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

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

At 10:15 a.m. on June 6, 2008, a woman shopping at a Target in Florida was interrupted by a phone call. Her daughter's number flashed on the screen. Rachel, who lived in Atlanta, called every morning. Even when Rachel was home visiting, she'd call her mother from the next room just to let her know she'd woken up.

But when the woman answered the call, it wasn't Rachel on the line. Instead, she heard a young man say, "Is this Rachel's mom?"

He then made an odd claim. "Rachel came to my house with drug paraphernalia," he blurted out.

"What do you mean 'drug paraphernalia?'" the woman asked.

He mumbled that Rachel was carrying drugs and needles in her purse, and that he'd had to call the police.

"Where is Rachel?" her mother asked.

"The hospital," he said.

"Was she breathing?" her mother asked.

At some point, he said, he thinks she stopped. But he performed CPR and she was all right. He mentioned that several cops were at his apartment.

"Let me speak to the police," the woman asked.

"They're busy," he replied.

He gave her his phone number and said his name was Warren. He spelled out his last name — U-L-L-O-M.

About a half-hour later, the woman learned her 32-year-old daughter was in full cardiac arrest when she'd arrived at the hospital. In the opinion of the physician on duty, Rachel was already dead by the time she got there.

Warren hadn't slept at all the prior night. He'd been in the throes of heroin addiction for a while by that point, so sleepless nights were nothing new. But last night was different. Rachel, who he'd met two nights earlier in the parking lot behind the Five Spot on Euclid Avenue, had come to his apartment around midnight. Even through his smack-induced haze, he was drawn to the tall, beautiful woman with dark hair and amber-green eyes. And she was doubtlessly intrigued by him, a fashionable rocker who fronted a promising local power-pop band called the Judies.

Warren would later claim that Rachel knew he was into hard drugs and wanted to party with him — and that she was adamant he not tell anyone about it. After trying what Warren later described as a small amount of heroin, Rachel nodded out on his couch. For the next five hours, Warren attempted to revive her. But his methodology was seriously — by professional accounts, fatally — flawed. He called on his coke dealer, the Sweet Man, to come over and help.

Sweet obliged, but he was wary of Warren's plan: to offset the woman's heroin overdose with a shot of cocaine.

Sweet would later allege that Warren injected an unconscious Rachel twice with coke. Sweet, who'd shot up his own heroin-cocaine cocktail, was in and out of reality himself. But there was a point, around 8 a.m., when he realized Rachel was really bad off. She was turning blue.

Sweet wanted to call 911. He claims Warren didn't. Unbeknownst to Warren, Sweet defied him; he stepped out of the apartment, called 911 and started walking home.

But Sweet couldn't give the exact address to the operator. The ambulance got lost. In the meantime, Warren sent Sweet a text message saying Rachel was better and the ambulance wasn't needed.

Warren was wrong. Thirty minutes after the text, Warren called 911 himself. By the time paramedics finally got to his apartment, it was too late.

Shortly after calling Rachel's mother, Warren received word that Rachel had died. He got in touch with Rachel's friend Jenny, an acquaintance who'd introduced him to Rachel. They decided to go to the hospital together to find out more about Rachel's death. Jenny picked up Warren at the Majestic Diner on Ponce de Leon Avenue. On the way, Warren started rambling about Rachel's curiosity about heroin.

"I told her not to do it," he said. "She wanted to do boy."

At the hospital, Warren kept asking the staff when Rachel stopped breathing. It was clear that Warren was wasted, so Jenny jumped in and told him to shut up. She'd talk to the nurse herself.

On the ride home, Jenny asked if she could come inside his apartment to see if any of Rachel's things had been left behind. Jenny didn't find anything of note — a fact that would soon become significant to Rachel's family and, later, law enforcement. An important item was missing, something valuable that would help elevate the investigation of Rachel's death from an accidental overdose to something allegedly more sinister.

It's a point of contention as to whether Warren was aware of the thing that went missing. But he was well aware of another factor that complicated — and criminalized — the events of June 6, 2008: the cocaine injection. It would be better for him if no one were to know about that. It would be better if the police were to treat Rachel's death as what it appeared to be on the surface: a tragic but run-of-the-mill overdose.

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.

The hospital staff told Pamela that the earrings were not on Rachel when she arrived. So Pamela texted Warren to ask him.

The only thing Pamela knew about Warren was that he'd been with Rachel when she died. Still, she had no reason at first to doubt what he told her: that he remembered seeing the earrings on Rachel, and that he'd look around for them.

The next day, Warren texted Pamela, saying the earrings must have fallen off as the paramedics carried Rachel out of his apartment. Pamela found that hard to believe. Diamond earrings of that size screw on. It's really hard to get them off. She was so bothered by this that she took the information to the police. No one cared.

Nor did anyone seem to care when Pamela tracked down the person who, according to the police report, first called 911: the Sweet Man. For six days, Pamela left messages for Sweet. When he finally answered, he asked, "Would you like me to tell you what I saw?"

