Two lives behind a curtain
A scientist's death unveils a couple's secret drug use
Only in hindsight did it strike anyone as odd: Carrie John never seemed to invite friends and neighbors into her Ridgely's Delight rowhouse. Instead, she would meet friends out, or people would watch from the corner to make sure she got in after a night at the bar.
"None of us ever went inside," said a friend, Julie Della-Maria.
The reason might have been the "huge gardens" of marijuana and assorted pills that police found on the day John, a 29-year-old drug abuse researcher, died after injecting what she thought was a narcotic.
John's death Sept. 27 yanked the curtain off a secret life of drug use that she and her fiance, Clinton McCracken, hid from friends, family and colleagues at the University of Maryland, where both worked as pharmacologists doing brain research.
John's apparent lack of hospitality may have had a benign explanation. But those who knew the couple have been searching back for any hints that might have tipped them off. Maybe they could have saved her life and kept his from imploding.
"You feel you didn't know anything," said Della-Maria, who last saw them just a week earlier eating cheeseburgers at the Camden Pub. "All of us are almost responsible for what happened."
An autopsy recently revealed that John had no drugs in her system and died from an unknown allergic reaction to something in her syringe, made worse by her asthma. Still, police said the couple clearly had meant to get high on the opiate buprenorphine, and McCracken told police that in the past they had used morphine and OxyContin from the Philippines.
Why, given the obvious perils, would they use opiates when they knew exactly how the drugs affect the brain? And why risk injecting themselves with drugs bought online? The federal government says online drug marts are part of a global network peddling dangerously unreliable goods.
When did these two start using opiates? And how did they hide it behind the drawn blinds of their Dover Street house? McCracken was open about his pot-smoking, but friends thought that was it.
A few hints have emerged. McCracken told police and John's mother that they felt they could control the drugs, which he had been buying for two or three years. In an interview, his lawyer, David Irwin, said they "weren't drug addicts. It was a recreational, relaxation thing for them." He also called them "too smart for their own good."
As academic researchers, McCracken and John had to know they were unlikely to be tested for drugs by the School of Medicine. While nothing suggests that they obtained drugs from their labs, John's mother thinks periodic testing could have revealed their drug use and led them to treatment. After all, she said, her daughter experimented with rats using cocaine. Experts say it is not rare for medical professionals to use illicit drugs - or for people to conceal their use for years.
People close to John say her involvement was wholly unexpected.
"I couldn't believe this happened to my daughter," said Marianne Woessner, a nurse-midwife who treats drug addicts in North Carolina.
Woessner had not seen her daughter since Christmas but spoke to her every week or two. In their last conversation, she said, John sounded "wonderful, wonderful. Did she sound like a drug abuser? No. I just don't know. I'm still mulling that in my head."
Drug abuse experts say users often function well for long periods.
"The problem is, eventually it does become a problem," said Michael Gimbel, former director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse. "You have to leave work early or you steal something from work or you overdose and you die."
But in this case, Gimbel said, "it's hard to believe" there weren't red flags, given the nature of the drug use. "That's very unusual," he said. "They really must have been hiding it pretty good."
Della-Maria didn't notice a single sign of their drug use, and so, she said ruefully, "there was no option of helping."
Irwin acknowledged that McCracken grew marijuana - one of 14 counts against him, carrying up to five years in prison. Irwin called his client a "regular" marijuana user who got mixed up in intravenous drug use. McCracken told police he did not get to inject himself before John began having trouble breathing, and that he called 911.
But Irwin denied allegations that his Canadian-born client intended to distribute marijuana or prescription drugs. McCracken's arraignment is scheduled for Dec. 9 in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Whatever happens in court, McCracken's world has come crashing down. He no longer works at Maryland; his fiancee is dead. "He's a sad guy right now," Irwin said.
Just a day before John's death, the couple appeared to be thriving. They drove to Pennsylvania to attend a party thrown by a graduate school friend.
John had lost a few pounds and added highlights to her brown hair. Over kebabs, sausage and beer, she mentioned a new brain research project she was excited to launch. The bearded McCracken was his usual sharp, witty self. Just shy of 33, he was busy applying for a major grant, which is why they said they couldn't stay the night.
"They looked very happy," said the host, Sara Jane Ward, a research scientist at Temple University. "There was no sense their lives were falling apart. ... Several times a day I stop and think, 'If I keep thinking about this, I can make it untrue.' It is still devastating and so shocking to us all."
