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My Visit to the LeBaron Clan Outpost

In 1998, while I was living in Mexico, I had an encounter with the LeBaron clan, which has been in the news lately due to the massacre of family members in the state of Sonora, apparently at the hands of drug traffickers.


At the time, I was working on a story about the agricultural Valley of San Quintin, south of Ensenada in Baja California. I had noticed a highway sign – “Zarahembla” — on my bus trips up and down the valley.

Young Mormon missionaries on the bus one day spoke of it in frightened terms. The place was tainted, they said, by heresy and murder, excommunication and polygamy, and they were warned to keep away from it. Others said that was long ago; many people simply didn’t know the history. 

So one day I got off the bus at the highway sign and walked a couple miles down into the community and introduced myself to Zarahembla’s patriarch, Fernando Castro.

Castro was 82, the last apostle of the LeBarons’ annointed messiah, Joel LeBaron. Castro had six wives, 42 children and an unknown number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He told me he stopped counting at 126. 

He was a frail man, with large spectacles perched on his nose and a mustache of white whiskers curving around his mouth. He had children in Utah, Minnesota, Colorado, Phoenix, San Diego, Washington. Most of them were construction workers. Joel LeBaron had been also his son-in-law, father to Castro’s grandson — Jose Fernando LeBaron.

Castro lived isolated in the desert and entirely according to his religious beliefs. Baja California was where Oaxacan Indians, Sinaloans, lapsed Catholics were remaking themselves and forgetting their pasts. New Protestant churches along the peninsula highway, built from concrete block and slapped with white or blue or yellow paint, were signs of that rebirth.

This is what Fernando Castro did.

He told me the story of Joel LeBaron and the LeBaron clan. Suffice to say the LeBarons were polygamists in Utah who believed the oldest son, Joel, was the messiah returned to earth. The Mormon Church excommunicated them and the family and its followers fled Utah to northern Mexico. Their first outpost was in Chihuahua. But as years passed, they had Castro lead a band of followers west to colonize Baja California. They named that outpost Zarahembla – from a larger ancient city that Mormons believe once existed in the Americas.

Several years later, Joel LeBaron was murdered, in a story out of Cain and Abel, by his brother Ervil, who was jealous and believed that he was the messiah. The killing took place on a street in Ensenada in the 1970s. Without a messiah, the LeBaron utopia screeched to a halt. Castro followed his prophet’s vision and stayed at it, the faithful apostle. The bad water, the wind and murder blew away the other pilgrims and twisted Joel LeBaron’s utopia into something more like the real world, where dreams are scorned and killed. Castro lingered on over the next decades.

When I met him, he lived in a concrete block home, painted a fading yellow. Off in the distance was a grove of olive trees, stunted for lack of water. He said Joel LeBaron’s dream was to have a community free of hate and racism. Part of that dream of peace was to grow trees in the desert.

Castro was only 5’9”, still he towered over his three youngest wives, who each measured about 5 feet—quiet and sweet women who spoke Spanish with slight Indian accents and whom he met in the villages near his hometown of Atlixco in the state of Puebla. His first three wives had left the compound years before and lived in Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua, he said.

The house stood on the basin of a desert valley, a windy plain of sandy and milk-chocolate earth that covered wide streets. Roosters’ crows occasionally caromed across the valley, breaking the calm. There were cacti planted in rows, homes of concrete, with column and arcing doorways, tire carcasses and an occasional junked car.

It was the kind of desert place where families came once to stake a future; some left and their homes stood vacant and incomplete for years, good ideas that didn’t quite work out and instead become blank canvases for midnight graffitiers.

He reproached me not being married or having children. “Who will populate your planet with you when you die?” he asked. I allowed that I didn’t know and we changed the subject. I met his wives, children, grandchildren. We spoke about a lot – about Joel LeBaron’s death and other things.

He told me to visit the colony in Chihuahua, but I never did. Work took me elsewhere.

The last I saw of Fernando Castro, he was waving me goodbye as I walked back to the highway to catch a bus. I suspect he died many years ago now. But he was a nice and generous man to me.

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Guadalupe Paz & the TJ Opera Scene

For more than 15 years now, I’ve followed the way Tijuana has developed an opera scene that is one of the artistic jewels of Mexico.

One of the scene’s great products, Guadalupe Paz, a mezzosoprano, performs in Tijuana at the CECUT theater, not far from the border, on May 16.

The emergence of opera in Tijuana was a story I included in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.

It’s a bizarre tale involving the importing of an entire Russian orchestra after the end of the Cold War, and fans who acted like guerrilla warriors, fighting in DIY style to establish a beachhead for their music amid the techno, disco and ranchero.

It also involves Mercedes Quinonez, who had tried all her life to find classical voice instruction in Tijuana, only to find it too late, when she was 51. A poignant tale that I’ll never forget. (See photo below.)

Today, opera and classical music are part of the town. Growing from it all, there are today youth orchestras in some of the toughest barrios in Tijuana. (Listen to a radio story I did for LA’s radio station KCRW.)

Opera in Tijuana struck me as completely out of place with the city’s fame and reputation as a town of sin and late-night drunkenness.

But I took opera as a sign of how the town was evolving, with a middle class, an optimism, and an energy — the three of which were hard to find in combination in cities in other parts of Mexico.

