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Death, drugs and rock 'n' roll, Part II

Warren Ullom: A talented musician's recovery, incarceration and swan song

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What Warren didn't know was that a federal drug task force was already sniffing out his and Sweet's heroin dealer. Roger "Batman" Hammond was slinging an unusually strong batch of smack — one that would be tied to at least one other death — so the feds were eager to track down any connections to drug-related fatalities in order to make an even stronger case for a lengthy prison sentence.

Warren didn't account for Batman. He also didn't figure that Rachel's sister would realize something was very wrong with the story she was being told about Rachel's death, that she would push Atlanta police to look beneath the surface, and that she would provide several clues to help authorities dig.

Finally, he didn't anticipate Sweet would turn on him.

On the afternoon following Rachel's death, Warren called Sweet with a desperate plea. As Sweet would later tell investigators, Warren's message was succinct: "If the cops ask," Sweet recalled Warren saying, "don't tell them about the cocaine."

To understand the mind of an addict, you first must understand an addict's concept of time. There's no comprehension of the expansive chronology around which most people structure their lives. When you're strung out, the future is much more constricted.

"It became very difficult to see farther into the future than 12 hours," Warren writes in a letter sent from Washington State Prison in Davisboro, Ga., his residence of the past several months. He writes that in the year or so leading up to June 2008, he was little more than "a pain-filled automaton convinced that I was near death all of the time."

Although there's little he can or is willing to say about the night Rachel died, he claims that somewhere inside his sickened mental state, he believed he was trying to save her.

He also says that a few weeks after Rachel's death — which would have been before police started investigating him — he worked to get clean.

He called his parents in Cincinnati and told them he needed to come home. He had one obligation to fulfill before he left Atlanta. He had to play a show — "at the Graveyard of all places," he writes. About 400 people showed up. After the set, he recalls, "everybody was congratulating me, lying to me and telling me how good I looked."

He didn't stick around.

It was pouring rain outside, "huge raindrops all lit up orange by the city streetlights." He got on his motorcycle and wandered around deserted downtown Atlanta, sobbing inside his helmet.

The next day, he sat in a men's room stall at the Greyhound station and — for what he says was the last time — injected heroin into his emaciated arms. A 12-hour bus ride later, he was standing on a footbridge overlooking downtown Cincinnati, waiting for his dad to pull up in the family Jeep.

He says that for the next 11 days, he didn't sleep at all. His concept of time slowed to a crawl. Being able to see 12 hours into the future began to seem like a luxury. He couldn't even see 12 seconds ahead. "Every day got worse, compounded by the fact that to me, days, hours, even seconds were relative, and they seemed to stretch out in slow motion, a minute for single tick."

He says that for the first time in his life, he considered killing himself.

"The pain was so unabating that suicide popped up as a hypothetical consideration for ending that pain," he writes. "More importantly though, I realized I would rather kill myself than turn to heroin to solve my problem. That's why I have never relapsed."

In words that eerily channel the final hours of the woman he's now imprisoned for killing, Warren sums up his recovery in meticulous terms: "I was never in my life going to feel that feeling again, the slow torture of dying without dying."

Something was very wrong about the details surrounding Rachel's death. Her sister Pamela knew it right from the start.

Rachel was healthy and strong and independent, and her loss was devastating to her adoring family. Faced with that magnitude of grief, it would have been easy to get lost in the misery. It would have been easy to not ask the right questions. But Pamela was determined.

On Friday, June 13, she was in Atlanta picking up the belongings Rachel left behind. As Pamela rifled through Rachel's things, she noticed something missing: a pair of 3.5-carat diamond earrings. Worth about $3,000, they'd been a gift from Rachel's former boyfriend. It seemed certain that Rachel would have been wearing them. She always wore them.

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