Heroin’s trail of death

Atlanta’s heroin epidemic brings four lives into collision as a 9-year-old boy is killed.
Now three families must grapple with why it happened.

Samarah Bagby, 8, stares at a candle during a vigil for Isaiah Ward in April. Ward was allegedly hit and killed while walking on the sidewalk with his brother and a friend. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com) PREVIOUS PHOTO: Michelle Ward cries at the funeral for her son. (Brant Sanderlin / bsanderlin@ajc.com)

By Jeremy Redmon
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Isaiah Ward was a skinny 9-year-old who lived in his imagination, waited up late for his mom to get home from her night shifts at Wendy’s and relished going to school. That day in April, he set out on foot with his older brother to buy a snack at a store a few blocks up Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, a bleak route lined with boarded-up buildings, shops girded with iron bars and sidewalks piled high with discarded mattresses.

Ryan Lisabeth is an unemployed 28-year-old with a long history of heroin addiction, criminal convictions and second chances. That day in April, he had ventured into Atlanta, far from the affluent and verdant horse country where he grew up in Cherokee County. Police allege he bought heroin just off Joseph E. Boone Boulevard and injected it. Then he turned his red 2009 Toyota Corolla onto Boone and began driving toward Isaiah Ward.

Isaiah’s and Ryan’s vastly different worlds were about to collide — their lives drawn together by a nationwide heroin epidemic that lures suburban and rural addicts to inner-city drug markets. Minutes after his heroin injection, police say, Ryan’s Toyota leaped the curb and plowed into Isaiah, his older brother and their friend as the three walked on the sidewalk. Isaiah died. His 13-year-old friend is struggling with a traumatic brain injury. And Ryan is facing vehicular homicide and driving under the influence of heroin charges and has allegedly been receiving death threats in jail.

Their encounter happened against the backdrop of a desperate battle against drugs in Atlanta. Last year, Fulton County led the state with 104 deaths tied to heroin or fentanyl. Less than three weeks before Isaiah’s death, President Barack Obama appeared at a summit in Atlanta to spotlight the epidemic. Tackling the deadly problem, he said, is one of his administration’s top priorities.

Arrests for drug-related offenses in Isaiah’s neighborhood and across the city fell substantially between 2014 and 2015 as authorities cracked down on dealers and demolished blighted houses, though some categories of heroin-related arrests rose slightly. Atlanta police don’t keep statistics on where the people they are arresting are from. But city residents and activists say many of those coming to buy drugs in their neighborhoods are outsiders. Some are showing up at a free needle exchange program that operates near the site of the April 15 incident.

“They are coming from all the metro Atlanta counties,” said Mona Bennett, associate director of the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit that is operating the needle exchange partly to help prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. “They are coming from near the Georgia-Tennessee and Georgia-North Carolina borders. We have some people coming from Tennessee. We have had them come from Augusta, Columbus, Savannah – all points.”

Ryan Lisabeth's story

Ryan Lisabeth gets up from his seat in a Fulton County courtroom. (Jeremy Redmon / jredmon@ajc.com) PREVIOUS PHOTO: A young mourner holds a candle at a vigil for his friend Isaiah Ward. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)

‘I don’t believe that I’m a bad person’

Ryan Michael Lisabeth’s parents are watching their son from the second row of a crowded Fulton County courtroom. They look heartbroken as Ryan is led inside the courtroom in a blue jail uniform. They watch quietly as their son’s attorney tells a judge Ryan has received “threats on his life” in the Fulton County Jail and has been placed in solitary confinement for his own protection.

The parents have said little about the case publicly, except that they are “praying for everybody.” Last month in the lush countryside outside of Canton, David Lisabeth, an executive with an international helicopter services company, gently declined to comment about his son when a reporter showed up at his 10-acre home. Several friendly dogs sniffed the reporter in the driveway; a few horses grazed in a nearby paddock.

But in voluminous Cherokee County criminal court records David Lisabeth, his wife, Debbie, and several of their son’s private attorneys portray Ryan as a smart and regimented young man who attended Cherokee High School, enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College and was planning to take a welding class. The records also reveal how they have struggled to help Ryan battle a drug addiction since he was 16. First he started using marijuana, then cocaine and then heroin. Along the way, he has racked up numerous drug-related convictions in Cherokee.

“I believe that I’ve been messed up on drugs for most of my life and that I’ve made very bad decisions based on that, but my intentions are very good.”

Ryan Lisabeth, in a statement to the judge

His parents have helped him participate in several drug treatment programs, some costing tens of thousands of dollars. Some of the ones he attended, his mother told the court, exposed him to a “more sophisticated drug population to where he reached the top.” One kicked him out for testing positive for heroin.