That’s why I’ve spent so much time paying attention to it.

Many years ago I also did a report for NPR with my Mexico City colleague Franc Contreras about the phenomenon in Tijuana, which you can listen to here.

There’s also an annual Opera Street Festival in July that is a fantastic event, taking place 150 yards from the border wall, in Colonia Libertad, a place known more for its immigrant smugglers and the artisans who make Tijuana’s plaster Mickey Mouse statues.

Mercedes Quinonez

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The Snake River

As I travel the country, I’ve been attempting to see the major rivers of this country.

Late this past winter, I was up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, through which runs the beautiful Snake River. This was just before the snow melted.

Hope you like this video.

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Dreamland Turns Four

Four years ago today, April 15, Dreamland was released after a lot of work, interviews, travel, and endless revisions.

At the time, my family and I thought the book would fail and fade quickly because throughout my research I found people – families mostly – very reluctant to talk. This issue remained largely hidden, though I judged it to be the country’s worst drug scourge.

But those families were ashamed, mortified that loved ones were addicted, and thus they kept silent.

In the four years since Dreamland came out, I’ve been thrilled to watch awareness of the problem spread, and the response to the book grow every year more intense.

Media outlets now devote large pieces to it.

Families now speak publicly about it, instead of staying in the shadows. Their obituaries are more likely nowadays to tell the truth. That’s healthy for those families, and for the country.

Politicians have expanded budgets and enacted new policies to fight this problem.

Opiate addiction is now recognized as one of the top issues facing the country, which is where it should always have been.

When I was writing Dreamland, there were three lawsuits against drug companies. Today, there are some two thousand plaintiffs: counties, towns, Native tribes, Attorneys General, and more.

So I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have read Dreamland, who’ve passed it around, read it for book groups or in classes, gave it as gifts, pestered co-workers to read it, and talked about it endlessly.

Thanks, too, to elected officials who have used it to shape policy, doctors who’ve used the book to inform their practices, families who’ve gone public, and podcasters for sharing it.

As I’ve spoken all over this country — more than 200 times since the book came out — I’ve realized how important word-of-mouth has been.

I have cherished the chance to speak to so many kinds of groups: public health nurses, judges, drug counselors, coroners, librarians, doctors, legislators. And more.

I’ve especially loved the chance to visit small towns where I assume authors don’t often show up: Tiffin, Bluffton, Leadville, Hendersonville, Whitewater, Whitehall, Marion, Peoria, Van Wert, Springfield, Newark, York, Worchester, Jeffersonville, Chico, Morehead, Mishiwaka, Spartanburg, Simi Valley, Greensboro, Scottsburg, Chillicothe, Grosse Pointe, Ashtabula, Marysville, and others.

I want to thank all the folks who helped me with the book when they didn’t have a clue who I was. Especially the good people of Portsmouth, Ohio, where I kept on showing up to listen to stories of pill mills, of a beloved swimming pool, and finally, of recovery.

There’s still a long way to go in all this.

The numbers of deaths remain staggeringly high. Each one reflects crushed families and friends. I think a lot about them as I’m on the road. I meet them everywhere, though I often don’t know what to say, or whether what I say is of any help. So I tend to do a lot of hugging.

One crucial issue is convincing insurance companies to reimburse for pain treatment that does not involve opioid painkillers. This would allow doctors to fashion a more holistic array of treatment for chronic-pain patients, instead of just cutting them off from the pills and forcing them, cruelly, into the black market.

A Young Adult version of Dreamland will come out this summer, which I hope will allow high school teachers to guide students in understanding, discussing, and, who knows, taking action in their communities.

I’m working now on a follow up to Dreamland, which will chart the epidemic and all that’s happened surrounding it in the last several years.

All that is to come.

For now, I’m shaking my head at the long amazing trip that Dreamland has been so far, and my family and I thank all of you who read it for allowing the book to play a role in our national story and yours.

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Tattoo Removal Ink in NK

Jo Martin is a retiree from the corporate world who now removes tattoos from the skin of people for whom the inked hieroglyphics mark lives of addiction and crime they are trying to escape.

I met Martin when I was recently in Northern Kentucky.

A few years ago, with her children grown, Martin was tutoring jail inmates, most of whom were repeat offenders and long-time drug addicts. A friend told her about a priest in Los Angeles working with gang members.

Father Greg Boyle had begun Homeboy Industries, which offered paths out of gang membership, the friend said. Boyle was speaking at a university in Ohio, so Martin went to see him.

She was especially taken by Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, she told him. Every jail inmate she tutored had them, and the stains were impediments not just to them getting work and renting apartments, but in fully leaving behind a damaging way of life.

Some part of why people remained in addiction seemed to have to do with their tattoos, she said. The markings served to keep them mired in crime and drugs, pulling them back even when their intentions were good. Removing the ink, on the other hand, seemed to imply a commitment from which there was no turning back.

She emailed Boyle later to find out more. “Come to California,” he wrote back. She went, toured Homeboy Industries and saw the organization’s tattoo removal operation. 

She returned to Northern Kentucky and formed a tattoo-removal nonprofit, Tattoo Removal Ink. Using the life insurance her late husband had left her, she spent $55,000 on a laser machine – an Astanza Duality – that removes tattoos of black and red ink.

