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Overdose leads to one of state’s first cases in which the dealer is charged in connection with death

  • With tears in her eyes, Suzanne Brown recalls the day her son, Ryan Smith, died from a drug overdose. Above, Brown shows the tattoo on her right forearm meant as a message to Smith, who died this past summer. Photos by Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Ryan Smith holds his niece, Cecilia. Courtesy

  • Suzanne Brown (center), her husband Kevin Brown (left) and daughter Kayla Smith talk about Ryan Smith, their son and brother, and the last conversations they had with him from Kayla Smith's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Ryan Smith died from an overdose earlier this summer in Concord. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Suzanne Brown and her daughter Kayla Smith talk about Ryan Smith, their son and brother, and his rapid decline into heavy drug use from Kayla Smith's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Ryan Smith died from an overdose earlier this summer in Concord. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Suzanne Brown and her daughter Kayla Smith share funny stories about Ryan Smith, their son and brother, from Kayla Smith's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Ryan Smith died from an overdose earlier this summer in Concord. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Suzanne Brown and her daughter Kayla Smith go through photos of Ryan Smith, their son and brother, at Kayla Smith's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Ryan Smith died from an overdose earlier this summer in Concord. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Wearing a necklace featuring the thumb print of her late brother Ryan, Kayla Smith talks about changes she hopes come to addiction services to help others in the future from home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Ryan Smith died from a drug overdose earlier this summer in Concord. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Photos of Ryan Smith at his sister Kayla Smith's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Ryan Smith died from an overdose earlier this summer in Concord. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Suzanne Brown displays a tattoo remembering her son Ryan Smith, who died from a drug overdose earlier this summer, while at her daughter's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Suzanne Brown wipes tears away during a conversation about her son Ryan Smith, who died of a drug overdose earlier this year, while at her daughter's home in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, December 02, 2017

Inked in cursive on Suzanne Brown’s right forearm are the words, “If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever.”

The message is for her only son, Ryan Smith, who at age 30 died this summer of a fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose.

For years, Ryan’s family pushed to get him access to drug treatment. Ryan, though, was never ready.

His mom takes comfort in knowing her son’s dealer is off the streets, but she also knows Ryan made choices, too, that led to his death. Each time Ryan shot up, he was playing a lethal game of chance all users and dealers play, she said, noting that what sells as heroin is rarely pure.

“I do believe if you are the one who sold that fatal dose, if you knew a person could have died, if you just sat there and watched it, and then continued to sell, you should be charged,” Brown, of Laconia, said in an interview at her daughter’s Concord home. “I’m a firm believer in that – in taking (dealers) off the streets so another mother doesn’t have to go through what I’ve been through.”

Spencer Grayson, 21, of Concord faces two counts of acts prohibited for selling Ryan the drugs that authorities say resulted in his death. Grayson was the last one to see Ryan alive before the two shot up behind Cumberland Farms on North Main Street in Concord on July 26.

If convicted, Grayson faces a maximum sentence of life in prison with possibility of parole.

His arrest is part of a statewide push by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office to hold dealers accountable in overdose deaths. The case is the second of its kind to be prosecuted in the capital city.

While drug overdose deaths were once viewed by law enforcement as little more than tragic accidents, they are now being handled as serious crimes. In April 2016, then-state Attorney General Joseph Foster announced a partnership between his office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to pursue dealers in fatal overdose cases. Gordon MacDonald, who succeeded Foster, continues those efforts.

The push toward life sentences marks a significant shift in strategy for prosecutors, and it opens a debate into how far New Hampshire should go to legally address the epidemic.

The ‘demon’ inside

Brown said she always hoped her only son would accept help to fight the “demon” that had grown to control his mind and body. In the months before his death, Brown did not recognize her son, not just because he had lost 50 pounds and developed scabs on his once clear skin, but because his next methamphetamine fix was always forefront in his mind.

During her last heart-to-heart with Ryan, she had confronted him about the track marks on his lower arms.

“Ryan, when are you going to stop this and realize what you’re doing to yourself?” she recalled asking him as the two shared a meal at the kitchen table.

He replied, “I’m never going to quit. I like what I do, and I know my limits.”

“I told him, ‘Ryan, I don’t want to bury my child,’ ” Brown said as she began to cry.

Escalating drug use

Ryan, who grew up in Barnstead, began experimenting with marijuana when he was a freshman at Franklin High School. He was known to skip the school day altogether, and that year he made the decision to drop out.

His drug use escalated over the next several years. At age 18, his mom kicked him out of the house so he relocated to Ohio for roughly a year to live with his grandparents and “get away from it all,” his family said. The Midwest, however, introduced him to a new drug of choice – cocaine.