To block his drug cravings, he has taken a drug that costs $1,300 per injection. He has also participated in a regional Drug Accountability Court program designed to help him beat his addiction. But nothing has worked permanently.

In 2007, Ryan was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in Canton. That same year, he pleaded guilty in Cherokee Superior Court to possession of cocaine and was sentenced to five years on probation — and required to attend any substance abuse therapy prescribed by his probation officer. He violated that probation a year later, when he stole checks from a neighbor’s home to pay for cocaine. He violated his probation again in 2009 when he was arrested for possessing cocaine and driving under the influence of it. He was later convicted of those charges in 2010.

Three years later, he was facing a new DUI charge in Fulton County — he was found not guilty of that charge in March of this year — and was back in a Cherokee court for violating his probation numerous times. At that point in 2013, he had been in jail for three and a half of the past five years. His parents asked the judge to allow him to possibly see a psychiatrist and go on medication and return to their home, where court records say he has been living for the past 12 years. The judge instead gave him a six-month jail sentence that would be suspended when he could get into a residential drug treatment program within the state prison system. He was supposed to return to the Drug Accountability Court program after that.

“He needs to be held accountable. His parents don’t need to keep buying him out of being accountable for his own actions.”

Then-Assistant District Attorney Holly Varner, to the judge in 2012

Ryan once told the court his addiction had “literally taken everything away from me. The only thing I have to show for it is that I graduated high school and that I still have my family that cares about me.”

“I don’t believe that I’m a bad person, your honor,” he told a Cherokee Superior judge in 2010. “I believe that I’ve been messed up on drugs for most of my life and that I’ve made very bad decisions based on that, but my intentions are very good.”

Cherokee’s prosecutors, meanwhile, appeared to be growing increasingly frustrated. In 2012, then-Assistant District Attorney Holly Varner accused Ryan of gaming the system, saying he “knows if he checks into rehab before he comes before a judge, he’s got a good shot of getting what he wants or at least half of what he wants.”

“He needs to be held accountable,” she told the judge. “His parents don’t need to keep buying him out of being accountable for his own actions.”

Timothy Hood's story

Timothy Hood, 13, is expressionless as his mother Teresa Lawrence welcomes Timothy home from rehabilitation. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

At 13, he must relearn so much

It’s late in the afternoon on a cloudy day and a crowd is gathering outside Teresa Lawrence’s modest apartment off Archer Way in Atlanta. Nibbling ice cream sandwiches, more than a dozen children are hanging around Azalea Gardens, a brick apartment complex with red shutters and white siding. They are waiting for Teresa’s 13-year-old son, Timothy Hood, to return home from rehabilitation.

Timothy was with Isaiah Ward and his brother, Roland, on the sidewalk just around the corner when Ryan Lisabeth allegedly struck them. Timothy suffered a fractured skull and a traumatic brain injury before falling into a coma. He was finally released from the hospital this month, though he still struggles with speech problems and blurry vision. He doesn’t remember the accident and initially did not recognize his friends or even his mother. Holding a conversation remains a challenge for him.

A single mother, Teresa has taken over bathing him, brushing his teeth and helping him get to the bathroom. She doesn’t know how long he will be in rehab and need her help.

“He sees his friends and he wants to get up,” she says. “He is used to playing football. He can’t do that. He might get depressed. His eyes get watery. That hurts me.”

Inside the three-bedroom apartment Timothy shares with his seven siblings, his many certificates of achievement from school are prominently displayed on the walls. His mother lights up as she talks about how he aspires to be a chef. He gets some of his ideas from TV cooking shows and has fun preparing seafood dishes. His teachers from Brown Middle School visited him at the hospital, Teresa says, urging him to return to class quickly so he could cook fish for them again.

“I always have protected my kids from the guns and the gangs. But whoever thought about the sidewalk?”

Teresa Lawrence, Timothy's mother

On the night of the accident, he was headed home from the Green Grocery Store around the corner, the one owned by some friendly Dominican Republic immigrants who blare Latin music through a scratchy speaker. Timothy bought fruit punch-flavored Kool-Aid there. It would be a nice treat to go with the family’s dinner of chicken, collard greens and corn. But he didn’t make it home that night.

His mother is suing Ryan Lisabeth in Fulton State Court on behalf of her son for unspecified damages. The suit says her son already has medical expenses and other costs exceeding $10,000.

"To be honest, I don't hate him," Teresa says. "Who am I to judge him? But at the end of the day, I want justice. I don't have mercy for him. I pray that he gets better. But rehab doesn't seem to be helping him right now. He needs to re-evaluate himself."