Astanza sent people to train Martin in using the machine. “Never in my life had I touched a laser,” Martin told me. “None of us knew how, but it’s very doable. To practice, we did a whole bunch of people who weren’t incarcerated, charging them nothing.”

In 2016, from a small office, Martin and two nurses began removing tattoos of those leaving the jail where she used to tutor – with particular emphasis on those on the face, neck and hands, as well as the markings of gang membership, and the tattoos pimps apply to brand their prostitutes.

Soon she began to see the bizarre – the man with a Hannibal Lecter mask tattooed across his lower face. Another with a dotted line tattooed down the middle of his face, with one side of his face clean, then other mightily tattooed.

“We take a lot of swastikas off,” she said. “And teardrops.”

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Hank Williams

Just finished his biography.

Caught between a torment of a wife and a storm of a mother, with a spinal birth defect that created lifelong pain, an alcohol habit that grew ferocious, to which he and others then added pills of all kinds, and an unmerciful road schedule that pinned him to events every night for months and ground him out like a spent cigarette.

Hard to know which of all that played the biggest part in killing him.

And still he wrote, mostly while on the road. His songs defined country music and spoke simply to folks. He took their titles often from conversations. “You’re gonna change or I’m a gonna leave” “You win again” and others were lines he heard spoken.

He referred to himself often in the third person, as “Ole Hank.”

But he was only 29 when he died.

One beautiful character who emerges in his story is Ernest Tubb, a rock to whom Hank turned often during his constant marital problems with Audrey, whom Chet Flippo portrays as a conniving, money-grubbing plague on Williams’ life – not that Hank didn’t contribute to the disaster that was their marriage. Tubb was by contrast sober, wise, and had learned to manage the country music life in a way that Hank never did. 

So, too, an almost-was singer named Braxton Schuffert, who turned his back on the music business and devoted himself to his family back in Shreveport and his job delivering for Hormel Meats. Apparently a talented singer, Schuffert saw the life his friend was leading and didn’t want that for himself, though Hank was often urging him to move to Nashville, offering to get him on the Opry, plying him with songs he’d written. Sounds like Schuffert had a career waiting for him if he’d wanted it. Hank visited him every time he went to Shreveport and Schuffert seemed one of the few in Hank’s life who cared for the singer, but took him as a cautionary tale, no matter how big and famous he got.

The last few months of Hank’s life are painful to read. Constantly drunk or stoned, incontinent, weak and bone thin, plied pills and morphine by a quack ex-felon he hired as his personal physician, divorced from Audrey whom he still loved and hated, banned from the Grand Ole Opry, missing his son Bocephus, barely remembering the words to his own songs, on stage hanging onto a microphone stand, marrying a young country girl three times on the same day, twice in front of legion of paying fans, not remember any of it.

Clearly a man in need of serious addiction and pain treatment, both, and a long break from the road.

The incredible thing is during those last months he wrote Your Cheatin’ HeartJambalayaSettin’ the Woods on Fire and I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive– each one a country classic. It’s not even clear he ever performed Your Cheatin’ Heart live.

He was dying for days before he passed, which he did on New Year’s Eve, 1952 in a Cadillac taking him to a show in Canton, OH. He was only discovered so by his driver, who stopped in Oak Hill, WV, lost and unsure which highway to take to Ohio.

In the back seat lay Hank Williams, cold to the touch. In his hand was a slip of paper with a shard of a song that he composed, likely to his ex-wife, minutes before he died.

“We met, we lived, and dear we loved, then comes that fatal day, the love that felt so dear fades far away.

 Tonight one hathe one alone and lonesome, all that I could sing. I you (sic) you still, and always will, but that’s the poison we have to pay.”

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Ricardo J. Quinones: 1935-2019

My dad died early Friday morning. He was a great father, loved his boys fiercely, a beloved and tempestuous literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, a husband, scholar and author. 

I’m only beginning to understand how much I’ll miss him.

Here’s my obituary for him, which I’ve submitted to the newspaper in our hometown:

_________________

Ricardo J. Quinones, a long-time Claremont resident and retired comparative literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, has died from complications of a many-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Prof. Quinones was also founding director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at the college, which now has a distinguished lectureship in his name. For several years, he served on the board of directors of the National Council for the Humanities, appointed in 2004 by President George W. Bush.

He died in hospice care at his home in West Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 2019. He was 83.

Prof. Quinones and his young family arrived in Claremont in an old Buick station wagon in 1963, straight out of Harvard University, where he earned his PhD under renowned literary scholar Harry Levin.

Over the years he became a fixture on the small, growing campus, a beloved teacher for generations of students, in love with his subject. He was chosen Professor of the Year in the mid-1970s. He was also at times a tempestuous figure. He protested the Vietnam War, supported the Civil Rights Movement, loved Robert F. Kennedy and voted for George McGovern.

Years later, with increasing encounters with a stifling political correctness in academia, his politics veered away from the Democratic Party, believing it had left him, though his favorite presidents remained Harry Truman and John Kennedy.

He was one of the first presidents of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers – which formed in 1994 in opposition to the politicization of debate in the humanities and as an alternative to the Modern Language Association, the mainstream organization of literature scholars.

