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Warren Ullom: Death, drugs and rock 'n' roll, Part I

A talented musician. A beautiful woman. A fatal cocktail of heroin and cocaine.

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Rachel was still breathing. She was still breathing after the ice bath. She was still breathing during the partying that continued even after she'd fallen out. (Yeah, he and the Sweet Man shot up with an ODing woman in the room.) She was still breathing when he plunged another needle into her limp right arm. Throughout all of it, for four hours or so, he convinced himself she would continue to breathe.

If statements he made to two people he spoke with that night are to be believed, Warren Ullom was aware of her breathing, breathing, breathing ... right up until she stopped.

Looking back on it now, from a sobriety of three years and an imprisonment of nine months — a mere fraction of the time he'll spend locked up for what he did that night — he doesn't have a lot to say about what happened. He was strung out in a way that's reduced his mental chronology to a series of disjointed snapshots, the majority of which are blurred beyond recognition. "An unintelligible negative to begin with" is how he describes it.

He says he doesn't remember, or isn't willing to remember, much about those hours, or that time of his life. "Just trying to delve into those frightening recesses of memory causes me more pain and remorse than anything else can, or probably ever will," he writes in a letter sent from Washington State Prison in Davisboro, Ga., 140 miles southwest of Atlanta tucked among the monotonous midstate plains.

But despite the blur of those months and days, he says one thing remains clear to him about the night Rachel died: "My actions, misguided as they were, were still based on the principle of saving her life."

Deep inside his addled brain in the predawn hours of June 6, 2008, beneath the alternating layers of murk and luster brought on by competing waves of smack and blow, he believed he had a solution. It was a solution he convinced himself would save her and keep the cops away. But he was wrong. About all of it.

He figured the Sweet Man held the key, the thing that could bring her back. What he should have done, though, was take one sober look at her and realize there was only one way she could be saved. But he wasn't one for sober looks back then. He should have listened to the Sweet Man's advice when Sweet finally tried talking sense into him. But he wasn't one to take advice back then, either.

On one level, you might say Warren was a bad person who would later do his best to become good. But when you're in that hard place, there isn't really any concept of good or bad, or how one slips from one to the other. There's just the sickness, and the distant hope that, despite all evidence to the contrary, you might someday get better.

He met her in a parking lot in Little Five Points the night before she died. Even through his personal haze, she was easy to notice. She was tall and lean and toned and strong. Her flawless olive skin and silky dark hair were at striking odds with her pale amber-green eyes. At 32, she possessed the kind of down-to-earth glamour gleaned from years spent riding horses and surfing in the South Florida sun. She was the type of girl whose boyfriends bought her expensive gifts, including a 3.5-carat pair of princess-cut diamond earrings. She was fun and daring and sweet and kind. Her name was Rachel San Inocencio.

Standing in the parking lot, what was her impression of him? He, the fashionable rocker, Bowie-androgynous and Iggy-skinny, clever in conversation and a devastatingly charismatic frontman. He was 22 years old and barefoot and wandering the warm asphalt. A mutual friend introduced them. He lowered himself to the ground, his head swimming in smack, to lie on the pavement and look at the sky. If he remembers correctly, she joined him.

Even if Warren wasn't her type, there was no doubt something magnetic about him. He was the jangly, swooning, pitch-perfect singer of a catchy rock 'n' roll band called the Judies, an act with the energetic momentum of the Walkmen and the soaring melodrama of Rufus Wainwright.

At the time Warren met Rachel, the Judies had been around for three years. They had played one of their first shows (under the short-lived moniker the Rewards) in 2005 at the old Lenny's, opening for Variac, the Selmanaires and Deerhunter. Following the show — and a house party where Warren caught his first glimpse of dreamy shoegaze rockers All the Saints — the then-19-year-old who'd been in Atlanta for a matter of months (by way of Cartersville and, before that, Cincinnati) was quickly indoctrinated into Atlanta's music scene. The four members of the Judies ran with a crowd that included Kill Gordon, Sovus Radio and Variac, and over the next few years, the band would contribute members to Ski Club, Gringo Star, Ponderosa, the N.E.C., and the Young Orchids.

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