Part of the PublicSource series
Stories about the opioid epidemic
in the Pittsburgh region.
About this series.
ACT ONE: A Miracle in Beltzhoover
Paul Lee and his younger brother Andy say they witnessed a miracle when they were boys. Now middle-aged, they recall this memory with fondness and fascination. Their belief in it hasn’t wavered.
They were boys, Paul 8 and Andy 7. Their mother had given them both new bikes for Christmas. They rushed out of the house. At the top of the hill, Paul went first. Andy followed closely behind. They careened, wind whooshing by their ears, hearts racing. The road made a sharp turn at the bottom of the hill. They knew it would. They’d done this a hundred times.
What they never saw before were two cars. Right in front of them.
Andy was behind Paul and in the fast-slow way accidents happen, he knew his brother was going to smash into the cars. He knew he would soon follow.
But then something unexpected happened. Andy said a man appeared and moved Paul to safety, right between the two cars. The man also guided Andy through the vehicles. Neither driver noticed. The man, angel, ghost, whatever he was, disappeared. Paul and Andy, panting, stared at each other. What had just happened? They were shaking.
Paul grabbed Andy’s shoulder and said to him, “Andy, remember what just happened today. Don’t ever forget it.”
Years later, when Andy and Paul were 19 and 20, they devised a plan to start selling cocaine from New York in Pittsburgh. Andy said they thought their endeavor would be like the movie “Scarface.” Paul had recently dropped out of the New York Institute of Technology and came back to Pittsburgh. The University of Pittsburgh had just kicked Andy out of school. The brothers were young, forced to start over.
“We’re going to have to come out of this drug addiction together, bro. You gotta come out.”
Two years later, both brothers had become addicted. Andy burned out quickly and got clean, but Paul continued to use for almost two decades.
Their drug enterprise entangled some of their siblings. When Andy, now 51, admitted this at his kitchen table in Sheraden a month ago, he broke down and cried. He and Paul introduced their family to drugs, and it has had disastrous effects.
Years earlier, when Paul was at the height of his drug addiction and barely surviving, Andy asked him if he remembered the miracle.
“There’s a reason that we went through that together,” Andy remembered saying to Paul. “We’re going to have to come out of this drug addiction together, bro. You gotta come out.”
The Lee family is a big one: 12 kids. They grew up in Pittsburgh’s southern neighborhood of Beltzhoover with their mother, Marjorie.
When Paul and Andy talk about their childhood, they smile. When they talk about their teenage years, there’s a shift in their demeanor. It was around that time in the late 1980s when crack entered the neighborhood and the people and places in their narrative sound increasingly desperate and neglected.
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Even today, the epidemic of drug overdoses, largely reported as a white suburban crisis, is heavily impacting the black community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug death rate is increasing the fastest for black people ages 45 to 64. In urban counties nationwide, CDC data shows drug deaths among blacks rose by 41 percent in 2016, compared to deaths among whites rising by 19 percent in the same year.
Wendell “Kaba” Wilson, 48, grew up with the Lee brothers. They played in the street, went to school together and sometimes fought each other, too. As an adult, Kaba struggled with addiction for decades. He now calls Paul his best friend.
Kaba remembers the change in Beltzhoover after crack hit the streets. He had gone to live with his mother in Atlanta and finish high school. He was out of Pittsburgh from 1986 to 1988. When he came back, he was shocked. It was no longer the place he once called “wonderful.”
“It was like the life was sucked out of the neighborhood. It was awful.”
Kaba remembers asking someone, “What the hell is going on?” They told him it was crack. He asked them, “What the hell is crack?” Kaba was 18. In three years, he would become a crack addict so thin that his mother in Atlanta wouldn’t recognize him. Kaba said that when he called out her name in a bus terminal, she fainted when she realized he was her son.
Black men disappearing from their lives was a common occurrence. It happened so often that people didn’t question it. People assumed a missing black man was either dead, incarcerated or on drugs. In 2015, the New York Times reported that 1.5 million black men are missing from society largely due to incarceration or death.
In the 1980s, the federal crack statute was passed; it’s also known as the 100-to-1 rule. Possessing 5 grams of crack carried the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine. There were racial factors at play: Crack was cheaper and largely seen as a drug chosen by black people. Cocaine was seen as a white person’s drug and its use occasionally glamorized in the media.Reporters you can trust and stories that make a difference.
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In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, lessening the disparity in mandatory minimum sentences between crack and cocaine charges. By then, neighborhoods like Beltzhoover had already lost people for decades to the prison system.