Through it all, he loved reading and literature and all kinds of stories, baseball and basketball, movies, especially gangster movies, and The Godfatherabove all. He was as delighted by Bird and Magic as he was by T.S. Eliot and King Lear. During the 1963 move to Claremont, he entertained his then-two young sons with the stories of Odysseus, and his office was a famous chaos of books and papers piled in seemingly incoherent stacks, in a filing system only he could decipher.

In his long career, he wrote nine books of literary criticism, including three in retirement while battling Parkinson’s. He was a noted scholar and expert on the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and James Joyce. He was selected to write the entry on Dante Alighieri for Encyclopedia Britannica.

His last book, North/South: The Great European Divide, in 2016, was a discussion of Protestant and Catholic Christianity and their effect on economic development. His first book,The Renaissance Discovery of Time(1972), is considered a standard of literary studies of the period.

Novelist Charles Johnson used Quinones’ book, The Changes of Cain, an exposition on the Cain-Abel theme in literature, to influence his 1998 historical novel, Dreamer, about the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In retirement, he also wrote five books of poetry. His poetry tended toward storytelling. He wrote a poem about the plane that went down in that Pennsylvania field on September 11 – Shanksville– and another about his memories at age 10 of the men returning from World War II.

As the disease withered his muscles and twisted his fingers and toes, he nevertheless held poetry events, with actors reading his work, combined with a cellist or a violinist.

Ricardo Quinones grew up in Allentown, PA, the second child of Laureano and Maria Elena Quinones: He an immigrant from Galicia, Spain and a worker in a brewery; she a worker in a sewing factory, born in America to a large family of immigrants from Calabria, Italy.

Laureano Quinones had been born an illegitimate child, abandoned by his mother in his seacoast village in Spain. Leaving her baby with relatives, Eliana Otero fled to Argentina and was never heard from again. Laureano was raised by an uncle, taking the uncle’s last name of Quinones. At 20, he left Spain and, alone, made his way to Puerto Rico, where he cut sugar cane, then to New York and finally to Allentown, PA, where he met and married Maria Elena Matriciano.

They lived in the First Ward, a teeming, densely packed neighborhood of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Syria, who had large families and came to the town for its easily available manufacturing jobs. Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks were among the mainstays of the town.

Growing up, Ricardo Quinones was an altar boy and a copy boy at the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, where he one night shepherded the news that Hank Williams had died.

A friendly priest channeled him into college, something rare for kids from the First Ward, where many parents had little education and spoke English poorly.

Like his father before him, he left the comfortable enclave and struck out into the world – taking a bus alone to Chicago and Northwestern University, a private school where upon his arrival he was the among the poorest students on campus.

Originally intending to be a journalist, he fell under the mentorship of Donald Torchiana, a Northwestern literature professor, and from there his career focus shifted to academia. 

At Northwestern, he also met his first love, Lolly Brown, a student from an upper-class family in Des Moines, Iowa. They were married in 1956. Their early days were spent in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying in Italy, Germany, and France, where he played basketball for a club in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. 

He came to Claremont as the town was morphing into a place of great musical, and artistic effervescence. His friends were poets and artists, then later political scientists and economists. His sons attended Oakmont Elementary, El Roble Junior High, and Claremont High School, and he sent them to Berkeley, Yale, and CMC.

He encountered death too young. His mother died when he was 11; his father when he was 22. His second son, Nathanael, died at 18 in a car accident in February, 1979, followed by his wife, who died of cancer that May.

After that, he raised his two youngest sons – Ben and Josh – alone. They went on to become attorneys. His oldest son, Sam, is a journalist and author.

In the late 1990s, he met Roberta Johnson, a literature professor at Kansas University specializing in Spanish women writers. They fell in love and married in 1998. One of his books of poetry is titled Roberta. She cared for him through his illness, along with his wonderful caregivers, Anthony, Marlon and Ferdie. 

In 2008, he survived the rupture of an aortic aneurysm, something few have done.  Then, in a kind of slow-motion torture over many years, Parkinson’s took most of what made the man. He could only shuffle toward the end. Yet he wrote every day, pecking away through each morning, until the very end, when it took that from him, too.

Apart from cigars, Italian food and red wine, books were the only material possessions he loved. At his home, his shelves remain the earthly expression of his fertile mind. In his stacks is Heaven: A History, and The History of Hell. One of his favorite poets, the storyteller Robert Frost, stands in between Joe Stalin and Martin Luther; Henry Kissinger’s World Order next to Lord of the Flies — testament to how he enjoyed throwing ideas together and seeing what the collision produced.

On Christmas Eve, when his sons’ families were about to meet for dinner, they thought it best he not come over but instead head to a hospital for his low blood pressure. It didn’t seem safe. But he insisted on being at the dinner. Demanded it. Marlon Batiller, his dearest caretaker, told him, if you can stand, I’ll take you. He stood. On this, his last family Christmas dinner, more fragile than ever, he read For the Union Dead by poet Robert Lowell.

A few weeks later, on his last time out of bed, he asked Marlon to pull him up and into his wheelchair, and roll him into the dining room. There, on the table, sat the readings for his next project. It was to be a book about the 1800s, though he wasn’t sure yet what. His reading for it included Treasure IslandHuckleberry Finn, biographies of U.S. Grant, Napoleon, and others.

