice for my son since his death. It has made me aware of how powerful my love for my child is, even now that we are painfully separated for the rest of my time on this planet. But my work as his mother is not done, and no matter what it requires of me, I have made a vow to myself and to Henry that I will get it done. Chasing justice for my boy reminds me of one of Henry’s favorite books from childhood, one we read often together – The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown.
Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.
So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”
“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you.
For you are my little bunny.”
“If you run after me,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a fish in a trout stream
and I will swim away from you.”
“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother,
“I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”
“If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,”
said his mother, “I will become a mountain climber,
and I will climb to where you are.”
“If you become a mountain climber,”
said the little bunny,
“I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.”
“If you become a crocus in a hidden garden,”
said his mother, “I will be a gardener. And I will find you.”
“If you are a gardener and find me,”
said the little bunny, “I will be a bird
and fly away from you.”
“If you become a bird and fly away from me,”
said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”
“If you become a tree,” said the little bunny,
“I will become a little sailboat,
and I will sail away from you.”
“If you become a sailboat and sail away from me,”
said his mother, “I will become the wind
and blow you where I want you to go.”
“If you become the wind and blow me,” said the little bunny,
“I will join a circus and fly away on a flying trapeze.”
“If you go flying on a flying trapeze,” said his mother,
“I will be a tightrope walker,
and I will walk across the air to you.”
“If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,”
said the bunny, “I will become a little boy
and run into a house.”
“If you become a little boy and run into a house,”
said the mother bunny, “I will become your mother
and catch you in my arms and hug you.”
“Shucks,” said the bunny, “I might just as well
stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
And so he did.
“Have a carrot,” said the mother bunny.
Henry is my baby bunny. He was before his death, and he always will be. I am his mother bunny. And if I have to climb mountains, walk a tightrope, knock on strangers’ doors at night, or be vilified in the comment sections of my local newspaper in my quest to make sure that my son’s death is not ignored, that’s what I will do. Period.
I love you, Henry. I love you right up to the moon. And back.
PLEASE VISIT HENRY’S FUND.