Sweet told Pamela a very different story about Rachel's death than what Warren had told police. Sweet said Warren had called him with the hope of being able to revive Rachel with cocaine. He said he'd gotten to Warren's around 3 a.m., and that Warren injected Rachel twice with the coke. That's when Rachel started having trouble breathing, Sweet claimed. He said he told Warren that Rachel was dying. Sweet also said Warren was freaking out on him and didn't want him to call 911.

Three weeks after Pamela extracted Sweet's story, police started taking Pamela seriously. Over the phone, she gave investigators both Sweet's and Warren's numbers. A few days later, she met with someone on the force who was very interested in what she had to say: APD Investigator Jeff Gunter. Pamela tipped off Gunter about the Sweet Man and the cocaine injections and the missing earrings. She mentioned other inconsistencies, too. In the police report, Warren said Rachel had only passed out for an hour and a half. But Sweet told her — and cell phone records would soon prove — that Warren called Sweet over to the apartment at 3 a.m., which meant Rachel was unconscious for five excruciating hours. Warren also initially claimed that Rachel had asked for the cocaine — and that she'd shot herself up. Impossible, Pamela said. Sweet, who brought the cocaine, said Rachel was out cold from the moment he arrived. What's more, paramedics found that only Rachel's right arm had been injected. But Pamela knew that Rachel was so uncoordinated with her left hand that she couldn't even work a remote control, let alone inject herself.

After recounting all these details to Gunter, Pamela had one thing left to say: She thanked him for being the person who finally cared enough to hear her story.

The investigation moved quickly from there. Gunter followed the leads Pamela delivered. He talked to the last of Rachel's friends to see her alive. He talked to her mother. He requested Warren's cell phone records for the 24 hours surrounding Rachel's death. And through that, he and the federal task force he linked up with soon discovered that Warren's investigation tied neatly into Batman's.

The probe into Batman and his midlevel heroin operation dated back at least four months, to March 2008, when a confidential informant working with the feds orchestrated an undercover buy from Batman — $3,000 for 20 grams of heroin. The deal went down in the informant's car, but a glare on the windshield prevented a clear surveillance video of the transaction, and the wire the informant was wearing didn't turn up anything incriminating. Two more undercover buys, for 30 and 50 grams, were similar failures.

Then investigators caught a break. Batman was pulled over for following a Honda Accord too closely on I-20. The trooper asked him to step out of the car, frisked him and found 35 grams of heroin and $10,000 in his pockets.

Batman was hauled into an interrogation room with Gunter and a fellow task force agent. He quickly confessed that he'd made at least 100 large heroin purchases and that his most recent supplier had the best smack in the state: "Pure, uncut and A-1 grade." He boasted that one user turned blue after shooting up. In addition to Rachel's death, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives would later tie another fatality to Batman's heroin.

In fact, the spring of 2008 saw an unusual spike in heroin-related deaths in Fulton County, particularly among a demographic that doesn't typically show up in the coroner's files. Over a 12-day period, four young people — including 28-year-old blues prodigy Sean Costello and 21-year-old Georgia Tech pitcher Michael Hutts — died from complications involving heroin. By comparison, only four heroin deaths were recorded in Fulton over the previous four months, and only one of the victims was younger than 30.

Less than a month after their interview with Batman, investigators received the cell phone records they'd requested on Warren Ullom. In the two weeks leading up to June 6, 2008, he'd traded 90 calls with the busted heroin dealer.

And it would turn out that, following those four Fulton County fatalities in which heroin played a role, Rachel had been the next to die.

It was only after the toxicology results came back that investigators could determine how great a role Warren might have played in her death.

The toxicologist discovered heroin, alcohol and an unusually large amount of cocaine in her blood. He concluded that she was alive for at least an hour after the cocaine entered her body. The question was, could investigators prove Warren administered the cocaine without her knowledge or consent?

The answer arrived in October 2008, when Sweet walked into the federal building downtown offering to tell investigators everything he knew about the events surrounding Rachel's death. He described all of it: How he got to know Warren over the past year by selling him blow; how he introduced him to Batman when he learned Warren was into heroin; how Warren called him for help when Rachel ODed; how Warren tried to revive her with cocaine and CPR; and how Warren tried to keep the paramedics away until it was too late.

He later would show authorities the text from Warren — sent at 7:33 a.m. on June 6, 2008 — that read: "she is better no ambulance."

Sweet himself could have been prosecuted. But the fact that he voluntarily came forward and incriminated himself helped him avoid that, according to his lawyers. Sweet also agreed to call Warren several times while the feds monitored the conversation with the hope of getting Warren to open up about Rachel's death. On one occasion, Sweet met with Warren while wearing a wire. According to his attorney, John Nuckolls: "The U.S. Attorney's office saw that in order to get to the truth, there needed to be some special consideration for him."