He’d grown to love Grant. He added him to his list of favorite presidents and defended him vigorously as mistreated by history. 

That morning, emaciated, he sat in his wheelchair beside his books. He held the Grant biography. Then he leafed through the Napoleon. The books were new, and thick, and heavy and he re-read a bit from each. 

Finally, he placed them back on the table and he sat in the chair in silence just looking at them one last time. And after a great long while like that, he asked Marlon to wheel him down the hall and back to the bed, where, two days later, he died.

A public memorial service will be held Sunday, April 7 at 12:30pm at the CMC Athenaeum.

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Topeka and Brown v. Board

I’m here in Topeka, Kansas, where I’m speaking to the Kansas Medical Society, and it’s an overcast day.

First time here. So I stopped in at the Brown v. Board of Education historic site in the southwest part of town, where the neighborhoods have a lot of nice wooden houses with porches under tall trees.

The site is the old Monroe Elementary School, once segregated, where the black families who brought the suit had their children enrolled.

Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda Brown were the lead plaintiffs in the case. In 1950, they had gone to a white school to enroll Linda. They were turned away. Their case went to the Supreme Court and changed America by, among other things, beginning our country’s agonizing process of living up to our constitution as written.

The court’s 1954 ruling, of course, overturned the idea, enshrined in U.S. law following the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that separate and equal public schools were constitutional.

Using the Brown case as a test, the NAACP and its attorney Thurgood Marshall argued that separate but equal violated the 14thAmendment. The amendment was passed during Reconstruction guaranteeing, among other things, equal protection under the law. Jim Crow had suffocated the amendment.

The court agreed unanimously with Marshall — and with that began the resuscitation of that part of the Constitution.

I learned a few things.

One was that Brown was only the lead of five school segregation cases that were argued before the Supreme Court that day. Others were from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington DC. The Kansas case was chosen as the lead case because the effects of segregation were less bad – the differences between white and black schools weren’t as pronounced — and thus the case had the potential for setting a new high standard for black schools – that of white schools in Kansas. In some cases, the black schools were actually better than the white schools. So a ranger explained to me.

The idea of choosing Topeka as the lead suit was to make school segregation itself, and not the school quality, the key issue.

Also, I learned that Topeka didn’t wait, but began integrating its schools a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Other regions of the country, of course, rebelled.

I heard the name of Charles Houston for the first time.

Houston was the dean of the Howard University Law School who turned the school into a “West Point for civil rights attorneys,” mentoring Thurgood Marshall, as well as many other less-heralded but equally energetic attorneys.

Sounds like quite a figure in American history.

I bought a biography of Marshall written by Juan Williams because it appears to have a lot of references to him. Houston worked his students like a drill instructor, flunked a good many, and had a saying when students complained about the hard work: “no tea for the feeble; no crepe for the dead.” In time, he took Howard Law from an unaccredited backwater into a powerhouse, churning out talents attorneys whom I suspect, like Marshall, helped change the country.

Through all our complicated history, the courts remain the place, as Houston knew, where people, though it would take so much painful time, eventually could find justice.

Here’s a photo of Linda Brown, who was 7 and in the 3rd grade when her father first took her to that white school to be denied enrollment. That’s quite a dramatic image – this big man holding his daughter hand in his as they walk up the steps into this school where they’ll likely be rebuffed.

She became a Head Start teacher and died earlier this year at the age of 76.

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Dudley Althaus and the Mexico City scene

When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.

Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.

I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.

I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)

I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.

Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.

Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.

Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.

I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.

Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)

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The First Haitian Restaurant in Tijuana

The first Haitian restaurant has opened in Tijuana.

It’s at Avenida Negrete near Avenida Juarez, not far from the city’s Revolucion tourist strip.

A couple years ago, Haitians began streaming into Tijuana to ask for asylum in the United States. They were coming all the way from Brazil. Their stories were stunning. They had left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and migrated to Brazil where there was work building the facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games two years later.

But even before the Games began, Brazil’s economy was collapsing. Now without work, many of the Haitian migrants – first hundreds, then thousands – embarked on a journey across nine countries, braving nasty cops and bad weather, climbing mountains and fording wild rivers, some drowning or falling to their deaths.

Those who trekked on connected meanwhile via WhatsApp with their families back home. They crossed Central America and into Mexico, then the full length of the country before ending up in Tijuana.

Their arrival was a new thing for the town, which was of course used to migrants coming from the south, just not black migrants who didn’t speak Spanish. (Here’s a report I did for KCRW in 2016, as Haitians were beginning to arrive.)

Many of the Haitians stayed, mired in bureaucratic limbo. Then the U.S. State Department said it would not grant the migrants asylum, but instead deport them home.

So, stranded in Tijuana, they have melted into the city’s economy. Three taxi drivers I met said the Haitians were well known for their work in the construction industry. I saw one guy working in a shop making tortillas.

“These guys work hard,” said one driver. “You see them everywhere, selling candy at the traffic lights.” (Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a great story about this.)