By age 21, Ryan was back home in New Hampshire, where his drug use continued. For the first time, he began abusing opioids after becoming acquainted with a family who his mom said provided him “easy access.” When the supply went dry, Suboxone became the next best thing. It was also the drug that first landed him in jail.

Ryan was convicted in 2015 of Suboxone possession and other charges, and spent 14 months at the Sullivan County jail in Unity. He was accepted into the jail’s drug treatment program, known statewide for its success in reducing recidivism, but he never completed it. Even still, the program and his incarceration made an impact.

When he was released from jail in March 2016, his family got a glimpse of the Ryan they’d known from long ago: the “gentle giant,” the man who equally loved Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Manson, and the uncle who would play games with his niece and nephew in the yard.

But by that spring, Ryan’s life had spiraled out of control once again. For a short time, he had lived with his sister, Kayla Smith, at her mobile home in Concord. But by June, he was back on the streets after Kayla had found a needle in a pile of his dirty laundry and kicked him out.

“His most serious decline was because of the meth,” Kayla said, noting Ryan would use heroin to withdrawal from the stimulant.

Kayla, now 27, was the younger sister, but she said she took care of Ryan from an early age because she was concerned about his safety and well-being. That included regularly checking in on Facebook to make sure there hadn’t been a significant lapse in time since Ryan’s last post or conversation.

“If he wasn’t active, something was wrong,” she said, noting social media was his main form of communication.

Roughly an hour before her brother’s fatal overdose, Kayla had checked Facebook. Ryan had been online. He appeared safe.

Turning away help

Four days earlier, Kayla had driven Ryan to the Manchester Fire Department so he could seek drug treatment services as part of the city’s Safe Stations program, which helps addicts get connected to treatment support and services 24/7.

Not quite two months had passed since Kayla had first taken Ryan to the Manchester Safe Station for services. That first time, Ryan had spent 13 days detoxing and beginning his initial steps toward recovery. He awaited a bed at an inpatient program, but one never opened up before he decided to return to the streets.

When Ryan asked Kayla to take him to Manchester for services on July 22, she was ready to help, although skeptical about whether he was committed. She said she drove from place to place helping Ryan get his clothes and personal items as he had no stable residence at the time. When they finally got to Concord, she said, he asked her to drop him off in the city, but she refused and proceeded to Manchester.

That was the last time she saw her brother.

That same day, Ryan accepted a proposition from his dealer through Facebook, court records show. Ryan had agreed to watch Grayson’s back and, in exchange, Grayson promised Ryan methamphetamine at a cut-rate price.

“I’ll keep you high as a kite and sell you tina [sic] at my price if you can be the muscle and back me up when I need it,” Grayson wrote using a slang term for methamphetamine.

On July 23, Grayson picked Ryan up at the Manchester Homeless Services Center at the intersection of Central and Pine streets. Court records show Ryan spent much of his last two days with Grayson buying, selling and using.

Forever changed

Two Laconia police officers were the first to inform Ryan’s family of his death on the morning of July 26. Ryan’s stepfather, Kevin Brown, was home, but his wife was already at work in Manchester. Upon receiving the news, Kevin immediately called Kayla.

“All I heard was, ‘He didn’t make it,’ ” Kayla recalled, adding she knew immediately Ryan had fatally overdosed.

“(Kevin) told me he wanted to go for a ride to Manchester,” she added.

She was confused at first, but then quickly understood: They needed to tell her mom.

Kayla had been preparing herself for this moment for months, and she had been trying to prepare her mom for the possibility, as well.

“You are ready, but you are never ready,” Suzanne Brown said.

“When you go through something like this you’re a totally different person,” she added.

For Kayla, the past few months have taken her back to her childhood and reminded her of the dream she first had 16 years ago. After seeing firsthand her brother’s struggle, Kayla is studying addiction counseling at NHTI in hopes of helping those who have hit rock bottom and feel they have nowhere to turn for help.

One important lesson Kayla said she has learned is to “offer help, not judgment.” It’s a motto she is trying to live by each day, as she remembers Ryan whose name is imprinted on her upper arm in a tattoo identical to her mom’s.

On a recent night, Kayla said, she observed two homeless people with signs outside Market Basket; they had nothing and were asking for money. Rather than continue home, Kayla returned to the store to buy two sandwiches, two bags of chips and two bottles of water.

“I did it because that could have been him,” Kayla said, while looking down at a favorite photo of her brother.

“Everyone has a story.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)