He looked down at the back of his hands. The letter “J” is tattooed on his left and “W” on his right. His mother’s initials had been permanently inscribed on his hands using only a sharpened paper clip and melted pencil led.
“I wanted to cry while I was getting those tattoos,” said Justin Cole, “but I was in jail…and you don’t cry in jail.”
By age 33, Cole had been incarcerated seven times. His shortest stay in county jail was one week, his longest; one year.
“I can’t blame everything that’s happened on my mom’s death, but it helped me get to that point,” he said, rubbing his shaved head.
Instead, he blames a series of bad choices.
Cole grew up in Northridge, Calif. a 20-minute drive from LA. At age 23, he found his mother dead on the floor of their bathroom. His father sold their home and left Cole and his 19-year-old brother Warren on their own with a check for $5,000 each. This, Cole says, was when the bad decisions started.
Ten years, two kids, one divorce, and countless numbers of terrible days later, Cole lives with his aunt and uncle in a tiny, rural town in the middle of Vermont.
As Cole recalls his last 10 years, he uses the words “disappointment,” “loss,” “weakness,” “depression,” and “luck,” – saying “I should be dead.”
His first trip to jail was at age 19 for stealing from the tanning salon he worked at. The next time was for failing to meet with his probation officer.
“The first time I was in jail, I was scared out of my mind,” Cole admits. “I watched a man get stabbed in the neck with a homemade shank like 10 feet in front of me,” he said as he acted out a stabbing motion.
In 2004, he was living with his wife-to-be Mercedes Brothers, her daughter Uriah, and had a baby on the way. The two of them got married in 2005.
“We met at the bar I danced at,” said Brothers, “we only dated briefly and got married quite quick.”
About a week after Brothers proposed, she sat her fiancé down and delivered some of the worst news he had ever heard. Their son, Cole’s namesake, might be another man’s child.
“My heart is beating like crazy right now,” said Cole as he tells the story. He said he didn’t want to leave Mercedes so he decided to marry her regardless of the child’s father. “I’ve never admitted it to myself that he’s not mine…that kid has my name.”
Cole’s life took a turn for the worse after he was prescribed Oxycontin for a wrist injury. “I loved it,” he said. “I went bananas.”
Before long he was paying about $20 a pill. To pay for his habit he was depositing empty envelopes at his bank, using his school loans and rent money to buy more pills, stealing from friends and family, doing anything necessary to get high. This is what Cole said demolished his marriage.
“At this point I was lost, everything was falling apart,” recalls Brothers as she quieted her rowdy kids heard in the background. “He even stole money from my sister…I was so heart broken.”
With two kids at home with his wife, Cole went to rehab for the first of many times, but he only lasted two weeks. After more drug use, lies, and stealing, Brothers told Cole he had a choice: go back to rehab again or lose his family. This time he lasted 18 months but the marriage ended regardless.
After breaking up with his wife and cycling through eight relationships while in rehab, he left treatment with a girlfriend named Natalie.
Fresh out of rehab yet once again, addicted to and selling pain meds, Cole went through another breakup and found himself alone and homeless. He would ride the bus just to have a place to sit.
“It was most depressing thing in the world,” said Cole.
At this point he was hopeless. “McDonalds wouldn’t hire me,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “Like really? McDonalds!?”
Cole decided to move in with his brother, Warren, on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys Calif.
“This is literally the worst place we could have lived, and we were living in the worst motel possible,” Cole said. “We thought we were untouchable. We were doing nine grams of heroin a day, and selling a shit ton of the stuff,” he recalls with a laugh and an eye roll.
On a day like any other, Cole walked across the boulevard wearing crisp new clothes, brand new shoes with a bag of heroin in hand. Little did he know, an off-duty cop was sitting across the street at Carl’s Jr. eating a burger. The cop watched as Cole did a hand-to-hand deal. Once Cole got back to his apartment, his brother looked at him with an mixture of disappointment and panic.
“Man….we fucked up,” said Warren.
“What do you mean?” Cole said obliviously.
Not even three minutes later their apartment building was swarmed with cop cars.
Warren had his foot against the door, trying to buy as much time as possible. Finally, he gives up and lets the cops in. Although the brothers were able to hide $4000 cash and an ounce and a half of heroine in a trashcan, there was no hiding the drug deal the cop had seen.
Cole took all the blame and was sentenced six months in county jail.
“I didn’t remember the first five days,” said Cole with his head down, recalling his worst kick. “I almost died coming off heroin. I threw up and shit on myself… the prison workers had to shower me. I had cold sweats and I didn’t eat for 26 days and barely slept at all.”
Because Cole was a non-violent offender, he was let out early and went back to living with Warren. “I was weak, but I didn’t want to touch drugs, I wanted to prove everyone wrong,” said Cole.
Three months later, he ends up in jail once again for probation violation. “Probation really sets you up for failure,” explains a frustrated sounding Cole. “You have to go back to the same city where you messed up. That’s where all your friends and customers are. They make you go back to that bad place and check in and I was like, ‘fuck that.’”
Three long months go by until he’s set free. Homeless, jobless, moneyless, family and friendless, Cole goes back to selling heroin with a man who lived near him.
This time coke and meth are also on his menu.
A few months later, the cycle continues. After and 18-year-old girl customer rats on Cole’s operation, the cops follow him for a week.
