Warren Ullom: Death, drugs and rock 'n' roll, Part I
A talented musician. A beautiful woman. A fatal cocktail of heroin and cocaine.
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.
It was an exciting time, so much so that Warren and founding Judies drummer Mike Sprinkel could hardly contain their enthusiasm: "When we first started, Sprinkel and I had so much nervous energy that the momentum seemed to carry us off the stage and right into the next show."
Warren adopted a squirming, electrified, crawling-out-of-his-skin stage presence. For a while, before addiction got the better of him, it was a blissful, fitting release of his pent-up anxiety. "Everything is exploding and I am a powerline in a puddle," he writes of the sensation. "I see Dave and he is both totally losing it and completely holding it together at the same time, in time, and the audience is a howling, many-limbed sea monster, and in between songs you have to smile because you can't stop grinning, at the keyboard, at the floor, at Dave, back at the keyboard, at life."
As for his lyricism, it became increasingly informed by his budding drug problem. "I wrote into roughly two categories: 'reporting from the front,' and 'why am I doing this to myself?'"
His No. 1 temptation, though, was pretty girls — pretty girls who liked to party. At first, they were far more intoxicating than any of the drugs they introduced him to. Warren had more than enough friends to keep a steady stream of cocaine, mushrooms, Ecstasy, acid and Adderall flowing, and when he was hanging out with a girl, the two would spend days getting fucked up and accomplishing nothing.
In addition to playing shows and rehearsing, he managed to work full-time — and didn't sleep, even when he wanted to. Most nights, he'd find himself lying awake next to one of the girls, his heart still racing at 9 in the morning.
That's where heroin came in.
"The first time I had heroin in my veins, an 18-year-old girl put it there," he writes. "We had been hanging out, and she asked if I was interested in trying it. I was pretty dumbstruck. If she was into it, I was into it. As much as I faked cool in those days, if a girl as alluring as her was into running across the highway, well, I was into that too."
For so long, he'd had a hard time relaxing. Then, all of the sudden, he was more relaxed than ever.
"That's when the first cycle in my addiction began," he writes. "I developed a pattern of behavior where in the end, heroin was the final solution."
By the time he met Rachel two years later, he was a different person. His old weaknesses were amplified. He was strung out, bad. And there she was, a pretty girl who seemed like she wanted to have fun.
They exchanged numbers in the parking lot. She was only in Atlanta for a few more days, so why not? They agreed to meet up before she left town. Her plan was to return to the same summer job she'd held the past two years in the Hamptons. But before that, she had a more pressing obligation. On her way out of town, she needed to visit her elderly father in Milledgeville, to do his laundry and cook him enough food to fill his fridge and tide him over for a while.
Rachel was good like that. She wanted to help. She wanted to comfort. She wanted to be trusted, and she wanted to trust in return. In the eyes of those who knew her best, it was that last trait — her willingness to trust — that turned out to be her biggest downfall.
The day after the parking lot run-in, on her last night in Atlanta, Rachel cabbed it over to a girlfriend's place to talk her into going out. But her friend had cramps and wasn't feeling up to it, so Rachel decided to go out for a late bite to eat with her friend's neighbor. They ended up around the corner at the Highlander, for bar grub and a few drinks. Toward the end of dinner, Rachel got a call. She handed the phone to her dining companion. "This is Warren," she said. "He's going to give you directions to his apartment." Warren lived on Highland Avenue near Little Five Points, in a one-bedroom place his 20-year-old girlfriend recently rented. His girlfriend was out of town that weekend, but she didn't leave him empty-handed. She'd been kind enough to give him $100 to help cover his heroin habit until she got back. The plan was for him to quit using upon her return.
It was nearing midnight when Rachel's ride turned off Highland onto a side street and pulled to the curb. Warren crossed the pavement to meet them, a gaunt and pretty figure cutting through the late summer night, dressed only in a pair of jeans. Rachel said goodbye to the guy behind the wheel, and she followed Warren into the darkness.