It was a matter of time before the Haitians began forming businesses, importing something from home. At the restaurant, where I had grilled chicken, rice, beans and salad, I spoke with a man named Ramon, who said he was the owner. The place had opened in November, he said. It still had the Tamales sign of the previous occupant. But outside and in, it was all Haitians.

Speaking in a mix of poor French, Spanish and English, I was able to glean that some 2500 Haitians now live in Tijuana. A young guy named Roselin told me he worked making furniture for a shop on Revolucion. This was a trade he either learned or perfected while in Brazil.

The restaurant, which appears not to have a name, also sells cosmetics from Haiti. Light-skinned face cream and Afro Marley Twist hair extensions. You can also call Haiti or Canada from the restaurant. Next door is a barber shop, which now appears to cater entirely to Haitian clientele.

But what else do you need to confront a new world like Tijuana more than the most intimate things from home – food you know, to look good, and to call the family every once in a while?

A few of them have Mexican girlfriends. So I suspect in a few years we’ll be seeing little Haitian-Mexicans running around Tijuana.

This is how community begins.

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Javier Valdez – A Month Ago

The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.

After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.

The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.

Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.

Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.

All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.

Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.

He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.

I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.

The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.

In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.

But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.

There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.

As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.

Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.

Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.

#ourvoiceisourstrength #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza

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Keith Dannemiller: A Podcast

Keith Dannemiller, a native of Ohio, has been one of the premier photographers out of Latin America for two decades now. His black and white street shots from Mexico City are strange and dazzling.

Keith and I worked together in Mexico for many years, both of us freelancers. We recorded this conversation a while back when Keith’s first book of photography — Callegrafia – was coming out. It’s sold out, but the chat is interesting – about finding what to shoot, and why, and what got him started on street photography, and how a man devoted to his craft does his job.

Keith’s new exposition of his photography is called Luz Translation, opening in the town of San Miguel De Allende, Guanajuato, on February 2. Check it out if you’re down there. It’s at Centro Cultural El Nigromante Bellas Artes, #75 Hernandez Macias and running until April 23.

Find out more about him at his website, www.keithdannemiller.com, including the photo tours he leads of Mexico City.

 

 

 

Photos by Keith Dannemiller

 

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A Doctor’s View of Pain Pills

Here’s a letter from doctor with a long exposure to the problem of addiction and pain pills. I get lots of email letters about Dreamland. I’ve put a few up on this blog – always with names and identifying details removed.

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 I have recognized for many years, at least since the late 1980s, that the chronic use of opioid medications was typically a barrier to recovery. I am a physiatrist, a physician procter-1specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, since 1986.  We manage patients who have catastrophic injuries: spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, amputations and those with multiple and severe trauma. I also treated many patients who had less severe injuries including strains, sprains and other soft tissue trauma. We often manage patients over many years. When the use of opioids became more frequent, in the late 1980s, I was perplexed. I did my best to manage pain, if at all possible, without the use of chronic opioid therapy. I was perplexed even more so in the mid to late 1990s when Oxycontin came on the scene. Physicians no longer were afraid to prescribe opioids for non-cancer pain and did so seemingly without caution. They were duped. Drug companies and their physician spokesmen duped them.

I grew up and later practiced medicine for many years in New Mexico. New Mexico, as you may know, has always had one of the highest drug overdose rates in the nation.  Heroin had been the drug of choice, at least until opioid medications came on the scene. I worked as a house painter’s apprentice in the late 1960s while in college. I worked on one crew that every journeyman painter was an ex-con related to heroin use.  I had plenty of opportunity to use heroin but it scared me. My co-workers told me how great it was. One guy, much older than me, made it sound so appealing. “Come over and we will shoot up and listen to jazz.”  I never tried it though I had lots of opportunity.

I knew quite well how dangerous heroin was and never believed that opioid medications were any less dangerous. When I started practicing in the late 1980s many of the patients I saw were on opioid medications when I assumed their care. Most of the more seriously injured patients I saw were successfully weaned off opioids. Many of the less seriously injured, especially those with work related injuries, were much more difficult to wean. Some patients of both categories ended up on long term opioids but were closely monitored to determine if they were benefitting from opioids and whether they were abusing them. Escalating doses were typically not allowed.

The work related injury group of patients who generally had much less severe injuries, were routinely on opioid medications when I took over their care. My job as a rehabilitation physician was to get them back to their usual activities including return to work. I found that opioid medications were a barrier to their recovery. Some of my referring physicians believed the standard of care was to treat pain with opioids as long as patients complained of pain. Some patients were never going to stop complaining of pain and the reasons were frequently psychosocial in nature. I never believed the hype from drug companies regarding the safety of opioids. I saw from up close as a young man and as a doctor that they were dangerous and in general not appropriate for long term use in non-cancer pain.