Meeting of minds
The couple met in 2000 at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., while pursuing doctoral degrees. He was in his second year; she was fresh out of Cornell University.
Only 20, John had long been precocious. She began kindergarten at 4 in her hometown of Wilmington, N.C., where her father lives, and took advanced classes.
Impatient with high school, she opted to combine her senior year and first year of college at Clarkson University in upstate New York. The next year she entered Cornell as a sophomore. Early on, she dreamed of becoming a heart surgeon before shifting to neuroscience and the study of drug abuse. At Wake Forest, she examined how methamphetamine altered brain cells in mice.
"She was always, always so darned smart," said her mother.
John, known to friends as CJ or "Carrie John," led an active life outside the lab, taking up Irish dance and playing intramural softball. Friends also remember a humble, unassuming side. She took time opening up to people and did a lot of listening. She was quietly proud of her Native American heritage on her father's side.
McCracken grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, the son of two physicians. He developed an early love of hockey and snowboarding, and learned to play electric guitar, childhood friends say. He could plow through a complex novel in no time.
At Wake Forest, McCracken studied how cocaine and heroin affected rat brains. His intellect intimidated Ward, his lab mate.
"He's sort of like a sponge," she said. "His mind works twice as fast as yours."
For four years, Ward sat near McCracken, and she says he never evinced any curiosity about trying the drugs they studied, leaving her at a loss to explain his path.
Around 2003, McCracken and John began dating. They never announced it; people just noticed they were a couple. After getting their Ph.D.s, McCracken went to the University of Pittsburgh for a postdoctoral fellowship while John moved to the University of Maryland for hers, arriving in 2006.
As they settled into a long-distance relationship, John explored Baltimore, with and without McCracken. She joined a sports league, took walks with her dog, Roxie, and became a faithful member of her neighborhood's Citizens on Patrol.
Reuniting in Baltimore
In June, the couple reunited when McCracken got a research job at a different University of Maryland lab and moved in with John.
It was then that friends and neighbors started seeing her less. They simply figured the couple were busy setting up a household, if they noticed at all.
"We assumed it was because he was in town, she was settling into a new schedule," said Allison Pendell Jones, a neighbor who until July usually saw John at the weekly foot patrols. "We didn't think anything about it."
On the day of John's death, McCracken told police that for two or three years he had been ordering various drugs - buprenorphine, morphine, OxyContin and marijuana - from an online pharmacy in the Philippines. The pharmacy did not reply to e-mails seeking comment.
Eager to explain himself, he told an officer that "he thought they could control the morphine and buprenorphine," court records say. "He also stated that he could sit here all day and tell me why marijuana should be legal. He stated that no one ever got hurt using those drugs, it must have been the batch of pills that were bad."
The drugs McCracken bought are milder than the destructively addictive heroin. Buprenorphine is widely used to wean addicts off heroin, and advocates of the therapy say it is less likely to be abused. While the pills can be bought on the street in Baltimore, McCracken might have searched for his overseas because the locally available kind is formulated to discourage people from dissolving and then injecting it.
The University of Maryland, Baltimore regularly screens only its police officers and drivers for drugs, said spokeswoman Karen Buckelew, but it may test employees who show signs of drug abuse. This mirrors the policy of the University System of Maryland. A spokeswoman at the National Institute on Drug Abuse said institutions receiving federal grants design their own drug-free workplace policies.
No one at John's lab or McCracken's lab has commented, and the university has said little. But Marianne Benoit- Marand, a French neuroscientist who worked with John in 2007 and has friends at that lab, said John was doing excellent work.
"They were in shock," Benoit- Marand said of lab staff. "One of my friends told me they couldn't understand what was going on. It was so big, so unexpected."
McCracken's adviser for four years at Pittsburgh said he saw no sign that he was using drugs.
"Not at all," said Anthony A. Grace, a professor of neuroscience. "He spent his weekends in Baltimore. The rest of the time he was here. He was a very focused, hard-working individual."
Grace added: "It seems counterintuitive with what someone with a good knowledge would do. And he knew these things extremely well. But that's what happens: Drugs hijack the brain. It's not that someone's a good person or bad person, but it's a disease that needs to be treated."
Only McCracken knows what happened, and his lawyer hinted that he might talk publicly someday.
"He's trying to figure out how to live the rest of his life," Irwin said. "Part of that is going to be sharing with people, at the appropriate time, his mistakes."
By Scott Calvert
Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.
November 22, 2009