By June of 2008, Warren had been doing business with the Sweet Man for about a year. A mutual friend of theirs, a knockout blonde with a syrupy drawl, had introduced them the summer before at Sweet's old house in Kirkwood. Warren was there to buy coke, and the blonde piped up that Warren was also into heroin. Recently, he'd been scoring "boy" in the Bluff, the virtually open-air heroin market in bleak and blown-out west Atlanta. Sweet had a taste for boy, too, but he only sold blow. Still, he was happy to hook Warren up with his trusty heroin dealer, who was willing to meet clients at less sketchy locations. That was a much safer venture for a skinny white guy than the risk posed by trolling the Bluff.
Within a few months of Sweet's offer, Warren was buying heroin daily from his and Sweet's mutual dealer, "Batman." Sweet says the following spring, Warren helped Sweet shoot up. According to Sweet, it was only the second time he'd injected heroin. Up until then, he'd only snorted the stuff.
It was no surprise that things went downhill for Sweet from there. For a while, he held a decent, legit day job as a carpenter and could at least create the illusion of being a decent, legit guy. But by the time June 5, 2008, rolled around, he believed he'd hit bottom.
He'd lost his house that day and decamped to his workshop near Moreland Avenue and Memorial Drive. He was hoping to land a spot in an out-of-state drug rehab center, but when he called, they said they wouldn't have room for him for a few weeks. He'd have to float until then, to try to exist without consequence until he could get help.
He fell asleep at midnight, around the time Rachel's ride turned off of Highland Avenue.
At 3:30 a.m., he was awoken by Warren's call.
When a person ODs on heroin, there are several methods — some proven, some not — for bringing her back.
To the layperson, the most memorable of those (though far from the most advisable) is a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart, a bit of drug lore dramatized in Pulp Fiction. Upon receiving the injection, a brink-of-death Uma Thurman bolts upright, hypodermic dangling from her chest, and responds to the command "If you're alright, then say something," with a rattled "... something?"
Adrenaline is essentially speed. So is cocaine. And a junkie's logic can allow for a certain leap in which he can convince himself that a shot of cocaine could do wonders to revive the victim of a heroin overdose in the same way adrenaline can.
Heroin depresses the central nervous system. It slows your pulse and your breathing, which can kill you on its own. But it can kill you even more easily when mixed with other drugs, particularly cocaine.
Cocaine increases your pulse, often resulting in an uneven heartbeat. That abnormality, coupled with the slowed heart rate brought on by heroin, can create extraordinarily erratic blood flow to the body's internal organs, including the brain. For that reason, cocaine doesn't necessarily counteract the effects of heroin. Often, it complicates them.
Warren didn't know about any of that when he woke the Sweet Man that June morning in 2008. According to Sweet, Warren's hope, his grand plan, was to bring her back with cocaine — which meant he needed Sweet to supply some.
Sweet would later say he was reluctant. He'd been doing drugs all day and was worn out. But he would claim that Warren was convincing. Warren promised to pay Sweet well — a somewhat uncharacteristic claim, considering that, to Sweet's knowledge, Warren was usually pretty broke. Sweet told Warren that he was in no condition to drive. Warren countered that he'd cover Sweet's cab fare.
While waiting on the cab, Sweet grabbed two tiny pink baggies of cocaine, a half-gram each. He also pocketed some heroin and cocaine for himself.
Fifteen minutes later, Sweet stepped out of the cab. As promised, Warren was waiting and paid the cabbie. Sweet would later say that when he walked inside, this is the sight he was met with: Rachel on the couch, pale and unconscious, clad only in her panties. On the end table near the couch, there were a few small blue baggies — blue for boy. They were the kind Batman used to package heroin.
Warren told Sweet that Rachel had used just a small amount of boy. Look, he would later recall Warren saying, "She's breathing."
"Will she be OK?" Sweet asked.
"She's fine," Warren answered.
According to Sweet, Warren said he'd found himself in a similar situation with another woman. On that occasion, Warren said, he'd injected the woman with cocaine and her condition improved. It would be the same with Rachel.