I knew little about Dr. Russell Portenoy at the time of the opioid prescription explosion but I knew plenty about what drug companies were saying about the safety of opioid medications and the unlikelihood for addiction. I now understand Dr. Portenoy’s role in this public health catastrophe.  I don’t believe Dr. Portenoy and other drug company marketer’s claims that they are now surprised about the addiction potential and danger of opioids. Intuitively it did not make sense. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are so similar to morphine and heroin both chemically and by their mechanism of action. Why would you believe they are so much safer? Those guys were either just plain dumb and so drunk with drug company money and self promotion that they refused to pay attention to what was happening to patients. I am sure they are not dumb. Dr. Portenoy is a brilliant and charming guy. Just view his video presentations and interviews. He is also a successful academic physician. That is what made him so dangerous.  I am just an average doc who has never had a higher academic position than a clinical assistant professor.  I have never authored a paper that made it to a medical journal. How could I know more than them and have been so right about the proper role of opioid medications?  Why didn’t they? Certainly not because I am smarter.Grand Canyon Trip 2015

I think your book was very even handed, maybe a little too much, with Portenoy and the other opioid selling/promoting physicians. I’m telling you they knew better. Their response of “If I knew then what I know now….” just doesn’t cut it. They are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and ruined lives. They should not get off the hook. I suspect their narcissism will prevent even one sleepless night for the damage they have done. But they and their benefactors, the drug companies, have created a horrible health crisis that was largely preventable in the United States. It is almost strictly a U.S. problem caused by U.S. physician “thought leaders”, drug companies and misguided bureaucrats.

I applaud your book. Bringing the black tar heroin story into your narrative was great. You connected the dots. I wasn’t aware of that part of the story. Thanks again for your book. It may just impact our legislators and government officials even more so, to focus on rehabilitation not punishment for those young kids who got caught up in a drug problem often caused by misguided or crooked doctors.

The punishment of “pill mill” docs and drug company marketers including their corrupt physician lackeys could never be equal to the suffering they have created. Glad you spotlighted the problem and did it in such a well-researched, entertaining and cogent way. Thank you.

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24-Hour News – Just Like Heroin

24-Hour News is just like heroin.

We pretend we’re informed by it. In reality, we know that each network is a dealer in the drug of outrage. Each provides little information or depth. Instead they concoct a diet of heat, alarm, frenzy. Above all, they provide us a drenching isolation that separates us from our fellow Americans.

cnn

One sign of a heroin addict is that he forsakes family, old friends and community to hang out with others who use and sell dope. They talk about dope constantly and don’t understand those who don’t find that topic endlessly fascinating.

That’s what 24-Hour News has done to us, and our body politic. Forced us into little bubbles of people, all of whom think and talk alike and don’t understand anyone in the other bubbles who don’t think and talk like them. We all know this is true.

Which is why I say 24-Hour News is just like heroin.

So this election day, after we vote, let’s do another civic duty: Let’s all turn off 24-hour news, and talk radio, too, for that foxmatter.

For good! Just block them all. Easy to do by clicking here. Each station. CNN, FOX, MSNBC, Headline News. The problem is the format, not the network itself.

24-Hour News assumes that every issue has only two sides to it, and we can neatly know what they are, and that once a position is staked out, we cannot waver from it. It picks and pricks at some topics well beyond any presumed responsibility of informing the public is fulfilled. Yet somehow it does this while rarely providing any deep or nuanced understanding. And other issues is doesn’t touch at all.

It Monday-morning-quarterbacks public servants and elected officials to death.msnbc

All because it has to fill that time.

Meanwhile, these networks bundle most issues into five-minute, in-between-the-commercials, pre-digested packets. I’ve been on several of these and I now boycott them. I was on a CNN segment once that discussed the Mexican drug war – in six minutes with two other guests. We cannot possibly learn a thing about that very important issue in so short a time.

24-Hour News is one of the most corrosive influences on our democracy. Doping it. Distracting it. Numbing it. Lowering our standards for what “news” is and how much participation is actually required of us to preserve a functioning republic.

Never has 24-Hour News failed us more harmfully than in this presidential campaign. Its anchors spent most of the pre-convention months analyzing incessantly whether Candidate X had a pathway to the nomination. The horse race is all those networks cared about. It was a narcotic that had us all distracted.

We need real journalism. We got junk food. We needed deep discussions of complicated issues. We got yammering, blather, screeching and babble – usually designed to make us feel outraged at everyone else and confirmed in the righteousness of our own behavior and thinking.

In other words, we got dope.

For that’s what heroin does to an addict: convinces him that the path he’s on is the right one and no other is conceivable.

As Americans, we spend a lot of time worrying about what we consume, avoiding processed foods, cigarettes, sodas.

Why don’t we have the same concern for our civic consumption?

Some who block 24-Hour News may suffer withdrawals at first. Shiver and shake and not be able to sleep. But that’ll pass. My bet is they’ll emerge with a fresher, brighter outlook on life. They won’t be angry or outraged at their fellow Americans all the time.

Another thing: Recovering addicts find life without dope to be complicated without that Silver Bullet to remove their worries. So, too, might folks recovering from 24-Hour News.

Just as heroin takes our cares away, the 24-Hour News Syndrome relieves us of the tough work involved in being Americans. We don’t actually have to strive to develop an opinion when 24-hour News provides it to us.

So we will have to develop our own opinions without the help of an anchor and a 5-minute expert there to enrage us and keep us tuned in through the upcoming commercial break. It may mean reading more. A wider range of opinion or news stories. Books or magazine articles. But the last place to find real information on anything worth knowing about is at a five-minute snippet of yammering talking heads. We know this is true.