Paul and Kaba, though friends when they were children, did not cross paths much while they were using drugs. Kaba said he heard stories that Paul was doing badly and he assumed Paul was dead or incarcerated. Kaba said he figured people assumed that about him, too.
Kaba and Paul essentially disappeared into a cloud of addiction for decades.
Family loss stymied Paul’s attempts to shake his addiction. He relapsed in December 2003 when he found out that his twin brother, Peter, had died of a heroin overdose. At the time, Paul had maybe two months clean. He had tried to quit cold turkey.
After the coroner’s office called Paul, he walked out of his sister’s house in a daze. A man he knew came up and grabbed Paul’s hand. He said he was sorry for Paul’s loss before walking away. Paul opened up his hand and in it was a crack rock.
“The power of the crack rock... truly interrupted not only my grief but my recovery,” Paul said. “It changed my life. That one incident changed my life forever.”
Peter wasn’t the first brother the Lees had lost suddenly. Paul and Andy’s older brother Glen was murdered in Beltzhoover in 1990. When Glen died, the Lee family family lost its breadwinner, because their father wasn’t around.
Before Glen was murdered, Andy told Glen that he had made it two years clean. Glen kissed his little brother on the cheek and said, “I am so happy for you. But I can’t stop.” It was Paul and Andy who introduced Glen to cocaine.
Losing both brothers fueled an addiction Paul couldn’t escape.
ACT TWO: Waking Up
Paul, despite being an addict, spurred his younger brother Andy to get clean.
When Andy was still in active addiction, he stole drugs from Paul and ran into the bathroom. Paul pursued, but retreated when he saw the hateful look in Andy’s eyes.
“It was in him walking away that I felt hurt and disgusted for I knew what I had done,” Andy said, “but I was addicted so I had to have it.”
This moment, this shame, pushed Andy to end his two-year addiction. He asked God for help. He went to his first Narcotics Anonymous [NA] meeting the next day and stopped using drugs. He went back to school and got a degree in business administration from Robert Morris University. He had a family and later became a preacher.
Andy remained clean, but he became Paul’s enabler and guardian. He’d rescue Paul from getting beat up. He’d keep Paul’s money for him. Whenever Paul called, Andy answered.
That’s why Paul went to Andy first after running into his daughters’ aunt on the street about 14 years ago: “She says, ‘Paul, your daughters are coming to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving.’”
Paul had recently gotten out of jail for drug charges and was getting high again.
Paul’s daughters were teenagers. Their mother had moved them to Memphis, Tennessee, away from Paul and Pittsburgh when his oldest was about 5 years old. The girls’ mother was in addiction recovery and moved to Memphis to start a new life. She and Paul were never married; they used drugs together when she lived in Pittsburgh.
The day Paul found out his daughters were coming home, he sought Andy out. Andy had Paul’s last $300 for safekeeping. Paul was essentially homeless at the time, and Andy would dole out his money to him. They were in a car together.
Paul told Andy, “Man, I’ve got to buy some clothes. I can't let my daughters see me like this.”
Andy started to cry.
Paul asked his brother, “Why are you crying?”
Paul thought to himself, “Damn, my brother is crying” and seconds later, “But, I need that money.”
Andy said he didn’t want to give Paul the money: “I said, ‘No. You need to deal with the reality of who you are.’”
Andy told Paul that he was an embarrassment, that he has shamed their family. Addiction transformed Paul from the “the good kid,” the boy who wanted to be a police officer, the son who didn’t want to leave his mom’s side, to the addict who stole money from his mother on her deathbed. “And now that your kids are coming to see who their dad really is, why put on a charade?” Andy said.
Paul can’t remember what he said to Andy, but he got his money and Andy sped off crying. Andy said this is the first time he told Paul the truth. He said, “It was also the moment when I was able to let go.” Andy drove away from Paul. He had officially cut himself off from his brother.
With the money, Paul planned to go to Family Dollar to buy underwear, a jacket and jeans. He never made it. Paul ran into a guy who asked him if he wanted to get high.
“Of course, I gave in,” Paul said. “And when I seen my daughters, I looked just the way that my brother said I should have looked. Pathetic.”
Paul followed his daughters around town. They wouldn’t come to visit his side of the family, so he sat in the living rooms of strangers. While visiting, the mother of Paul’s children relapsed. Paul smoked crack with her. She rented out her car to a drug dealer. She had been in Pittsburgh three days.
“It was the first time I said to myself, ‘Man, you can’t do this. You got to get your babies out of here,’” Paul said.
"You need to deal with the
reality of who you are."
Somehow, Paul convinced his ex to leave Pittsburgh and drugs behind again. Paul said this is how he knows love has incredible power: he wasn’t thinking about himself. In his own way, he felt he protected his children.