Teresa acknowledges her neighborhood is struggling with drug crimes, though she adds it’s less expensive to live there than in her native Decatur.

“I always have protected my kids from the guns and the gangs,” she says. “But whoever thought about the sidewalk?”

Finally, a bright green Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta van pulls up outside Teresa’s apartment. Timothy rolls out in a wheelchair, sporting dark plaid pajama bottoms and wearing a purple cast on his right leg. He appears mystified by the crowd and commotion. He says nothing, though he acknowledges everyone with a slight wave.

His mother hasn’t told him about Isaiah’s death yet. Timothy is still emotional, she says, and she doesn’t want to put him through any more pain. She worries that “he is going to stop fighting. It is going to make him say, ‘What am I striving for?’ ”

Timothy doesn’t remember the accident. Holding a conversation remains a challenge for him. His mother hasn't told him yet about the death of his friend. (Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com)

Isaiah Ward's story

Michelle Ward speaks in her lawyer's office about her son Isaiah's death. (Brant Sanderlin / bsanderlin@ajc.com)

A young child with an old soul

Michelle Ward is crying in her attorney’s conference room on the 42nd floor of a gleaming office tower in Atlanta. The tears come steadily as she reminisces about her son, Isaiah, her baby. She named him after the biblical prophet who predicted the coming of Jesus. Isaiah means “God is salvation.” Of her four children, she says, he was the closest to her.

She remembers Isaiah as quiet and reflective — a young child with an old soul. Michelle would sometimes catch him staring off into the distance and would wonder what he was thinking about.

Isaiah snored loudly in bed, she adds, chuckling. He liked watching the “Teen Titans Go!” cartoon and would mischievously hide the remote control so his mother couldn’t change the channel. A pack rat, he refused to throw away anything, no matter how old or worthless it was. Michelle recently struggled with grief as she combed through his collection of tattered book bags. She sobbed as she recalled the weeks-old sandwich she found inside one. It had already turned green.

Michelle Ward, a single mother, has worked two jobs to support her family. They shared this rooming house on Tazor Street with other tenants. (Brant Sanderlin \/ bsanderlin@ajc.com) 

Michelle Ward, a single mother, has worked two jobs to support her family. They shared this rooming house on Tazor Street with other tenants. (Brant Sanderlin / bsanderlin@ajc.com) 

A single mother like Teresa, Michelle has been holding down two jobs to support her family. Her boyfriend has been watching her kids while she works security at the Georgia Dome. From there she has been going to work at a local Wendy’s, preparing hamburgers, washing dishes and then returning home around 3 a.m. Isaiah woke up every time she walked in the door, no matter the hour.

“It’s like a time bomb,” she says. “Every morning, he is up at 3 o’clock, not just to go to the bathroom. He is up. And if he sees me and he sees that Wendy’s bag, he would be like, ‘Mom, do you have a cheeseburger for me? Did you bring me a Frosty?’ And he would not go to sleep until I would give him something out of that bag.”

They lived in a dilapidated rooming house on Tazor Street, sharing a bathroom with tenants who rented the three other rooms there. The house sits just off Joseph E. Boone Boulevard. Though there is drug dealing in the area, Michelle says she and her kids have managed to stay out of harm’s way by keeping to themselves. She says she has no sympathy for Ryan Lisabeth. At an emotional candlelight vigil for her son last month, she said she hopes he goes to hell.

“I kissed him on the lips. But I never said goodbye. And I meant not to say goodbye.”

Michelle Ward, Isaiah's mother

On the night of the accident, Michelle says, Isaiah was on his way with his older brother Roland to the Green Grocery Store a few blocks away. The shop sells Isaiah’s favorite spicy snack: Takis Fuego. Packaged in festive purple bags, the rolled corn chips are seasoned with chili peppers and lime. The brothers never made it to the store.

Roland suffered a broken leg and broken pelvis in the accident. Isaiah got the worst of it: a broken spine and bleeding from his brain. His wounds were so grievous that Michelle didn’t recognize his face.

The doctors pronounced Isaiah brain dead, and he was taken off life support two days after he was hit. Michelle let everyone else say goodbye to him first. Then she went into his hospital room and held his hand, urging him to wake up like he would every time at 3 o’clock in the morning when she would arrive home from Wendy’s.

“They kept telling me, ‘Go ahead. You can touch him,’” she says. “I kissed him on the lips. But I never said goodbye. And I meant not to say goodbye.”

A man strolls by the memorial of flowers, stuffed animals and melted wax from burning candles on the Joseph E. Boone Boulevard sidewalk in April. (John Spink / jspink@ajc.com)