On Feb. 13, 2013, was buying lunch at Pizza Hut.
“All of a sudden I noticed the cashier’s eyes get real big.” Cole turned around just in time to see the badges hanging around the men’s necks as they slammed his head down on the counter.
The cops searched the apartment Cole was staying at and found four ounces of heroin, an ounce of coke and half pound of meth. He was locked up for possession with intent to sell two controlled substances – that weren’t his.
A new program called AB109 allowed Cole to go to jail when he should have gone to prison.
“This was by far…the worst year…of my life,’ said Cole slowly. For two months, Cole lived in a 15’ by 9’ cell with two bunk beds, a desk, a phone and a toilet. “Just imagine your head being where some dude was shitting,” Cole said, shaking his head in disgust. They were allowed to leave the cell every other day for a three-minute shower.
He was then transferred to Wayside Correctional Facility where living was a little more comfortable. Cole planned to move back in with Warren when he was released, the only bridge he hadn’t burned. His plan was ruined when Warren showed up at Wayside wearing orange.
Cole was released from jail for his last time on the same day as the biggest meth dealer in the St. Gabriel County. Having nowhere to go, Cole moved in with his drug dealer friend from jail and his family.
“We got out of jail and we felt so free. We went to Denny’s and grubbed so hard.” Cole says with a laugh. “We were finally free, ya know?” The excitement wore off quick, and money ran out fast – so back to selling drugs it was.
While Cole was in the drug selling business, he had been robbed, pistol whipped, shot, and stabbed, all during drug deals gone bad. With the massive amounts of money he was making during these years, the pain and suffering seemed worth it at the time.
After getting into a huge fight with his roommate, he got kicked out to the streets once again. With no money, nowhere to live and nothing to eat, Cole finally asked for help.
Tim and Mary Sue Crowley live in a big farmhouse in the middle of a field in a quiet town called Rochester, Vt. After not hearing from her nephew since her sister passed 11 years ago, Mary Sue received a Facebook message from Cole that was straight to the point: ‘Aunt Mary, I need help.’
Mary Sue knew she had to help her late sister’s son. There was no question about it. “When we first talked on the phone, he only told us half truths,” she said. Mary Sue made it very clear that she would not send money to California, if Cole wanted help, he was going to be helped the way the Crowley’s offered. He could come stay with them in Vermont and get his life back on track.
“I told him before he arrived that I was agreeing to this for my wife,” said Tim. “And that he’d better be ready to be successful because anything shy of that would break Mary Sue’s heart.”
After the decision to house Cole, the Crowleys were nervous.
“Tim and I were really scared,” admitted Mary Sue. “We were about to bring a man into our lives that we might not be able to help, and all we wanted to do was help.”
Mary Sue also knew her husband didn’t exactly agree with her decision at first.
“I was concerned about bringing him here, family or not,” said Tim. “But I love my wife and I could tell this was tremendously important to her.”
The Crowleys first step was to get Cole a legitimate license so he could fly out of LAX. Their second step: to get him on the plane.
“I didn’t get on the plane. I couldn’t,” Cole said with his head bowed. “ I got to the gate and thought ‘damn man, I can’t go to Rochester, Vermont.’ ”
The Crowleys didn’t hear from Cole for three days. Feeling worried, scared and a little relieved, Mary Sue remembers thinking, “well you know, at least I tried.”
Cole finally made a phone call to Vermont to explain himself. He apologized and asked for another chance. He got on his second flight and flew across the country to start all over.
“I chose a drug over my kids. I chose it over everything. Heroin took everything from me, my dignity, my soul, my family. I had to do something,” he admitted.
Cole has been staying with the Crowleys for six months, living a life so drastically different from the one he left behind.
“People who have that kind of addiction have stolen time from their lives,” explained Mary Sue with pain in her voice. “He had an arrested development from the time he started using drugs as a kid. You don’t mature when you are on drugs like he was. We always keep that in mind.”
The Crowleys never treated their nephew like a child. He makes all his own decisions and spends his money how he wants.
“We trust him,” said Mary Sue.
Much to Cole’s surprise, he landed three jobs fairly quickly. “He was so surprised and thankful,” said Mary Sue. “He knew that these people were aware of his past but were willing to hire him anyway, that blew him away.”
In October, Cole was offered a job at the gas station in town. The “Skip Mart” is owned by a very close friend of Mary Sue named Penny Parrish.
“I saw him work his ass off all summer at his other jobs,” said Parrish. “I can tell that he’s motivated to better himself. He needed a job and I needed a worker.”
Cole misses nothing more than his children. He wants to see them, but knows going back to California would be his worst mistake of all. For now, he sends them presents and money in the mail, and video chats with them when possible.
“I’ve done more for my kids 3,000 miles away then I ever did 30 minutes away,” said Cole with a sense of pride.
The Crowleys have been pleasantly surprised and amazed with Cole’s transformation, they can see his appreciation and growth with everything he does.
“We are proud of him every day,” said Tim.
“I knew if anyone could save him it would be Mary Sue,” added Parrish.
Cole is proud of himself as well.
“Being out here is like a whole different world,” said Cole. “I actually wake up happy. I haven’t been able to say that in a very long time.”
Looking back, Cole can see a lifetime of bad choices, but the choice that stands out the most is the decision to ask his aunt and uncle from Vermont for help