Fifteen dollars. That was what it cost to buy the heroin that took Justin Smith’s life, said his father, Eugene Smith.
Smith said he learned that from Traverse Narcotics Team detectives, who helped bring a case against a 33-year-old Detroitarea man who allegedly sold Justin Smith the dose of heroin that led to his death on May 15. Charges that bring life in prison are pending against that man.
“He was a good kid,” Eugene Smith said of his 23-year-old son during an emotional interview. He said he didn’t want his son remembered as a heroin user who died of an overdose. He wants Justin remembered for his love of the outdoors and for all of the friends he made in his short life.
FATHER AND SON TIMES
Eugene Smith did many of the things parents are supposed to do to keep a kid off drugs. He spent time with his son and was involved in his life, he said.
Despite the fact that Justin’s parents got divorced when he was just a boy and Justin lived with his mother in Benzonia while his father lived in Frankfort, Eugene had a close relationship with his son.
In 2005, Eugene bought two new snowmobiles, one for him, and one for his son. It was something they could do together. They would travel to Newberry in the U.P. on winter weekends to hit the trails.
Around the same time, the Smiths got into drag racing and Eugene purchased a ’77 short-box Dodge D-100 pickup truck.
“Him and I built the truck and took it to Kaleva and raced it for three years in a row,” Smith said. “He did really well, but he’d always choke at the end because he knew it was between him and two other people. He would ‘red light,’ because he would get too excited.”
GOOD FRIENDS, BAD FRIENDS
Towards the end, however, those good times came along with bad times. Smith said he knew his son got mixed up with drugs.
He came to believe he knew which friends spelled trouble for Justin and which ones were good influences. He attempted to steer his son toward a straight-and-narrow life.
Justin spent time in and out of rehab, on and off of heroin.
“I told him several times I don’t want to be the one to go to the hospital,” Smith said.
At one point, Smith told his son (who was living with him at the time) that he needed to find his own place to live. Smith believed that if Justin had to pay rent it would keep him out of trouble.
For a while it did. Justin found a job at Flood Fighters and things looked good. Justin didn’t have a car, but a coworker who lived just down the street gave him rides to work.
“It did work, he moved in with another friend of his that was definitely not doing that (heroin),” Eugene said.
But Justin’s abstinence from heroin didn’t last.
HEROIN COMES TO BENZIE
Within a couple of years, heroin became part of the social scene for young people struggling to get by in Benzie County.
“All these kids were friends -- this is all connected,” said a woman who knew Justin and other overdose victims in the county. She did not want to be identified because she is afraid of the heroin dealers.
“There’s like some big drug ring up here that nobody’s getting to the bottom of,” she said he woman, who works as a waitress, hopes the arrest of the alleged dealer in Smith’s case means an end to the flow of heroin in Benzie County.
“That’s kind of what I want to know: Is it over now?” she said. “Was he the kingpin?” Despite having a job, the woman says she can’t afford rent and is currently homeless. She lives in the woods. Her lifestyle is not unusual among young adults struggling to get by in Northern Michigan.
Many work two or three jobs and still struggle. Good, affordable housing is hard to find. Wholesome entertainment is pricy. It costs money to go fishing or hunting or canoeing. It costs money to ride snowmobiles or go skiing.
“I think that’s definitely part of the problem; kids in this area having to work two jobs and then they say, ‘screw it,’ and they don’t want to work anymore,” she said.
SAME FRIENDS, DIFFERENT DRUG
The woman said Justin -- who she knew as Smitty -- underwent a vast personality change prior to his death. The normally responsible, intelligent young man who sometimes liked to party started to behave like someone else.
“He was an absolute space cadet in the last couple of months. All of a sudden, everything was funny. There was nothing between his ears, I guess,” she said.
She said Smith was just like any other young adult in Benzie County, but just happened to try heroin.
At the same parties that in the past would have included booze and pot, prescription pills and cocaine began appearing in the later years of high school. Then came heroin.
It wasn’t like Justin suddenly changed friends, she said. What happened was some of his friends changed.
“I think it probably occurred through hanging out with the same group of friends that he’s hung out with his entire life,” she said, adding that she has not tried heroin.
JUSTIN’S FINAL DAYS
Smith was in contact with his son until the end. Even after his son returned to heroin, they kept in touch.
The two celebrated Justin’s birthday at Buffalo Wild Wings in Traverse City on a Saturday, five days before he died.
“I heard from him on Sunday again and then I didn’t hear from him again… I heard from the people that he lived with that he died,” Eugene said.
Smith believes his son had both good and bad friends. He talked to one after his son’s death and demanded the young man return a snowboard that belonged to his son.
Smith believes that Justin’s friend introduced his son to heroin. He said the conversation with the young man, who had moved downstate, did not go well and that he denied even using heroin.
He later learned that this person died of a heroin overdose downstate just five days after his son’s death.
“Had my son never met him, you can’t predict the future, but my son would probably be alive today,” Smith said.
HELP FOR A HEROIN EPIDEMIC
Justin’s funeral at Eden Bible Church was packed. The procession afterward to Gilmore Township stretched for hundreds of vehicles.
Justin had played football at Benzie Central and he had made a lot of friends in his short life.
“He was a nice kid in a small town that has nothing for people that age,” Eugene said.
Justin Smith is one of at least four young people killed by opiate overdose since 2011 in Benzie County.
Jackie McLaughlin, who for years was one of the Benzie County court watchers (a group created to keep track of the local criminal justice system), said she believes there is a heroin epidemic in the county.
“We didn’t see drugs like this two or three years ago,” she said.
She didn’t attend Justin’s funeral, but heard of young people who spoke during the service and asked for help in the face of widespread heroin addiction.
McLaughlin and others are organizing a public information meeting about the county’s heroin problem which they hope to hold this fall.
“I was overwhelmed, initially, that there wasn’t more outrage from the community about what’s happening,” she said.