But if Americans are exceptional, it’s through this work required of us in citizenship, civic participation, and in being accountable for our political and consumer choices. This is the job description of being an American, seems to me.

“A Republic, if you can keep it,” said Ben Franklin to the woman who asked what the Constitutional Convention had just created.

We got away from that, from what’s best about America. We opted for easy – easy solutions to pain, quick and easy answers to complicated problems, easy substitutes to civic participation. Convenience and comfort over all else.

In doing so, we rid ourselves of things so essential that they have no price … and in return we have been invaded by cheap crap.

So today, Be An American!

Please go vote!

Then come home and block every 24-hour new station on your TV.

We need to keep this Republic for a while.

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Dr. Procter’s House

I’m speaking today in a mansion near Portsmouth Ohio built by a doctor named David Procter – known around here as `The Godfather of the Pill Mill’ – whose story I told in Dreamland.

A reader I’ll call Karen, who grew up in Portsmouth, wrote to me a while ago:

“For some reason I feel compelled to tell you that Dr. Procter was the catalyst that destroyed my family.

The house, in South Shore, Kentucky on the Ohio River, has been converted to a procter-2drug rehabilitation clinic run by a company called Recovery Works.

Karen:

“My dad worked at the prison as a guard. He hurt his back, falling from a ladder during some sort of training assignment.

“I only knew that my dad got hurt at work, and [Procter] was his doctor. And that my mom hated him with a passion. I can remember going to his office and my mom coming out so upset. I found later that it was because she would go there and beg him to stop giving my dad pills. Lines out the door. I can still remember my mom and my aunt and my grandmother in the car discussing all the people.

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Pharmaceutical companies and pain specialists viewed the pain-pill revolution that transformed American medicine as a boon to doctors. They sold the opiate painkiller pill as a way of addressing the lack of time doctors had with patients, and pain patients in particular.

That doctors accepted them so readily tells us how serious were the time pressures they felt.

The more you prescribed them, though, the more the pills became a curse – just like morphine molecule they contained. They wore down a doctor. A doctor known as an easy touch was soon overwhelmed with patients who filled his waiting room, waving cash in front of him, insisting. Soon he was accepting only cash – addicted to it, accepting the lies his patients told him, believing too that nothing was wrong.

From this emerged the medical mutation known as the Pill Mill. Nothing showed the corrosive effects of for-profit medicine like the pill mill.procter-1

David Procter was notorious in Portsmouth for prescribing large amount of pain pills to patients, with almost no diagnosis.

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“The day my parents marriage finally ended, was the day my mother threw all of my dad’s pills Down The Gutter and he removed the manhole cover and crawled down to get them. I remember her taking her wedding ring off then and telling him that she wanted a divorce. His head was literally sticking out of the manhole. Sad time.”   Karen

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David Procter was a product of that, I believe.

He had come in 1977, and been beloved. Amid economic decline, doctors held the key to life strategies like worker’s comp and SSI. Procter became the quickest doc around in preparing worker’s comp papers.

In 1988, the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure investigated him for the first time. Those reports seem to describe a man losing his bearings but still trying to maintain some semblance of medical and moral rectitude, still looking for second opinions and trying to find alternatives to pills for his pain patients.

Ten years later, a second investigation, and that doctor had vanished.

In the interim, OxyContin and the Pain Revolution had come. Jobs were gone, Main Street was an empty shell. Ohio River towns had lost huge population. Dreamland pool had closed.

As a doctor in a desperate place, he had been unaccountable for too long and grown corrupt, the Kentucky public record documents. Now, investigators found a man who extorted sex for pills from vulnerable and addicted women, who preyed on girls tormented about abortions. His waiting room was a corral of drug addicts, all there with eyes downcast, desperate. He stayed open well past his posted business hours. His records were shoddy or nonexistent.

After a car accident, he began hiring doctors with drug and alcohol problems to run his clinics. This is what gave him lasting importance to this story, for those doctors in turn left to start their own pain clinics.

The problem metastasized like a cancer. Procter became the Ray Kroc of the Pill Mill.

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Drugs have hit my family hard. My uncle’s stepdaughter and her daughter were both murdered in Lucasville. They still haven’t found their murderers. The daughter was a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl who didn’t deserve anything that she got. Apparently her mother was selling Oxycontin. My aunt’s step-daughter is doing life right now for murdering another girl in a town near Portsmouth. I have two uncles who both died of heroin overdoses in the last 6 years.

And some of my friends from high school, their daughter has been missing for about 6 years. Due to drugs as well, I’m sure of it. I could go on and on. I’m so glad that I left that area in 1989 and made a better life for myself. However the county that I am living in and have been living in for 27 years is starting to feel the sting. It’s happening.    Karen

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David Procter eventually went to prison for 12 years. He was released in 2014 and, being Canadian, was procter-3deported. He leaves behind a strange painting of a monkey looking into a mirror, with Dr. Procter’s reflection looking back at him, and a seven-bedroom, six-bath, seven-car mansion on 34 acres that is now occupied by 16 addicts working on their recovery.

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My dad OD’d in 2009, but he really died years before. He was a good dad once. I’m glad that I have those happy memories.

I know Procter’s house well. We always called it the house that pills built. Beautiful place. Fitting that it’s now a rehab.   Karen

 

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