Sweet handed Warren the two pink baggies of coke in exchange for $80. Before Warren had the chance to inject Rachel with the supposed antidote, Sweet went ahead and shot up his own heroin-cocaine cocktail.
From that point on, both Sweet and Warren were pretty far gone. Sweet would later recall that, looking down from his high, in the rare flashes of lucidity between stretches of drugged-out slumber, he saw Rachel continue to breathe, slowly. He would remember her mumbling incoherently here and there. He would claim to have noticed Warren injecting her with a second round of cocaine. He would say he observed Warren performing CPR on Rachel, and that she was fading.
At 7 a.m., three hours after he arrived, Sweet sat up, looked at Rachel and noticed she was turning blue. "This girl is dying," he told Warren. He said they needed to call 911.
They argued. Sweet says Warren wanted him to go home and get his pickup truck so the two could take Rachel to a hospital and drop her off. Sweet begrudgingly agreed. He says he believed Rachel was still breathing when he walked outside. But he did not go get his truck. Instead, he called 911.
At about that time, Warren's girlfriend called. She would later recall that Warren told her there was a woman in the apartment, that the woman had ODed, that she'd stopped breathing. He mentioned that someone else was at the apartment. He mentioned a pickup truck. His girlfriend was confused by him; he was borderline incoherent.
"Take her to the hospital," she recalls saying.
Warren hung up, called her back and hung up again. His girlfriend tried to get back through to him, but he was growing increasingly incomprehensible. Finally, Warren hung up on her.
Meanwhile, on the line with the 911 operator, Sweet, reeling from the buzz of drugs and blur of lack of sleep, relayed as best he could directions to Warren's apartment. He hung up and called Warren, telling him to get rid of any drugs left in the apartment because the paramedics were on the way. As he walked away from the scene, he heard the sirens screaming.
It's impossible to say for sure, but there's a chance that, had the ambulance found Warren's apartment at that moment, Rachel might have lived. But the ambulance was adrift. The driver had a general location based on what Sweet had told 911, but Sweet didn't give an exact address. The operator called Sweet back to say the driver couldn't find the place. But Sweet was blocks away by then and didn't know Warren's street number.
Around that time, Sweet got a text from Warren — a text that, four months later, he would show his lawyers and several federal prosecutors: "she is better no ambulance."
After circling the block a few times, the ambulance was called off. Over the next 25 minutes, Warren and Sweet called each other eight times. Then, almost exactly a half-hour after sending the text to call off the ambulance — and nearly five hours after making his initial distress call to Sweet — Warren finally called 911.
When the ambulance drew near, the paramedics saw Warren standing on the curb, flagging them down.
The EMTs hurried inside. They found Rachel propped up on the couch, slightly leaned over. She was soaking wet and wearing a T-shirt and panties. Her right arm was streaked with needle marks. She wasn't breathing and had no pulse.
Paramedics performed CPR and injected Rachel's left arm — which was clean of track marks — with epinephrine and atropine, drugs intended to kick-start her heart. Warren informed them Rachel had shot up with heroin four times and "went to sleep" about an hour-and-a-half earlier. He said he'd dumped cold water on her to try to wake her up.
The paramedics pulled Rachel's ID from her purse on the floor, loaded her onto a stretcher and rushed her into the rear of the ambulance. As they left, they saw Warren in front of the apartment building, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk. He wrote, "We love Rachel."
ABOUT THE STORY: This narrative was pieced together using court records, medical documents, autopsy reports, a dozen on- and off-the-record interviews, and a letter sent by Warren Ullom in response to a list of questions about his addiction, his crime and his recovery. Names have been withheld of certain individuals who were accused of wrongdoing but did not face criminal charges.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Rachel's loved ones urge authorities to take a closer look at what police initially viewed as a run-of-the-mill overdose; a federal task force catches up with Warren and Sweet's dealer, "Batman," who'd been slinging a killer batch of high-purity heroin; Sweet wears a wire as part of an undercover investigation; and Warren gets clean — and races to record something meaningful — before confronting his fate.