One was a doting father and Army soldier, known back home in the South for his love of video games and mud riding. Another was a striking young woman from Mantua, Va., who wrote poetry and dreamed of becoming a chef. The third was an avid Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan who never shied away from a political debate and took in family members when they needed a place to stay.
Strangers to one another in life, they shared an addiction to heroin, fueled by the same D.C. drug dealer. And one by one, they died using a deadly substance that authorities say has permeated the East Coast, leaving a trail of grieving family members.
“It’s ridiculous. I can’t count on two hands how many of his friends and people that he has known in the last five years have died of overdoses,” said Ellen Pearson, whose 33-year-old son, Josh Pearson, fatally injected himself last April. “For parents who think that it can’t ever happen to them, well, it can.”
On Friday, the longtime D.C. dealer whose drugs were used by Josh Pearson and others was sentenced in Virginia federal court to 30 years in prison.
Prosecutors had asked that Eugene Asomani Williams, a father who went by the moniker “Shine,” spend 35 years in prison so that “no other addicts will become corpses because of drugs” he sells. Family members say they are glad Williams will be locked away, although they know taking one dealer off the street is unlikely to stem the flow of heroin.
“There’s 150 Shines in D.C. . . . They see the money come through the window, and they put the packages in the door, and they don’t think twice about it,” said Dan Simpson, who has struggled with addiction himself and whose half sister, 22-year-old Kara Schachinger, was one of the three who died.
Authorities in the D.C. area and across the country have cautioned for months that more and more people are abusing heroin — a narcotic with a power users do not fully understand. And federal prosecutors in Alexandria have been particularly aggressive in pursuing those trafficking the drug, especially when young users are victimized by it.
The three who died using drugs sold by Williams — Pearson, Schachinger and 23-year-old Army Pvt. Timothy Huffman — have remarkably similar stories. All were young, loved, full of potential. None of their mothers was prepared to bury them.
“I thought someone was just messing with me,” said Holly Garity, whose son, Huffman, was stationed at Fort Belvoir when he overdosed. “He was more like a mama’s boy. Anybody said anything bad about his mama, he would take care of it.”
There were signs. Garity, who lives in Alabama, said she had heard that her son was smoking marijuana some time before he left for the Army. Ann Schachinger said that she became concerned when her daughter began hanging around men in their 20s when she was just a teenager and student at Fairfax County’s W.T. Woodson High School.
Still, she said she was shocked to learn the drug her daughter chose.
“When I was in school, we didn’t touch heroin,” Schachinger said. “We were terrified of it.”
Ellen Pearson said she noticed her son — an outgoing, affable young man — becoming increasingly moody around 2010. In 2011, she said, he overdosed but survived.
He was jailed for more than a year for drug-related offenses and had been out only a few months when he injected the fatal dose, she said.
“Really, the last 31 / 2 years were about his addiction,” Ellen Pearson said. “It’s just too strong. Once you do it, it’s really hard to walk away from, and not many people ever do.”
Huffman was the first to die. According to court records, he was injected with what would prove to be the fatal dose on Jan. 12, 2012, at his residence at Fort Belvoir. Kara Schachinger was next. She injected herself with heroin in a bathtub on Feb. 3, 2012, and drowned after she slipped beneath the water, court records show.
Ann Schachinger said she woke up in a start that morning, her motherly instincts telling her something was wrong. Seeing her daughter’s bedroom door open — and the bathroom door shut and locked — she said she frantically searched for a screwdriver to break in.
“What you do is you walk over knowing what you’re going to find,” Ann Schachinger said.
Pearson’s overdose on a combination of heroin and another drug came almost a year later, at a friend’s house in Fairfax County. Ellen Pearson said she was almost too distraught to plan her son’s funeral, leaving the task largely to his grandparents.
The losses of all three victims were felt acutely. Garity said her son was planning to leave the Army the month he died so he could move back south with his wife and daughter, who is now 3. Pearson said her son, a Bucs fan who took in family members when they needed a place to stay, was so loved that people stood at his funeral when the seats filled.
Schachinger said she still feels the spirit of her daughter, a talented artist who loved jazz music.
“Just the week before, I said, ‘Don’t die on me, Kara,’ ” she said. “She promised me she wouldn’t die, but she did.”
Schachinger said she knew of “Shine” before her daughter’s death.
According to court records, the married father — who wrote in a letter to the judge that he has seven children — also struggled with drug abuse.
“My soul aches knowing I could’ve played a part in drugs contributing to fatal adverse effects of others addiction,” Williams wrote in the letter. “I’m no stranger to addiction myself.”
Williams, 35, who pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to distribute heroin and to a related gun charge, wrote in the letter that he was introduced to heroin in jail and soon developed a “dealers habit,” using copious amounts of the drug every day.
Williams sold throughout the D.C. area, generally charging $100 for a gram of heroin and meeting customers in the parking lots of gas stations, restaurants and churches, court records show. Schachinger and Huffman met Williams in person to buy their last doses; Pearson got his through a friend, the records show.
Court records show Williams is loved in his own right. Several family members and friends, including his son’s kindergarten teacher and a PTA president, wrote letters describing him as a loving and supportive father. In an emotional video message, some of his children asked the judge to show mercy.
Todd Baldwin, Williams’s defense attorney, wrote in a court filing that Williams should face only the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, noting that his client never meant for anyone to die and had expressed “sincere and tremendous remorse for his actions.” Prosecutors had sought an additional 20 years.
“The loss is immeasurable because the Court cannot predict the good that Kara Schachinger, Timothy Huffman, and Josh Pearson could have done, and the lives that they would have touched,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Ben’Ary wrote in a court filing.
Garity said knowing that investigators had identified Williams as the source of her son’s fatal dose gave her “peace of mind.” Ellen Pearson said she has forgiven Williams, though she wants him to “realize what his role was in the death of these three people.”
Ann Schachinger said she holds Williams partly responsible for her daughter’s death because “without his assistance, she might still be with me.”
“There are drug users, and there are drug pushers and predators,” Schachinger said, “and I think the guy is bad news.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.