There was something about him.
Even amid despair, Justin Reynolds’s sweetness and charm shone. Drunk and pale, his shoulders rounded, he sat on a bed at the Midtown Hotel, gently resisting the people trying to help him.
“There are too many things to mend,” he’d told his friend and pastor Charles Baldanza. “I miss my mama. I want to go to heaven. Death would be a relief.”
Baldanza called 911. On that frigid morning, Nov. 30, the call went out reporting “an EDP.” Justin was an emotionally disturbed person.
A police officer with whom I was riding along that day answered the call. We arrived to find an exhausted Baldanza standing in the hallway, as police and EMTs tried to talk Justin into going with them. Justin was polite and engaging as they tried to draw him out on his background. He was smart enough to know that resisting would only make things worse, so when an EMT offered him the chance to smoke one last cigarette before visiting the ER, Justin agreed.
I didn’t even know his name back then, but for months after he climbed into that ambulance, Justin stuck with me. I wondered how he’d gotten to that point and how he was doing now.
In August, Justin’s body was found in back of an Egleston Square apartment building. His death was like so many, an apparent overdose in a city that sees them with grim regularity.
His life, though: That was like no other. Baldanza had never known anybody like Justin before they met at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton 11 years ago.
“I remember thinking immediately that this person was going to be my friend, and I am not the only person to feel that way,” said Baldanza, a pastor at Christ the King church in Jamaica Plain, where Justin belonged. People opened up to Justin, telling him their life stories, and he would remember every detail, “like a stereotypical politician, but he really meant it,” Baldanza said. “He knew how to make people feel comfortable, valuable.” Justin was open in return. He never hid the struggles with alcohol and drugs that had begun in his teens.
“I guess it turned when he was 16,” said his mother, Sharon Oliver, who lives in Scottsville in Kentucky, where Justin grew up. As a kid, her only child was happy and gregarious and good at school. But he started smoking and messing with drugs, and drinking to get drunk. “We just always hoped and prayed he’d outgrow it,” Oliver said. Justin could hold it together, though. After flunking out after partying through his first semester at the University of Kentucky, he eventually graduated from college. He wanted to be a missionary.
He was clean when he arrived at Gordon-Conwell, but relapsed after breaking up with his fiancee early in 2007. He drove drunk and high, and got into a car accident that crushed his leg and put him in a wheelchair for months. His stepfather, R.D. Oliver, moved into his dorm to help him. Justin managed to stay straight until he could get around again, then picked right up. He sought help from Teen Challenge, a controversial faith-based recovery program. It worked, until it didn’t. He lived in West Virginia and Idaho and was sometimes homeless. He got in trouble with the law.
A chance meeting with another pastor at Christ the King brought him back to Baldanza’s church, housed in borrowed space at the JP Brewery complex. Justin belonged to that church, and the church to him. Baldanza and the others embraced him not out of charity, but because Justin gave them joy and remarkable friendship. They needed him. He was always quoting dialogue from “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” his favorite movie, and he devoured classics by Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Melville, and the Puritans. He regaled his friends with lectures on the greatness of Teddy Roosevelt. He loved hunting and fishing and strong coffee and dessert.
“He and I really understood each other,” said Baldanza, who spoke about Justin with his family’s blessing. “I confided in him things I probably haven’t confided to anybody else, and won’t.”
There were a couple of years in there where Justin mostly stayed clean. He finished his theology degree. He managed a sober house. He was getting treatment for his depression and anxiety. He preached a couple of sermons at church: “I am a mess,” he said disarmingly in one of them, testifying to the grace that got him through each day.
Last Fall, Justin’s illness dragged him under again. On another bender, he threatened to jump from a hotel window. Baldanza called 911 and Justin was sent, without his consent, to a detox unit at a psychiatric hospital. A week after his release, he was drinking again.
“I ached for him,” his mother said. “I wanted to take away his burden. I just felt helpless to do anything.”
Justin knew he’d hurt people, and that pained him enormously. “Too many things to mend,” he’d said that morning at the Midtown Hotel, where he talked again of wanting to die.
This time, the ambulance took him to Boston Medical Center, where physicians evaluated him and did not force him into treatment. He walked out of the hospital, and Baldanza followed him around for the rest of the day, trying to keep him from drinking again. That night, the pastor convinced a couple from the church to take Justin in. He lasted a few days.
“That was the point at which I said to him, ‘I am not chasing you any more,’” Baldanza said.“It was beyond the point where it was helping him.”
Justin spent the next few months drinking and not drinking, even holding down a restaurant job for a bit. In early August, he was asked to leave yet another sober house. He told Baldanza he was headed back to Bournewood, a psychiatric treatment center in Chestnut Hill. He was supposed to start there on Monday, Aug. 8th.
“I love you and [R.D.] so much,” he wrote in an e-mail to his mother on Aug. 4th. “I sense you with me and always embrace the fact that I am your son and you are in my heart as I am in yours. Love you and talk to you soon. Justin loves you.”
That was the last time she heard from him.
Justin’s body was found sitting up against a red wooden fence behind a brick building off Columbus Avenue on the morning of Aug. 6. He lay in the morgue for a week before he was identified. He lay there as his mother fretted and prayed because she hadn’t heard from him, and she always heard from him. He lay there as Baldanza grew increasingly sure something bad had happened.
“This is really weird, but even in all of that, the fact that he could be dead didn’t even occur to us,” Baldanza said. “He was so resourceful, so street smart. You sort of think that kind of luck is never going to run out.”
Two police officers knocked at Sharon Oliver’s door the next Saturday morning to tell her Justin, 36, was dead. They put her on the phone with a detective in Boston who told her it looked like a heroin overdose. She still hasn’t gotten her son’s belongings back, and she hasn’t been able to reach the detective who might have answers to the questions that torment her. Last week, the medical examiner found that Justin’s cause and manner of death were undetermined. While there was enough alcohol, cocaine, and fentanyl in his system to have killed him, Sharon said, there was also a broken bone in his neck they could not explain.
“I don’t have peace about it,” she said. “I just don’t know how to get over it.”
A good friend of Justin’s, a member of his church, had once lived in the building where his body was found. Oliver thinks Justin, disoriented and not realizing his friend had moved, had gone there for help.
He’d found it so many times before.