The final autopsy report was issued shortly after Sweet turned government witness. By then, investigators and the coroner's office were ready to make a call on the level of Warren's responsibility: "Because Ms. San Inocencio's death was due to the actions of another individual," the autopsy states, "the method of death is classified as a homicide."

To round out its investigation, the government needed one more witness: Warren's now-former girlfriend. The two had been living together at the time of Rachel's death, and the ex had been sitting for months on a valuable piece of information.

Warren's girlfriend had left town hours before Rachel showed up at the apartment, but she'd left Warren money to cover his heroin addiction for the weekend. The plan was for him to try to get clean when she returned from her trip.

Warren had called his girlfriend several times the night of Rachel's death, and in November 2008, she recounted to police Warren's concern that the ODing woman had stopped breathing.

But the most interesting information she shared had to do with a pair of princess-cut diamond earrings. According to his ex, Warren showed her the earrings a few days after Rachel's death. He allegedly told her that the earrings belonged to an old flame and that they should pawn them. She agreed.

Warren's defense team vehemently denies her claim. They counter that it was the ex who came to Warren with the earrings, presumably after she found them in the apartment, and told him they were her grandmother's.

One thing is clear: On June 9, 2008, Rachel's earrings were pawned. Investigator Gunter visited the Buckhead pawnshop where the diamond studs were traded for $400. It turns out a surveillance camera perched outside had captured footage of Warren and the girlfriend walking into the store. The girlfriend's name was on the receipt, which was dated three days after Rachel's death and several days before Rachel's sister, Pamela, called Warren looking for the earrings.

In January 2009, two months after the interview with Warren's ex, Gunter and a team of fellow officers showed up at the Inman Park condo where one of Warren's bandmates lived. His father answered the door. Gunter asked if Warren was there. The man said he was.

Warren was sitting at the kitchen table, typing on a computer. Gunter ordered that he stand up. Warren complied, and was placed under arrest for distribution of heroin and cocaine, theft by taking, and the murder of Rachel San Inocencio.

From the time of his arrest until his sentencing a year and a half later, Warren had one primary objective. "I felt that it was my duty to do right, and to create beauty, and to celebrate existence," he says in the letter sent from prison. "There were things I felt that I needed to say to specific people, emotions so acute that they could only properly be conveyed through art, so I wrote these songs."

The songs caught the attention of Slush Fund Records founder Dave Prasse and local filmmaker George King, both of whom had a hard time reconciling the seemingly reformed young man with the depraved person described in court documents.

"Back then, he was a different person," says King, who's recorded close to 70 hours of footage and twice visited Warren in prison. "He went through this ellipse. He descended into this dark place. And then he came back."

Once he was back, King says, Warren manically tried to fill his life with meaning, knowing he was short on time.

Warren led the Judies through a frenzied pace of shows and a relentless recording schedule. The band headlined that year's Corndogorama, played the Star Bar on New Year's Eve, performed a Criminal Records in-store, released a self-titled album, and, in the days before his final court date, recorded several new tracks and videos at Prasse's Ormewood Park studio.

"While everyone in the band was handling it differently, we all had a goal that was bigger than making a record," Warren says. "We were immortalizing a moment."

On June 7, 2010 — two years and one day after Rachel died — Warren pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in Fulton County Superior Court. Part of the condition of his plea was for the D.A.'s office to drop the theft charge. It was the most crucial allegation that Warren's defense team would have fought had he gone to trial. They wanted to dispel any notion that Warren let Rachel die because he was after the earrings.

"Warren didn't use any kind of good judgment that night," says the Judies' longtime manager, Kahle Davis. "But when it comes down to it, he tried like hell to save her life while respecting her instruction that no one could know she was using heroin."

Warren received a sentence of 20 years. Less than a year into his incarceration, he says he sustains himself with thoughts of making music again, and the possibility of one day being able to help young people prevent addictions.

"Maybe sharing my experiences will help prevent these kinds of tragic events," he writes. "I can see myself working with addicts who feel hopeless, a feeling I remember all too well."

It's a second chance that won't be afforded to Rachel.

In a letter filed in Batman's court file, her sister Pamela describes the ongoing trauma of Rachel's loss. She says she's not angry or looking for revenge, but that she, too, would like to see something positive come from this tragedy.

"So far, all I have seen and experienced is the most painful heartache imaginable," she writes. "Day by day we are all learning how to cope. My mom doesn't leave the house much. She calls Rachel's phone number daily. She questions her faith and battles with thoughts of what she could have done differently in her life so that Rachel would still be here today.

"Our father works the same as always. He never has taken a break except to bury his daughter. If he even hesitates I believe he will fall apart and it will all come crashing down.

"As for me, I do my best. I have faith, and that gives me comfort in knowing where she will spend eternity. It does not, however, keep me from missing her like crazy. I still cannot get my mind around the truth that Rachel is gone."

About the story: This narrative was pieced together with 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. Certain names have been withheld of individuals who were accused of wrongdoing but did not face criminal charges.

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