Before they left for Memphis, Paul was in the car with his daughters. His oldest daughter turned to him and said, “Where do you want to be dropped off, Dad?”
She spat the word at him.
“This is where God kicked in. God literally kicked in. He allowed me to see her. Not what she was exhibiting but what was causing her to exhibit that anger. And I looked through my baby and I said, ‘Oh my god.’ I started to cry and I said, ‘I can’t believe what I’ve done.’ It was like I woke up out of a 20-year-old dream. ...I saw her pain that I caused. And I looked at her and I said, ‘You will never, ever, ever see me like this again.’ That was the last day I used.”
It was Nov. 26, 2004. That’s his clean-since date.
Paul rebounded in dramatic form after a decades-long addiction.
- He earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts and sciences from the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] in 2008,
- a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Carlow University with a minor in counseling in 2011,
- and a master’s in social work from the University of Pittsburgh in 2014.
- Now, he’s a therapist and certified social worker in the recovery community. He’s won several awards for his academics and work in recovery.
Paul said graduate school almost broke him. The racism he faced in academia was not something he was prepared for. He thought he had overcome the major hurdles in his life by the time he got clean. He’s been asked to talk about addiction recovery at regional conferences, but he said he’s been asked to avoid discussing racism and systemic oppression when talking about his journey.
That’s challenging because it is his experience of being black and male in America that motivates him to stay clean: “The anger, the hurt, was a motivational factor in my recovery,” Paul said. Once Paul got clean, he was still black. “That’s when it got real.”
Paul lives in Sheraden now. When he visits Beltzhoover, people can’t believe he has a master’s degree. “Getting a master’s degree is like going to the moon.”
In last decade, Paul has had two more children: Michael, 10, and Grace, 7.
Michael’s mother, Ashlie, died of a heroin overdose last year. They originally met at a NA meeting. Paul describes his relationship with Ashlie like another addiction — toxic relationships are far stronger than healthy ones. Paul stayed with Ashlie for seven years through her addiction.
“She’d say, ‘You're only with me because of Michael,’ and that was the truth,” Paul said. He wanted Michael to have a mother in his life. He eventually cut the relationship off.
Paul has full custody of Michael and Grace and has taken care of them while finishing his degrees. Last summer, he was at the mall with his children and grandson when he got a call from Ashlie’s mother. She was in the hospital. She wasn’t going to make it.
“I told Michael right there in the mall,” he said. “I took them to see her in the hospital. She was unconscious… Overdose. I wanted him to at least see her. That was the last time. She passed away. 28. She didn't get a chance really to live.”
Paul tells his story in group therapy to help those with substance abuse disorder understand the importance of decision-making. “I want to give them an out-of-the-box view of how serious your decisions are.”
Nine years ago, Kaba was sitting in the Allegheny County Jail when Paul Lee appeared on the TV screen. He couldn’t believe it. It was a commercial for CCAC. He thought to himself, “That can’t be Paul. The Paul I know is messed up.”
“That was kind of a hope shot for me when I got clean,” Kaba said.
Kaba was approaching 40 and still smoking crack, still getting arrested over and over. He was transferred from the jail to Renewal, a rehabilitation center in Downtown Pittsburgh. He went to a NA meeting and there was Paul. He and Paul continued to go to meetings together. They forged a true friendship after all those years of using.
They supported each other. Paul even took Kaba to take his driving license test. They helped each other move and call each other when things aren’t going so well, when recovery is hardest. Kaba said Paul is always with his kids and he watches how patiently he talks to them. He doesn’t yell.We see you care about local journalism in Pittsburgh.
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Paul leans down and whispers to his children, and Kaba just thinks, “Wow, man.”
Andy can’t believe what Paul has become either.
“I can’t tell you how proud of him I am, to just see the accomplishments,” Andy said.
Paul’s children are now his priority. He does the cooking, cleaning and homework patrol. Michael just got into Pittsburgh CAPA, the district’s creative and performing arts magnet.
“As an educated man, I make sure that education is first for them. So, as soon as they come home, homework's done first.”
For his youngest children, Paul has been an anchor, a man they have seen and trusted every day of their lives. For him to disappear is unthinkable, out of character. They’ve never met the man who lived on the street, was arrested and hid the truth from his family. And while Paul has a community, multiple degrees and a vocation that keeps him grounded, it is because of Michael and Grace that he can never disappear again.
Brittany Hailer is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was fact-checked by Abigail Lind.
Edited by Halle Stockton and Mila Sanina.
Web design and development by Natasha Khan.
This project has been made possible with the generous support of the Staunton Farm Foundation.
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